You might have heard, but Vanderbilt’s basketball season is off to a rocky start. After a 64-62 loss to Grambling on Friday, the Commodores sit at 5-5 — which while hardly ideal (particularly since two of the losses came against Southern Miss and Grambling), it’s hardly the dire situation currently facing, say, Cal (0-11), Louisville (0-9), or Florida State (2-9, with one of the wins coming against the aforementioned Louisville team.)
Hell, Vanderbilt isn’t even the worst team in the SEC according to KenPom’s ratings.
What I wanted to do today, though, is take a look back at all the times that Vanderbilt has started like this and how those seasons turned out. I’ve flagged every Vanderbilt season going back to 1984-85 (the first year of the 64-team NCAA Tournament, and generally regarded as the cutoff point between modern college basketball and the old days) in which the Commodores started the season 5-5 or worse through their first ten games.
The results: mostly bad, though there might be some hope. Notable in its exclusion: the 2018-19 season, in which Vanderbilt started 9-3 before losing 20 straight to end the season.
The start: 4-6
Losses: Richmond (finished 65 in KenPom), Davidson (70), Florida (41), Kentucky (40), Mississippi State (67), Tennessee (28)
Finished: 9-16 (3-13 SEC)
Okay, so this one basically doesn’t count: in the COVID-influenced 2020-21 season, Vanderbilt had already played four SEC games by the time its tenth game of the season rolled around.
The start: 3-7
Losses: Belmont (83), USC (51), Virginia (2), Seton Hall (26), Kansas State (42), Middle Tennessee (45), Arizona State (49)
Finished: 12-20 (6-12 SEC)
This was worse than a 5-5 start, but it was also an instance of overscheduling: Vanderbilt played seven teams early in the season that would finish in the KenPom top 100, and lost all of them. Then again, this team had Riley LaChance, Matthew Fisher-Davis, and Jeff Roberson, all seniors, so perhaps some overscheduling was justified. And only the Virginia game was a blowout. But this was an early indicator that the team wasn’t very good, especially on the defensive end.
The start: 5-5
Losses: Marquette (32), Bucknell (76), Butler (25), Minnesota (37), Middle Tennessee (43)
Finished: 19-16 (10-8 SEC), lost first round NCAA Tournament
If you want to have hope, this is it. Like this year’s team, the 2016-17 team was an experienced one; also like this year’s team, it spent much of the early part of the season adjusting to life without the previous year’s NBA-caliber point guard. And while none of the losses were to teams as bad as Southern Miss and Grambling, the losses to Marquette and MTSU were drubbings. (Hell, this year’s team might have two better wins through ten games than the 2016-17 team did, whose best win was over Belmont at home.) It wasn’t until a January 21 game at Florida that things started clicking for the 2017 team; at that point, they were 8-10 and 2-4 in the SEC, then went 11-5 the rest of the way.
The start: 5-5
Losses: Oregon (35), Davidson (66), Marist (238), Villanova (53), Middle Tennessee (44)
Finished: 16-17 (8-10 SEC)
On the other hand, there’s this team. This team probably had the single worst loss of any on this list: 50-33 to Marist. Yeah, that’s right, they scored 33 in a game. This team got somewhat right in SEC play, winning 6 of 8 down the stretch, though the SEC of 2012-13 is not the SEC of 2022-23.
The start: 5-5
Losses: Michigan (2 in SRS), Ohio State (21), UAB (89), North Carolina (6), Kansas State (30)
Finished: 19-14 (12-6 SEC), lost first round NCAA Tournament
Ahhhhhh, 1980s scheduling. Vanderbilt opened the 1988-89 season by dropping two of three in Maui to eventual national champion Michigan and NCAA Tournament-caliber Ohio State (beating Division II Chaminade in between), then came home and beat NCAA Tournament team Louisville before playing UAB, North Carolina, and Kansas State on the road... and losing all three. So it was a 2-5 start, but all of the losses were to quality teams — and this team would have won an outright SEC title if not for the Tennis Ball Game. Of course, there wasn’t a Grambling among those losses.
More importantly, though, the 1988-89 team had something in common with the 2016-17 team, and this year’s team: it was an experienced team (the top five players were seniors Frank Kornet, Barry Goheen, and Barry Booker, and juniors Eric Reid and Derrick Wilcox) that was also adjusting to life without its star player from the previous year (All-American and future four-time NBA champion Will Perdue.)
So, what does it mean?
In the past 38 years, five Vanderbilt teams have started the season by winning five or fewer of their first ten games. Two of those teams made the NCAA Tournament.
We’ll throw out the 2020-21 team, which was already well into SEC play by its tenth game of the season. (We’ll also throw out the 2017-18 team, which had a worse record at 3-7.) Bad starts are bad starts, but with two thirds of the season left to play, including the entirety of SEC play, a 5-5 start can be overcome; the 2016-17 and 1988-89 teams showed that. The 2016-17 team ranked 77th in KenPom after a 23-point drubbing by MTSU to fall to 5-5. You can make the case that those teams are comparable to this year’s team — both featured a bunch of juniors and seniors in key roles, but both were missing the star player from the previous year.
Where the comparison breaks down: those teams weren’t out there losing to teams like Southern Miss and Grambling. Between the 2017 and 1989 teams, there wasn’t a single early loss to a team outside the top 100. It’s one thing to rack up a bunch of early losses to Michigan, Ohio State, and North Carolina, and quite another to be out here losing to Southern Miss and Grambling. The former is a team struggling against a difficult schedule; the latter is a team struggling, period.