Two weeks ago, after Vanderbilt suffered a blowout loss to Arkansas on Senior Night, virtually assuring an 0-18 SEC record (which they’d accomplish a few days later with a 21-point loss to an LSU team that was without its coach and a starter due to a pay-for-play scandal), I had some words about that loss and the season and what it means for Bryce Drew’s future at Vanderbilt.
Two weeks and an SEC Tournament loss to Texas A&M later, finishing off a 9-23 season in which Vanderbilt went 0-19 against SEC teams, and 2-22 against all power conference teams (thanks, USC and Arizona State), Bryce Drew is still our basketball coach as far as we know.
Looking back, the way that the 2018-19 season played out — from the Darius Garland injury on — was just plain weird. Watching the First Four game between Arizona State and St. John’s on Wednesday night, with Arizona State winning, it would not escape my mind that Arizona State was a team that Vanderbilt had beaten — by 16 points! — back in December. That was the “okay, everything is fine” game. Dig a bit deeper, and Vanderbilt shot 42.9 percent from three in that game, a great night for a team that would shoot 31.1 percent from three on the season, and 30 percent in SEC play. Hot shooting nights happen, but they were few and far between for Vanderbilt in 2018-19.
But on an awful shooting night a few nights later, Vanderbilt lost to Kansas State, and then sleepwalked through wins over Tennessee State and UNC Asheville to close out 2018. That latter one was so alarming that it caused me to tweet this prescient thought...
positives: we’re winning— Anchor of Gold (@anchorofgold) December 31, 2018
negatives: we’ll go 0-18 in the SEC if we play like this
And so it was, but it didn’t have to be that way. Vanderbilt was competitive, but faded late in its first two SEC games — a home loss to Ole Miss and a road loss to Georgia (that ended with an 82-63 final, but was a four-point game with ten minutes left.) Then they were surprisingly competitive at Rupp Arena, losing 56-47, before blowing a winnable home game against South Carolina.
I do think that had Vanderbilt even won one of the first four games of SEC play — never mind two or three — that we aren’t having this conversation today. Instead, though, after an 0-4 start the season quickly got out of control. A listless effort in a loss to Mississippi State followed. Vanderbilt played out of its mind and nearly beat Tennessee at home — but that was followed by the team’s two worst performances of the season, a 31-point loss at Oklahoma and a 35-point home loss to Kentucky. From an outside perspective, it does seem as though a few games in which the players saw that their best efforts weren’t going to be rewarded with wins, the season suddenly spun out of control. I don’t know why, because I’m not in the locker room, but from the Oklahoma game on Vanderbilt was outscored by an average of 16 points per game.
So how do you square all of that away with keeping the coach? It’s hard to separate coaching problems from player problems here. There is a segment of the fan base that believes that anything that goes wrong with the team must be blamed on the coach, which is somewhat fair because the coach is the one guy getting paid actual money here (at least, we assume), but also not fair because it removes all responsibility from the players on the team for their own performances. Players failing to develop is, of course, the fault of coach. So, too, is players making boneheaded mistakes, poor shot selection, missed free throws... all on the coach, right?
Except where it isn’t, of course. Vanderbilt’s starting five in the season opener against Winthrop was Darius Garland, Simi Shittu, Joe Toye, Matt Ryan, and Saben Lee. Garland, of course, was injured in the fifth game of the season and didn’t play again. Shittu and Toye ranked 91st and 88th, respectively, in offensive rating among the 94 SEC players who played enough minutes to qualify. Ryan ranked 77th (and shot 30 percent from three-point range in conference games, meaning that he wasn’t doing the one thing he was supposed to be good at.) Saben Lee ranked 63rd (and Aaron Nesmith, who started the year coming off the bench, ranked 58th) — numbers that frankly you could have lived with had Garland been healthy and Shittu, Toye, and Ryan all played as they were expected to. But when four of the five players that you were counting on to deliver competent performances at the start of the season are instead playing below replacement level (or aren’t playing at all, in Garland’s case)... you’re probably going to be bad. If you just wanted to blame everything on Drew, you could watch the offense and see that it didn’t really seem all that clear what they were trying to do — which is a common feature of offenses that feature a lot of dribble drives. If you were me, you saw a lot of missed open shots from players who should be better than this. And shuffling the rotation came with the problem that none of the bench players outside of maybe Yanni Wetzell were doing anything to suggest that they’d be any better than that.
Now, if you want to have faith here — consider that Drew won over 70 percent of his games at Valpo. There is plenty of evidence that Drew is better than this, and also evidence that some of the players are better than this, too. It’s reasonable to think, for instance, that Matt Ryan will shoot something more like the 40 percent he shot beyond the arc in two years at Notre Dame than the 30 percent he shot in 15 SEC games this season. Aaron Nesmith will probably only get better from here, and Saben Lee is a consistent jump shot away from being an All-SEC player. (Easier said than done on that one, of course.) Yanni Wetzell showed some promise late in the season, and Matthew Moyer could be all right once he accepts that his job is to grab rebounds and play defense. Clevon Brown is fine as a defensive specialist off the bench. Of the three incoming recruits, Austin Crowley and Scotty Pippen should at least provide some desperately needed depth in the backcourt, and Dylan Disu is promising on the wing.
Granted, all of that is a lot less exciting than it seemed going into 2018-19. With all of that, Malcolm Turner apparently still has faith in Bryce Drew, and that’s fine. Malcolm Turner knows basketball a lot better than most of us do, and if he’s satisfied that Drew knows what went wrong in 2018-19 and how to fix it, that’s fine. If you were paying attention on Thursday, you saw a coach who went 8-23 and 2-16 in a Power 5 conference in his third year win an NCAA Tournament game for the first time. Not every coach who looks awful through three years will continue to be awful. Many do, of course, but there are exceptions.
In any case, this is all to rationalize the decision that’s being made by someone other than myself. I can still talk myself into Bryce Drew, if only because I kind of have to at this point — because really, if I can’t talk myself into it, how on earth am I going to spend another year watching every game and then writing about it?