Coming out of the locker room for the second half, with Vanderbilt having not made a shot for 13 minutes but only trailing Arkansas by four points, Bryce Drew stopped briefly to speak with color commentator (and former Vanderbilt basketball player) Barry Booker and asked Booker if he could suit up because he needed someone to make a shot.
We think he was joking, but that’s not really the point. It was about that time that I had the realization that we were about to get killed in the second half. If Bryce Drew had any confidence in his players, it sure wasn’t showing in that brief moment. And if the coach doesn’t have confidence in the players, why would the players have confidence in themselves?
More evidence came in the postgame press conference — not from Drew himself, but from the two players who accompanied to the podium, freshman Aaron Nesmith and junior Yanni Wetzell. Drew’s demeanor at press conferences has been beaten to death, and I don’t really have much to say about it, because dissecting the coachspeak that constitutes 99 percent of what coaches say in that setting is a pointless exercise. But the players, at least in terms of outward appearance, did not look like they were coming to terms with the fact that they were one game away from being the first team in 66 years to go through the SEC schedule winless. Frankly, they looked like people who had come to that realization a long time ago, made their peace with it, and were ready for all of it to be over. (As an aside, can anyone recall the last time that there was a scholarship senior on the team and no senior was at the postgame press conference on Senior Night?)
Maybe that’s a natural reaction to a season in which nothing went right. Or maybe it’s just a reaction to getting the not-subtle message that they weren’t good enough.
There has been a common refrain among the fans that Bryce Drew can’t coach, and must be fired, and I still don’t find that argument particularly persuasive. It doesn’t square with the available evidence of a man who went 65-19 in the Horizon League over five years, who won that league four times in five years with rosters that weren’t conspicuously more talented than the rest of the conference, including one title when the league still included a Butler team coached by Brad Stevens — a man whom no one would accuse of being a bad coach. Maybe it does explain, somewhat, an offense that ranked 14th in the SEC in effective field goal percentage, turnover percentage, and offensive rebound percentage. But then Drew’s Valpo teams won with defense, and the team actually did defend reasonably well in the halfcourt — the problems on that end of the floor often resulted from the other team getting out in transition after the offense coughed it up.
Of course, yes, Vanderbilt lost Darius Garland four games into the season. That should not have been a death knell for the season, but it was, not directly because of the loss of what might have been the best player in program history — but because of how it was handled. The message from the time it was announced was quite obvious to everyone, including, we assume, the team itself. Maybe even the coaches.
That message was: you are not good enough. This team, without any Darius Garland, is not good enough to win in the SEC. In one of the more prescient tweets I’ve ever made (and I wish it hadn’t been), I tweeted during the UNC Asheville game on New Year’s Eve that the way Vanderbilt was playing, they would go 0-18 in the SEC. And barring a miracle in Baton Rouge on Saturday, that’s exactly what will happen.
The problem isn’t the coaching chops, or lack thereof. The problem isn’t even 0-18. The problem now, after that loss, after that halftime comment, is that I have to wonder if the coach even cares about 0-18. And I shouldn’t have to ask that. Of course he cares. Of course everyone involved with the team cares that they may well have been a part of a team that went 0-18 in the SEC.
This isn’t a call to fire the coach, though that may well be a possibility, but it’s not the only one. Malcolm Turner has a difficult decision, but it’s one that seemingly doesn’t have a wrong answer right now. If Bryce Drew has convinced Malcolm Turner that he understands what went wrong and has a plan to fix the problems, keep him. It’s a call for faith, but not one for blind faith.
The most obvious lesson to learn from this season is never to build your team around one player, because if that player goes down, you’re screwed. The side lesson, of course, is that if that does happen, at least make an effort to rally the troops and find a way to win without him.
There are other lessons to be learned, but had Vanderbilt suffered a hard-fought loss last night, I probably wouldn’t even be writing this. After that, though, something needs to be fixed. Whether Bryce Drew is the one to fix it or, if he doesn’t know how to do it, someone else, something has to be done.