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Vanderbilt is winless in SEC play. Is this a fireable offense?

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at South Carolina Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

The Vanderbilt basketball team lost its thirteenth game in a row on Saturday, a 64-53 decision against the Auburn Tigers. Vanderbilt actually did a good job on the defensive end, holding a good offensive team to 8-of-24 on two-pointers and 9-of-25 on threes. They also outrebounded the Tigers 43-27.

The problem? Well, we can start with the 19 turnovers — which isn’t an eye-popping number, but in a game that only had 62 possessions, it meant that 30.6 percent of Vanderbilt’s offensive possessions ended with a turnover. That’s how, in spite of the Commodores’ rebounding edge, they actually took fewer shots than Auburn did. And making shots continues to be a problem for the Vanderbilt offense: the Commodores shot 11-of-25 on twos and 5-of-23 on threes. They did shoot 16-of-21 at the foul line, for the second game in a row; but let’s also add the asterisk that players not named Aaron Nesmith went 11-of-18 at the line.

It’s bad. Is it a fireable offense?

A rather popular sentiment over the past few weeks, as the losses have piled up, has been that Bryce Drew is in over his head in the SEC and Vanderbilt needs to make a coaching change. I’ll point out that at least some of that is, frankly, based on an assumption that the losing will continue and Vanderbilt will end the regular season with an 0-18 SEC record and a first-round loss in the SEC Tournament. That’s not a given, but even with that, Vanderbilt has needed some bad breaks both on the court and in the scheduling department for this to happen. On the scheduling front, as usual, Vanderbilt has Tennessee, Kentucky, and Florida on the schedule twice, and this year turns out to be a particularly bad year to have that threesome on the schedule twice. Tennessee and Kentucky are both ranked in the top ten, and while Florida is floundering a bit, they’re still ranked 29th in KenPom.

And in terms of the remainder of the schedule, the three worst non-Vanderbilt teams in the conference are Georgia, Texas A&M, and Missouri. Vanderbilt drew all three of those just once, and somehow drew all three on the road. Still, even with all that, KenPom’s algorithm gives the Commodores an 18.5% chance of going winless in conference play. They’ll be underdogs in each of the remaining six games, but they probably won’t be big underdogs against Arkansas at home (44% chance to win) or at Texas A&M (31%), or against Florida at home (31%.) Even a road trip to Alabama (21%) isn’t completely out of the question. And with all that, the first game of the SEC Tournament would likely be a game against one of Georgia, Texas A&M, or Missouri at Bridgestone Arena.

You will recall, too, that Vanderbilt had chances to win in a few games. They actually led against Ole Miss with ten minutes to go in the SEC opener; they collapsed late against Georgia (a 4-point game with ten minutes left became at 19-point loss); they led at halftime at Kentucky and trailed by just three with eight minutes left; they led South Carolina by five with under two minutes left before a technical foul on Saben Lee swung the game; they led Tennessee by six with 1:40 left before, uh, things happened; they trailed Missouri by six with under three minutes left; they actually led Arkansas after a Joe Toye three within the final minute, and had a chance to win before a questionable offensive foul call on Saben Lee; they rallied back to within five of Alabama at the five-minute mark; they trailed Florida by two with six minutes left; and they trailed Auburn by four with five minutes left. Only home losses to Mississippi State and Kentucky have been truly noncompetitive.

Now, it’s true that the overall product has been bad: Vanderbilt is getting outscored by an average of 11.6 ppg in conference play. But that’s actually somewhat better than the “normal” team that gets blanked in conference play: Cal, playing against a considerably worse conference than the SEC, is getting outscored by 14 ppg. Pitt last year was outscored by 19.1 ppg in 18 ACC losses. And Tulane this year has been outscored by an average of 16.3 ppg in 12 AAC losses. Vanderbilt’s average scoring margin this year isn’t even the worst in the SEC — that would be Georgia, which has an average margin of -12.5 ppg. The Bulldogs have won a game (against Vanderbilt, of course) but only two of their eleven losses were by single digits, compared to five for Vanderbilt.

None of this is to make an excuse for the team; it’s bad, and I’m not going to try to spin it as good. But it “feels” more like a team that should be 1-11 or 2-10 in the SEC, not a winless team. And all of that, by the way, is with a team that’s 301st nationally in experience, and 11th in the SEC — and the three below it are LSU, Arkansas, and Kentucky. Kentucky is Kentucky, Arkansas has a likely lottery pick in the fold, and LSU may have a lottery pick themselves. Vanderbilt hasn’t since Darius Garland was lost for the season with an injury. The team’s best player — and I don’t think it’s really a question at this point — is Aaron Nesmith, a freshman. Its second-best player, Saben Lee, is a sophomore.

Will this get better?

So back to the question at hand. Bryce Drew is in his third year as Vanderbilt’s head coach, and one truth in all of this is that it takes an exceptionally bad performance for a head coach to get fired prior to his fourth year. Here is a full list of SEC head coaches since 1990 who have left their jobs involuntarily after three years or less:

  • Kim Anderson (Missouri, 27-68 record)
  • Rick Ray (Mississippi State, 37-60 record)
  • Donnie Tyndall (Tennessee, 16-16 record)
  • Billy Gillispie (Kentucky, 40-27 record)
  • Ron Jirsa (Georgia, 35-30 record)
  • Steve Newton (South Carolina, 20-35 record)

It’s understandably a short list, and it includes one guy (Donnie Tyndall) who was fired mostly because of issues unrelated to his record on the court — Tyndall would be slapped with a show-cause penalty shortly after Tennessee relieved him of his duties. Billy Gillispie is obviously an exceptional case, and there’s probably no other school in the conference that would fire a coach after two years with that record. Ron Jirsa took over a team that had gone 24-9 without a single senior among its top nine players, and promptly went 20-15 and 15-15 in back-to-back years.

The other three were pretty clearly awful, and even in Rick Ray’s case, he might not have been fired had Mississippi State not already figured out that Ben Howland was available and interested in the job. I don’t remember much about Steve Newton (the guy who was fired to pave the way for Eddie Fogler at South Carolina, by the way), but I do know enough about Kim Anderson to know that there’s an important difference between him and Bryce Drew; namely, that Anderson couldn’t recruit to save his life and that’s clearly not an issue here.

I’ve always maintained that firing a coach isn’t about punishing a coach for performance. That might be the case for a longtime coach, as Kevin Stallings was in 2016, but it’s not really the case for a third-year coach. After all, there are a lot more unknowns with a relatively new coach. Vanderbilt might well have made a mistake in hiring Bryce Drew, but the idea that it needs to make a change right now is probably wrong. The point of making a coaching change is to take the program in a different direction, and sometimes, things will get better simply by giving the current coach another year. And more importantly, sometimes, things probably won’t get any worse.

The less important factor is the current team’s record; rather, the important factor here is that this is a team that only has one senior on it; whose current recruiting class is ranked 33rd nationally and 8th in the SEC, and includes two four-star recruits; and whose last recruiting class ranked 13th nationally and included the first two McDonald’s All-Americans signed out of high school in school history.

A third-year firing is appropriate when the team is bad and when it’s unlikely to get better. This isn’t that situation. I hate having to preach patience, particularly in the midst of a season that began with a ton of promise and has turned into a disaster (and I don’t think there’s much debate that it is, in fact, a disaster), but giving up on a coach with the kind of upside that I still think Drew has seems like a very shortsighted move.