Five on five: Looking back on Vanderbilt’s season

Vanderbilt head coach Bryce Drew and his staff look on during the Commodores' 68-66 NCAA tournament first-round loss to Northwestern on March 16, 2017.

The 2016-17 season was a strange one for Vanderbilt.

In his first year as head coach, Bryce Drew led the Commodores to their second straight NCAA tournament appearance. Vanderbilt even managed to earn a better seed than a year ago, despite its 8-10 start to the regular season.

What were the most significant aspects of the season? Where does Vanderbilt go from here? Our staff writers go five on five.

1. How will you remember this season? Was it a success?

Robbie Weinstein, Sports Editor: I’ll remember this season for the Commodores’ shocking turnaround, the great basketball they played at the end and possible how the year turned into a springboard for continued success under Drew. Vanderbilt had some excellent wins in the second half of the year, even though the players could have mailed in the season back in January. Instead, they came together and produced one of the most remarkable runs in program history. That’s certainly something the more talented 2015-16 team can’t say.

Cutler Klein, Assistant Sports Editor: This season was most definitely a success. Nobody had any expectations for this team going into the season, and once it got its confidence and developed some chemistry, it looked strong. Going to the NCAA tournament was icing on the cake. At that point, they were playing with house money. An NIT bid would have been a success for this team. Drew deserves a lot of credit for getting these Kevin Stallings recruits to buy in.

Josh Hamburger, Editor in Chief: I’m going to remember this season as a success, as should any Commodore basketball fan. This team was exciting, but undermanned; talented, but streaky. As a fan base, we were frustrated by the early season struggles, including losses to Bucknell and Alabama. But Luke Kornet inspired us, battling back from an injury to lead this team. Nolan Cressler emerged as a key component after disappointment last year. Drew pieced together a team that lost its two best players to the NBA draft in under a year. He led this team further than last year’s team and became a positive face to the players and fans.

Steve Sherk, sports reporter: This was a weird season, all things considered. I entered the season excited about the Drew era and had optimistic expectations for the team’s success. Early season struggles caused me to shed these optimistic expectations, as the team started a mediocre 11-12. At this point I had written off their chances of making the NCAA tournament and didn’t even expect them to reach the NIT either. Admittedly, I sort of stopped paying attention to the Commodores’ season.

Which is why when I learned that Vandy had crept its way back onto the bubble after reeling off a win streak, I was both surprised and confused. What had happened to the team that could barely stay above .500? I didn’t care, because Coach Drew’s squad was playing some of the better basketball in the country. Looking back, I’m happy with how this roller coaster of a year turned out and would definitely consider it a success.

Max Schneider, sports reporter: Drew pulled a rabbit out of a hat and turned a season that looked like a step down from last year into a success. With a head coach and the team’s top two players out the door, this team figured to struggle. Midway through this season, a tournament appearance felt impossible, but this season will be remembered as the year that the Commodores defeated Florida three times to make the tournament in a year that ultimately has to be categorized as a success. Drew looks to have resurrected the program, and he looks poised to carry this success into future years.

2. What moment from the season most stands out to you?

Weinstein: There are a lot of moments to choose from this year. I’ll pick Jeff Roberson’s tomahawk slam that served as the cherry on top of the Commodores’ dominating overtime performance against Florida in the SEC tournament quarterfinals. Sitting about 30 feet away on press row, I felt it was a highly impressive display of athleticism that functioned as a microcosm of Vanderbilt’s play during February and March. The ‘Dores didn’t just barely do enough to sneak into the tournament in controversial manner, they kicked down the door and barged their way in.

Klein: The moment that stands out to me was the first win at Florida. First, it was a big win on a big stage against a very tough, ranked opponent. Not only did they win this game against a ranked opponent, they also did it on the road after a long, sluggish stretch for them. That win really turned their season around, despite some bumps in the road. The biggest thing about that game is that Vanderbilt did not play perfect basketball. It did not have a stellar game, and yet it still won. When you can beat a ranked opponent like that and not be at your best, that’s the mark of a good team.

Hamburger: When Vanderbilt faced Tennessee at home early in SEC play, the Commodores needed a win. They knew the game would be tough and ultimately lost by double digits. I watched as this team couldn’t take a lead after midway through the first half, watching the Volunteers continue to pull away. I saw clear anger and disappointment from the team, as Matthew Fisher-Davis earned an unnecessary technical foul. The Commodores actually shot and rebounded well in that game, but so did Tennessee. It was one of those games that was a tough break, but it was a game that seemed like the team needed to win.

Vanderbilt didn’t come out and win the next game. Drew responded though, taking Fisher-Davis out of the lineup and redefining his role on the team soon after. He replaced him with Joe Toye, who at times flashed dominance. It was a difficult decision to take out the leading scorer from starting, but it sent a message about what he expects and his willingness to make a bold change. It ultimately seems to have worked out well, and it shows a lot about Drew’s ability to make adjustments.

