Measuring Up: Finding the ceiling and floor for Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball


Hunter Long

The Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball team plays UNC Asheville on Friday, November 17, 2017. Photo by Hunter Long

With the season opener approaching on Tuesday, our staff got together to discuss expectations for the Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball team.

What’s the team’s ceiling and what’s each team’s floor? Take a look at what our staff had to say.

Cutler Klein, sports editor

Ceiling: The sky is truly the limit for this team. Darius Garland and Simi Shittu have the chance to become the freshman phenoms that Missouri was supposed to have last season. However, it will take a lot more than that to allow this team to reach its full capacity. Transfers Yanni Wetzell and Matt Ryan will need to replace the scoring threats from long range in Riley LaChance and Matthew Fisher-Davis and become the defensive standouts that the team missed last season. Don’t forget about Aaron Nesmith as well, who could become a dark horse to excel at either the shooting guard or small forward positions. Overall, if this team plays at full capacity all season, an elite eight berth is very much in the cards.

Floor: We all know what expectations do to Vanderbilt sports teams. Even though SEC media tapped them to finish seventh in the conference, there are still lofty goals coming from the Vanderbilt community. A lot of different things could go wrong with the team. Shittu’s health issues could hamper him early and force him into a limited season. The depth around Garland and Lee leaves the team exposed at the guard position if either player gets into foul trouble or gets injured. If the team never clicks like it should, the Commodores could very well miss the tournament, but still get a favorable draw in the NIT.

Max Schneider, associate sports editor

Ceiling: Darius Garland and Simi Shittu shine, earning every bit of that McDonald’s All-American distinction.  Matt Ryan and Yanni Wetzell prove to be the missing pieces in Vanderbilt’s starting lineup, and Saben Lee blossoms into a star, improving his three-point shot enough to become a legitimate threat from deep.  All this adds up to SEC title contention, giving Kentucky, Auburn, Tennessee, and LSU all they can handle.  Vanderbilt makes the tournament as a top-six seed, making its way to the second weekend.  Even in the best of scenarios, it’ll be tough to foresee this team going from 12-20 to any further than the Sweet 16 in just one year, but crazier things have happened in March.

Floor: Vanderbilt’s freshmen are good, but only barely enough to make up for the loss of last year’s seniors.  That loss becomes especially prevalent in Vanderbilt’s perimeter shooting, leaving Garland and Ryan as the only two reliable threats.  Shittu shows his rust and Wetzell struggles to make the adjustment to SEC basketball, leaving Vanderbilt vulnerable in the paint for the second year in a row.  In a year in which the conference is perhaps as tough as it’s ever been, Vanderbilt struggles to compete, dropping too many games to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row.

Betsy Goodfriend, senior writer

Ceiling: Freshmen phenoms Simisola Shittu and Darius Garland are as good, or better, than advertised, and the Commodores get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. Transfers Matt Ryan and Yanni Wetzell are eligible this season, and they elevate Vanderbilt’s offense beyond the arc and in the paint, respectively. Throw in an experienced guard in Saben Lee, and this team easily makes it to the Round of 32, maybe even the Sweet 16 if they get a favorable draw in the tournament.

Floor: Garland and Shittu struggle to adjust to the speed and physicality of college basketball. Lee cannot replicate the magic of last season and is forced to beat defenders with his below-average three-point shot. Vanderbilt’s bench can’t average more than a combined 10 points a game, leaving the starters to carry the load. Vanderbilt wins a couple SEC games, but the team can’t compete with the upper echelon of a stacked SEC.

Simon Gibbs, senior writer

Ceiling: Simi Shittu and Darius Garland play like the NBA talents they could very well be. Opposing defenses have absolutely no way of containing the offense—they could double Garland, thus leaving Shittu wide open in the paint, or they can double Shittu down low, who can kick it out to Ryan/Wetzell/Garland/Saben (he did say to media that his three-point shooting has improved). The Commodores pull off a couple shockers, Memorial Magic is revived—I don’t even know where to cap off their ceiling. Let’s just say Vanderbilt absolutely has the talent to compete with the big dogs in the SEC. If all goes as planned, this team will be dancing come March.

Floor: Simi Shittu goes full-out Michael Porter Jr., reaggravates his ACL injury in the first game and misses the entire season. The Commodores struggle without Shittu in the lineup, while Darius Garland and Saben Lee also have a tough time meshing on the floor. Vanderbilt basketball and it’s old friend, mediocrity, meet again. Shittu and Garland both go one-and-done, so there’s not even a sense of “just wait until next year” amongst fans.
Knock on wood, folks, but that won’t happen.

Henry Hunter, sports reporter

Ceiling: Darius Garland and Simi Shittu are as good as advertised, and surrounded by Yanni Wetzell and Matt Ryan’s shooting, the Commodores challenge Kentucky and Tennessee for the top spot in the SEC throughout the regular season. Once in the NCAA Tournament, Garland does his best Kemba Walker impersonation and Coach Drew’s squad makes a deep run into the tournament.

Floor: Barring injury, the worst case scenario is the SEC simply proves too tough. Coach Drew has spoken about the level of competition in the SEC being at an all-time high, and he isn’t wrong. Despite this deep roster, the young roster stumbles early in SEC play and can’t dig themselves out of that hole. Garland plays well enough to declare for the draft, but not well enough for the Dores to make the tournament.

