The 2019-20 basketball season has been a rough one for Vanderbilt Commodores fans. On the heels of a 9-23 campaign that saw Vanderbilt become the first team to ever go 0-18 in the SEC, things are slightly better on one front: Vanderbilt has actually won a conference game. But overall, Vanderbilt is 9-16, and just as the team appeared to be turning a corner in the SEC opener against Auburn, it lost leading scorer Aaron Nesmith to a stress fracture. Senior big man Clevon Brown has been out for two months. That’s two of Vanderbilt’s three best players entering the season, which provides a convenient excuse for the team’s performance — not that head coach Jerry Stackhouse has seemed interested in excuses.
This is about the time in a season that won’t end in a postseason appearance at which fans would start looking to next season — but many aren’t seeing much hope on the horizon. Next year’s team might be just as bad. But it’s hard to see why.
There are eight Vanderbilt players who have played at least 100 minutes in SEC games this year. In order, those are Saben Lee, Scotty Pippen Jr., Maxwell Evans, Dylan Disu, Ejike Obinna, Jordan Wright, Matthew Moyer, and Braelee Albert. None of those eight are seniors, and four are freshmen. Throw in Oton Jankovic, who’s played 56 minutes in SEC games, and five of the nine players who are currently seeing somewhat regular action for Vanderbilt are freshmen.
Now, you might think that returning basically the entire team that’s currently 1-11 in SEC play isn’t a good thing, what with the team currently being 1-11 in SEC play. But a funny thing happens when freshmen become sophomores: they tend to get better. In particular, Dylan Disu seems to have a ton of upside. Scotty Pippen Jr. still makes a lot of freshman mistakes, but those often go away when the player is no longer a freshman. Jordan Wright is a consistent three-point shot away from being a solid role player. I won’t make much of a case for Braelee Albert, who’s a walk-on, and Oton Jankovic still seems like he’s a ways away from being much of a contributor, but you have pretty good reason to expect improvement from three players. And we can also throw in Ejike Obinna, a redshirt sophomore who’s still just 20 years old and hasn’t been playing basketball for very long.
Now, it’s dangerous to assume everybody will return in this day and age; that’s why I’m not even going to broach the possibility that Clevon Brown could get a medical hardship and return next year, or even that Aaron Nesmith could return. But Vanderbilt will also have some newcomers. Incoming freshman Myles Stute is a top 150 recruit, at least, though I wouldn’t expect major contributions from him right away. Two or three transfers, on the other hand, could be immediate contributors.
The prize is D.J. Harvey, who’s sitting out this year after transferring from Notre Dame. Harvey is a former top-50 recruit, and before you say “but Matthew Moyer,” keep in mind that Harvey was actually starting at Notre Dame and averaging in double figures. Meanwhile, the freshman-to-sophomore year jump also applies to Rice transfer Quentin Millora-Brown, who’s 6’10” and averaged two blocks per 40 minutes as a freshman. That would address one of the team’s biggest weaknesses this season. Kansas transfer Issac McBride might or might not play — he’d presumably need a waiver at least for the fall semester. Nothing is certain with the NCAA, but he’d have a good argument for immediate eligibility considering that he left Kansas right around the time the Notice of Allegations came down. McBride is a former four-star recruit.
This certainly isn’t to tell you that next year’s team will contend for a NCAA Tournament bid, but assuming that next year’s team will be as bad as this year’s just feels wrong. Of course, next year is a long way off, and the wrong player transferring or declaring for the NBA Draft could torpedo all of this. But as of right now, I see no reason to think that things won’t get better in Jerry Stackhouse’s second year.