Sherk: The third and final win over Florida stands out the most to me. Not only did this game feel like it had the most at stake, but this overtime battle was also one of the most entertaining games to watch. It was at this moment that it really felt like Vanderbilt was going to reach the tournament, despite having such a slow start to the year. Going into the game, there were some who thought that even if Florida won, Vandy probably did enough to make the tournament. I didn’t buy into this, however, and felt like the game was almost a play-in-game for the Big Dance.

It’s so hard to beat a conference foe three times in a single season, especially one with superior talent, but it’s exactly what the ‘Dores did. It’s somewhat of a mystery how the ‘Dores were so successful against the Gators this year. Maybe Drew has a magical spell over Florida head coach Mike White, who Drew also defeated in his playing days with his famous shot in the NCAA tournament. Or maybe Kornet simply has a strong distaste for alligators. Whatever it was, it got Vanderbilt’s named called on Selection Sunday, which is always a great feeling.

Schneider: Unfortunately, as much as this team amazed late in the year, the moment that stands out lied in the last 20 seconds of the opening round game against Northwestern.  Fisher-Davis’ bonehead foul will go down in Vanderbilt lore as a major gaffe. While he will get most of the heat, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Vandy had the ball left with 14 seconds and a chance to win the game. That possession resulted in a low-percentage deep three from Riley LaChance that caromed off the rim and cemented the loss for the ‘Dores.  This team showed great resiliency all year, but the execution in the last 20 seconds of that game won’t soon be forgotten.

3. Based on what we’ve seen so far, what do you make of Drew’s future and Vanderbilt’s decision to hire him?

Weinstein: Vanderbilt has upgraded at head coach, there’s no other way to put it. While I don’t know enough to say whether Drew is as good of a tactician as Stallings is (as Stallings occasionally reminded media members, I’m not a coach!), the players clearly like Drew more and connect with him better. Just because Drew refuses to throw his players under the bus during interviews doesn’t mean he has no other ways to motivate them. Vanderbilt’s game plans down the stretch seemed consistently good, and Drew showed great flexibility by changing the offense mid-season to accommodate his players. On top of all that, he’s got what looks like a strong recruiting class coming in for next year. Drew’s a keeper.

Klein: I think Vanderbilt made the best decision it’s ever made in hiring Drew. He is very straightforward, doesn’t try to tiptoe around anything and instills a winning culture in his players. In many ways, he is the opposite of Stallings. Stallings was fiery, dodgy and downright arrogant and mean, while Drew is very calm, collected and straightforward. Put it this way: Drew will never threaten a player or need anger management. As Drew brings in his own recruits, this program will reach new heights.

Hamburger: Simply put, Vanderbilt couldn’t have done better with this hire. I don’t think anybody better embodies what it means to be a coach and role model for his players and a positive image to the community. When we participated in our first edition of this article on January 9, none of us believed that getting to the NCAA tournament would be the goal of success. We hoped for a .500 record in the SEC and a trip to the NIT. Well, Drew brought us more than that. Considering the struggles of this team early on, it’s incredible how much he helped turned this season around. He’s humble and a great listener, and I believe he is destined for great success at Vanderbilt.

Sherk: I was really excited about the Drew hire when it was announced. His track strong track record at Valparaiso seemed to speak volumes about the head coaching talent he possessed. This year he seemed to live up to these expectations, as he became the first coach in Vanderbilt’s history to lead the team to an NCAA tournament appearance in his first season as head coach.

All the analysts on TV offer tremendous praise to Drew and seem to unanimously agree that Vandy is heading in the right direction.  While that’s all well and good, there are a couple of things that make me feel less optimistic than others seem to be. First, I didn’t like the brand of basketball that Vanderbilt played on offense. Defensively, they were sound, but the reliance of the three-point shot on offense made for inconsistent scoring at times. Vanderbilt shot the seventh-most three-pointers of all Division I teams (921) and did so while shooting the 61st-highest percentage (37.6). Secondly, recruiting has not gotten of to a fast start — Vanderbilt’s 2017 class ranked 8th best in the SEC. I would hope that Vanderbilt could bring in better players than the likes of Mississippi State and Auburn. Regardless, I think Drew has a good future ahead of him — but I am not completely sold just yet.

Schneider: Director of Athletics David Williams is probably sitting back in his office smiling at what a great hire he made. Coming into this season, Drew already looked like one of the hot young coaches in the college game. He showed why this season, as he was extremely patient with a team that was searching for its identity for most of the year. Drew didn’t shy away from the challenge, often making tough decisions, such as sitting Fisher-Davis and giving the team’s top scorer a new role. The future looks safe in his hands, as he figures to grow with this team and cement himself as a solid SEC coach for years to come.

4. With only 11 scholarship players for next year, Vanderbilt will be active in the transfer market. What need would you most like to see Drew address?

Weinstein: The ‘Dores need another big man. I feel confident in Clevon Brown’s ability to play big minutes next year as a sophomore, but who knows what Drew will get out of Djery Baptiste and incoming freshman Ejike Obinna. Vanderbilt should try its hardest to land a true center on the graduate transfer market so Drew will have immediate help for next year. Drew can sell immediate playing time, a starting spot and a strong chance to play in the NCAA tournament, so the ‘Dores should be in the running for the top immediately-eligible big men.

