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It’s fine to be worried about the direction of Vanderbilt basketball

On why the normal “give him time” rules may not apply here.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 23 Arkansas at Vanderbilt Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The other day in the comments section, a comment of mine expressing a bit of ambivalence about the Vanderbilt basketball program under Jerry Stackhouse drew this response from parlagi:

Do you have a podcast link or anything?

I hesitate to ask, but it’s not like you to worry about a staff before their second year is up.

And it’s true, it’s not normal that I’d be worried about a coaching staff before the end of its second season. (The podcast, of course, came subsequent to that comment, since Chris Lee recorded one with George Plaster a couple of days later that went into some considerable depth on why Chris Lee doesn’t see this experiment working out.)

It’s also true, though, that we haven’t really seen a second year like this one.

Derek Mason’s second year was still bad, but it appeared to be getting better. He ditched most of the dead weight from his coaching staff after his disastrous first year, and after he personally took command of the defense, that turned into a legitimately solid unit in 2015. The offense was still bad, but at least by the end of the season it had at least seemed to find a quarterback. You didn’t know that it would work out at that point (and whether it ultimately did is, of course, debatable, though Mason would at least get to two bowl games in a seven-year tenure), but at least by the end of his second year, you could see how it might work out.

The last three basketball hires prior to Stackhouse actually all had some commonalities (I don’t have personal memories of the second seasons of Kevin Stallings and Jan van Breda Kolff, but I’ll at least go off what I can glean from the internet here.) All three inherited a team talented enough to get to the NCAA Tournament in Year 1 — VBK, of course, blew his shot in an 80-56 loss to a horrendous Auburn team in the opening round of the SEC Tournament, and Stallings got legitimately screwed out of a bid in his first year — before hitting a rebuild in the second year when the stars of the first team (respectively, Billy McCaffrey, Dan Langhi, and Luke Kornet) graduated.

Of course, that isn’t true of what Jerry Stackhouse inherited. Stackhouse inherited a team that did feature two guys who were drafted in 2020, granted he lost one of them for the season in January, but otherwise was basically the same roster that had gone winless in the SEC the prior year. The fact that Stackhouse inherited a program that was that low might earn him a bit of a pass; but this is where the differences end.

So what’s different here? To paraphrase James Carville, it’s the recruiting, stupid.

Yesterday, while recapping the Florida loss, I noted that of the five positive contributors for the team on Wednesday night, only one of them (sophomore Jordan Wright) was recruited to Vanderbilt by Jerry Stackhouse. (You can debate whether to credit Dylan Disu and Scotty Pippen Jr. to Drew or Stackhouse; Disu signed in the fall when Drew was still the coach, while Pippen hadn’t signed yet. In theory, either or both could have gone elsewhere, since Disu almost certainly would have been released from his Letter of Intent if he’d asked, but Drew definitely did about 99% of the work of getting both to Nashville.)

Of the five players who either posted negative Game Scores or were non-factors, four were recruited to Vanderbilt by Jerry Stackhouse. (The fifth, Clevon Brown, is the last remaining Kevin Stallings recruit on the roster. Yes, there is a Kevin Stallings recruit on the roster.)

Kevin Stallings’ second team in 2000-01 was hardly anything to write home about; the team went 15-15 and 4-12 in the SEC. And yet, the particulars of that team were at least a bit encouraging. That Vanderbilt team did, after all, manage to beat a Florida team ranked in the top 10 — on the road! — and also sprung an upset of a top 25 Alabama team at home. More importantly, the team’s leading scorer, Chuck Moore, was a transfer brought in by Stallings, and while hyped freshman Billy Richmond (who’d quickly work his way out of the program anyway) was a bit of a disappointment, overlooked freshman Matt Freije was a 10-point-per-game scorer right off the bat. And the three other freshmen Stallings had brought in — Russell Lakey, Scott Hundley, and Brendan Plavich — were all at least making positive contributions.

Bryce Drew’s second team was a bit of a different story, in that three of the team’s top four scorers were holdovers — but then, he just happened to have three players the caliber of Riley LaChance, Jeff Roberson, and Matthew Fisher-Davis still around from the previous regime. Then again, that a team with those three players as seniors went 12-20 probably should have been more of a red flag than we thought it was at the time, but at least Drew could point to the heavy reinforcements coming the next season — namely, Darius Garland and Simi Shittu, the two highest-ranked recruits in program history. (And then, he went 0-18 in the SEC, but of course we didn’t know he would do that in January 2018.)

The point is that the reason I’m usually not worried about a second-year coach is that usually, I at least have something I can point to as a reason why this could work out. And right now, I’m at a loss with this team.

Sure, this is a young team. Six players on this team are averaging more than five points per game and none of them are seniors, and only D.J. Harvey is even a junior. Scotty Pippen Jr. is averaging north of 20 points per game, Dylan Disu is averaging 13 and 8. Those are good players. Perhaps they wouldn’t be putting up those numbers on any other SEC team, but they’d be playing, and probably starting for most of them.

I also can’t say that for anyone else on the roster, and I don’t think another year will change that.

Two of Stackhouse’s recruits in the 2020 class are seeing regular playing time, and while Myles Stute does some things reasonably well — he’s shooting 39.7 percent from three, which is fine — he still profiles more as a future supporting player than a star. Trey Thomas similarly has a good shooting stroke; both have also hit a wall in a big way since SEC play started. Stute has scored 12 points — total — in the last four games, and Thomas is 2-for-17 from the floor in the last three games. (Admittedly, Tyrin Lawrence, the top-rated recruit in the class, is now out with a torn ACL, but he wasn’t playing well even before that.)

Meanwhile, the three transfers that Stackhouse brought in are all underperforming — badly. Former Top 50 recruit D.J. Harvey has an Offensive Rating of 87 — for reference, anything under 100 is considered below average. Quentin Millora-Brown is basically a replacement-level SEC big man, which is... well, about what you would expect a guy who averaged 7 and 6 as a freshman at Rice to be. And Kansas transfer Issac McBride, who’s played sparingly due to injuries, is shooting 23.8 percent from the floor.

(A bit of a tangent: why the transfer market has become a big deal, I’ll never know. Gone are the days when top programs were deep enough that you’d find a Chris Lawson languishing on the bench; meanwhile, most of the good mid-major players that try to transfer up end up being just good mid-major players. And you’re not supposed to say this out loud, but many of the players who transfer out of power conference programs were in fact encouraged to do so by a coach who knows what he’s doing.)

And lest you think reinforcements are coming, Vanderbilt signed two players in the fall for the 2021 class. Peyton Daniels is ranked 138th nationally by 247 Sports, and Gabe Dorsey is ranked 170th. To date, these are the two highest-ranked high school players that Jerry Stackhouse has signed. Neither of them addresses the team’s most glaring need, which is the lack of a rim protector.

(I’m also intentionally avoiding the topic of the head coach’s engagement with fans and media on Twitter, but I’m sure the comments will have something to say about that.)

Now, all of this comes with a huge caveat: thanks to COVID-19, practice time has been extremely limited this season, and for a coaching staff that views player development as its forte, that seems like it’s a very big deal. And Stackhouse is a legitimately good X’s and O’s coach, too.

Still, this is all to say that it’s fine to be worried about the current state of the basketball program and its direction. It’s fine to admit that right now, you can’t point to anything specific that makes you think positively about the future of the program, whether that’s wins on the court or recruiting. This isn’t exactly a call to fire the coach, but, well, you can kind of see where this might be going.

You don’t have to be a pitchforker to be concerned.