If you want a quick, handy guide to what went wrong with the 2018-19 Vanderbilt basketball team, a quick look at KenPom’s data on the most frequent lineups over the last five games should give you an idea.
Vanderbilt’s most frequent lineup has been Saben Lee at the point, along with Aaron Nesmith, Matt Ryan, Yanni Wetzell, and Simi Shittu. Its second-most frequent lineup replaces Ryan with Joe Toye. (It also, according to KenPom, has Toye at the two and moves Nesmith to the three. His lineup algorithm is a bit complicated, but I suspect it considers Nesmith the three mostly because he’s a better rebounder than Toye.)
For comparison, Tennessee’s most frequent lineup over the last five games is Jordan Bone, Lamonte Turner, Admiral Schofield, Grant Williams, and Kyle Alexander. Its second-most frequent lineup replaces Alexander with Jordan Bowden, with Schofield and Williams essentially functioning as a small-ball four and five, respectively.
That lineup works in modern college basketball and Vanderbilt’s really doesn’t. When people talk about the “small-ball revolution” and “positionless basketball,” what they usually mean is replacing bigger players who aren’t actually that good at basketball with smaller players who can play, and Tennessee — particularly its small-ball look with Williams and Schofield on the court with three guards — is kind of the textbook example of that. It works in part because Williams, even at 6’7”, is capable of performing the rim-protecting functions that most teams still rely on a 7-footer to do, but mostly it works because that lineup is difficult to defend and also can still function defensively.
Vanderbilt’s lineup, on the other hand, looks like the kind of lineup that has trouble with small-ball lineups. Against an average team, one of Joe Toye or Matt Ryan is chasing a guard around the perimeter; Yanni Wetzell or Simi Shittu is tasked with guarding a guy like, well, Joe Toye or Matt Ryan. On the offensive end, the offense has precious few shooters — Saben Lee could be good at driving to the basket and creating for his teammates, except who exactly is he creating for here? Nesmith can shoot, Toye has his moments, and Matt Ryan has been mired in a weird shooting funk for most of 2019. And the bench options — Max Evans, Matthew Moyer, and Clevon Brown — aren’t shooters, either.
Darius Garland’s injury was bad for obvious reasons, but the reason it completely killed the season instead of “merely” underachieving is outlined above. Without Garland, the entire house of cards fell apart, and strangely losing Saben Lee to injury might have caused a similar problem (albeit with Darius Garland running the offense instead of Saben Lee.) With Garland and Lee in the backcourt, Aaron Nesmith could have slotted in nicely at the three, where he’s a natural fit, and the collection of 6’8” to 6’10” guys would have fought for minutes at just two spots. Without Garland, you have a lot of that group trying to defend the other team’s guards and an offense that simply doesn’t have enough shooting threats to function.
It’s a long-winded way of illustrating why Vanderbilt finds itself in the basement of the SEC. So how might this get better in 2019-20? Well, the two players that Vanderbilt can’t afford to lose — Lee and Nesmith — will be back, and two guards (Scotty Pippen and Austin Crowley) enter the mix as well. While neither of the new guards are projected to be impact players from day one, Crowley at least can handle most defensive assignments on the perimeter. It would be even more helpful to add an experienced guard as a graduate transfer — and Vanderbilt does have a scholarship available since Garland withdrew from school, and could of course have more if anybody else leaves. But in today’s game, being able to play small ball is more important than having a ton of length on the floor. That can be fixed this offseason.