Klein: Drew needs to find himself a big man. While Vanderbilt’s bread and butter is the three-ball, it has had the luxury of having at least one seven-footer on its roster for the last few seasons. It will miss having a Jones, Henderson or Kornet on the roster. I’m not saying they need to go out and find another seven-footer, but they need to find a better big man than Baptiste. His play this season has not instilled much confidence. Brown showed flashes of what he can do, but he is very unpolished and not ready to be the No. 1 guy yet.

Hamburger: I don’t really foresee any needs through the transfer market, but point guard and center have to be on Drew’s mind. Larry Austin Jr., a transfer from Xavier, should see a solid amount of playing time next season, given how Vanderbilt lacked a true starting point guard. Payton Willis will also factor into this mix, along with 4-star recruit Saben Lee. I do have to say, though, that I really miss having Damian Jones, Kornet and Josh Henderson together on one team to have a height advantage. If Drew can bring in some more height to this team, it certainly would help. That way, there’s not this complete reliance on one player so often to cover inside the paint.

Sherk: The biggest player Vanderbilt will miss next year is also Vanderbilt’s biggest player — 7’1″ senior center Kornet. Backup Baptiste showed improvement throughout the season, but his lack of basketball experience makes him hard to rely on as the main guy down low. For that reason, it makes sense for Vanderbilt to try and find someone who can help fill that role. Its incoming recruiting class features the 6’9″ Obinna, who is a 3-star center from Virginia, and hopefully he can provide some meaningful minutes next year.

The starters at all the other positions return next year, so I think the Commodores are pretty well setup outside of center. The problem with transfer players is the requirement to sit out a full season before they can begin playing for their new team (unless they are a graduate transfer). If they can’t get any graduate transfers, it still makes sense to go out and look for other players, because they could use the added depth two years from now after LaChance, Roberson and Fisher-Davis leave.

Schneider: Size. Lots of it. Vanderbilt is a team that lives and dies by the three, and countless possessions end with one shot and everybody running back on defense. If this team could attack the offensive glass, it would create more second-chance points and open shots for this group of snipers. Aggressive bigs are often on the open market, and if the Commodores could get one or two guys that could pose a threat inside, it would work wonders on both sides of the floor.

5. What are your early expectations for next year?

Weinstein: Kornet may have been underrated this year for his floor spacing, defense and leadership, three important aspects of basketball that don’t show up as tangible stats. Similarly, the Commodores will miss Nolan Cressler’s shooting and locker room presence. It’ll be extremely difficult to replace Kornet, but Vanderbilt’s improved point guard play and depth should help mitigate his departure. Lee (and Maxwell Evans, probably to a lesser extent) will bring the type of dynamic ball handling and explosion off the dribble Vanderbilt didn’t have this year.

If the Commodores’ rising sophomores each take significant steps forward, Austin Jr. adds 20-ish minutes per game of consistent production and everyone else incrementally improves, Vanderbilt should be back in the tournament. If the ‘Dores can do all that and add an established center via transfer, they should be even better next year. If two or fewer of those developments come to fruition, Vanderbilt might be headed to the NIT as a one-year step backward.

Klein: I think this team could be an NCAA tournament team, but, overall, it needs to find a way to replace Kornet’s production on the blocks and to hit more medium-range jumpers. They cannot rely on the three-ball to carry them through. If they can find a new big man, or if Baptiste gets it together, they should improve on this season.

Hamburger: If Drew could lead this team to the NCAA Tournament, why should I expect any different from him next year? Replacing Kornet will be the most difficult task ahead and is the primary reason I’m hesitant to predict an improvement over this season’s success. We just didn’t see enough from Baptiste to feel comfortable with him contributing over 30 minutes per game like Luke did. Obinna will likely see significant playing time. The team will continue to shoot the three-ball well, but it is just so difficult to know what kind of inside presence we’ll see.

Sherk: Next year’s expectations aren’t far from the ones I had going into this year. I think we should expect to be competitive in conference play and hopefully do enough throughout the season to be on the right side of the bubble when Selection Sunday rolls around again. As mentioned before, the biggest question mark heading into next year is how will Kornet’s absence be filled. LaChance, Roberson and Fisher-Davis will all be experienced seniors. Toye and Willis should have enough experience under their belts by then to tap into some raw potential.

The most important player this summer might be Baptiste. If he can fine tune his fundamentals and become an impact player on both sides of the ball, then Vanderbilt is looking at a potential for decent success. Baptiste by no means has to become the versatile player that Kornet was, but if he can at least become a reliable rim protector and an occasional offensive weapon than that should be enough. Vanderbilt is not heading for an SEC title or a Final Four appearance, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect it to be dancing in March for a third year in a row.

Schneider: Cressler and Kornet are gone, but the rest of this team returns along with Drew’s first recruiting class, and it’s a solid one at that. Vanderbilt won’t likely struggle out of the gates like it did this season, and players like Toye and Willis figure to improve dramatically. This team possesses the veteran leadership that it needs from its seniors, and all signs point to another tournament appearance if the Commodores can sort out their big man problems. Things are looking up for Drew and the program.

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