Alyssa Muir, sports reporter

Ceiling: Final Four

It will take a lot of hard work and growth throughout this season, but the Commodores have the talent to make it to Minneapolis. Everyone knows about the two freshmen phenoms but what makes this team so dangerous is all the talent they have surrounding Darius Garland and Simi Shittu. This team can actually go ten guys deep and all ten will be major contributors. Transfers Matt Ryan and Yanni Wetzell will provide instant shooting and size down low and Saben Lee should be even better than last year now that he is playing alongside Garland. The Commodores also have the luxury of having a bench full of guys like Joe Toye, Clevon Brown, and Max Evans who have plenty of experience in big moments. If the team can improve off of their miserable defense from last year, the depth, playmaking, and outside shooting of this team has the capability to carry them to a Final Four berth.

Floor: Narrowly missing the tournament

I honestly have a very hard time seeing this one happen and it would be a major disappointment if it did, but it is possible in a conference that is as tough as ever. Vanderbilt got a lot better from last year to this one but so did the rest of the conference. The SEC sent a record eight teams to the Big Dance last year, and many people think the conference is even better this year. The Commodores were picked to finish seventh in the SEC and if that happens they will be on the bubble to make the tournament. Last year, Vanderbilt struggled game after game to get stops and rebounds and if that trend continues into this year it will be hard for them to win SEC games even if with all the offensive talent they have.

Justin Hershey, sports reporter

Ceiling: Elite Eight

After a fantastic offseason, there are high hopes around Nashville for Vanderbilt’s basketball team.  When looking at the talent this team will add relative to last year, a run in the NCAA Tournament and an Elite Eight appearance is entirely possible.  Two flashy, talented guards in Saben Lee and Darius Garland should be scoring machines this season, and if you watch the NCAA Tournament, you know how important guard play is.  Around these two, Yanni Wetzell and Matt Ryan should provide consistent three-point threats and big bodies to bang down low on defense. For me, the deal breaker is Simi Shittu.  If Shittu returns to his high school form and is a dominant athletic force in the post and can stretch the floor with his improved jump shot, the sky’s the limit for this Vanderbilt team.  Vanderbilt’s ceiling is an Elite Eight appearance and a second place finish in the SEC behind Kentucky.

Floor: Missed NCAA tournament

While the talent is clearly there for Vanderbilt to make a run in the postseason, Commodore fans will need to be patient.  This year’s squad is an entirely new group of talents and players. Coach Drew will love working with his new players, but he will be greatly tested in dealing with many young players.  While the talent is there, outside of the five newcomers and Saben Lee, many of Vanderbilt’s bench players are untested and inexperienced. If guys like Maxwell Evans and Aaron Nesmith do not step up, Vanderbilt may be looking at a six or seven-man rotation.  While Vanderbilt will be able to win many games solely based on the talent of those six to seven players, down the road depth is imperative to keep guys healthy and in good shape for the postseason. Missing the NCAA tournament would be a huge disappointment and if the team does not click and lacks depth, this could be the result.

Ben Seltzer, sports reporter

This season is one of high expectations for the Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball team. After a disappointing 12-20 campaign, Coach Bryce Drew and a star studded class of recruits will look to take the Commodores to the top of the SEC. At their best, this team could make a serious run at a top 15 ranking, and an SEC title, with only the Kentucky Wildcats standing in their way. As for their floor, the Commodores could just as easily flop, as a large portion of the team’s talent is brand new, and may not gel as nicely as Coach Drew would like.

Jaime Perez, sports reporter

Ceiling: Elite Eight run; top-four SEC finish

After a disappointing 12-20 overall record and a second-to-last place SEC finish a season ago, the Commodores (and their fans) are expecting a much better year this time around. That’s where the three freshmen, two available transfers, and the improvement of Saben Lee (and the other returnees) come in. This team has a lot more size (and big-man talent) than in previous years, which will allow the team to play a variety of ways on offense. Whether playing big or small-ball, there will always be shooters in the lineup, meaning the combo guard duo of Lee and Garland will have more than enough space to go to work in the half court, which should excite fans. The mix of big men will also allow Shittu to work in an assortment of roles depending on his backcourt partner and will hopefully lead to him dominating the high post.

If all three freshmen are as good as advertised, the transfers fit in, and the returning players improve, this year’s team will be one of the deepest and most adaptable one’s in college and will compete against anyone.

Floor: Miss tournament; finish 10th or below in the SEC

While the Commodores’ abundance of new players may be a positive, it might end up being a major weakness. Team chemistry is crucial, especially over a long season, and it is very difficult for a team to have a great connection when three of your key players weren’t on campus until the summer, and two of the others didn’t play a minute. The team will have to grow and learn on the fly. Having so many new, important players will make the team an inexperienced one which usually shows in the biggest moments and against the best opponents; they will need leadership and maturity (which hopefully Lee can provide).

Another issue the Commodores have is one completely out of their control: the strength of the SEC. Possibly the best conference in the nation, the SEC has ten possible tourney teams, which will make Vanderbilt’s schedule a grueling one. Though this gives the team an opportunity to have more “good wins” and less “bad losses” when it’s time for Selection Sunday, it’s also an “opportunity” for simply more losses. It would not be a surprise if the team starts off slow due to their lack of experience and still-growing chemistry; and if the team is at a disadvantage record-wise when it’s time for SEC play, it will be very difficult for them to get back on track.

Ryan Sheehy, sports reporter 

Ceiling: 24-6

This season’s Commodores are really the wildcards of the SEC as a result of their almost entirely new lineup. Vanderbilt is expected to introduce four new starters this season, with Saben Lee being the lone returning starter at shooting guard. If the touted freshmen duo of Darius Garland and Simi Shittu play up to their first-round draft pick potential, Vanderbilt could have the stars it needs to compete with traditional blue bloods. Floor-stretching threes from Yanni Wentzell, Matt Ryan, and Aaron Nesmith could give this team even more room to operate. If the Commodores can find early success and revive a traditionally raucous Memorial Gym, Vanderbilt could hold a serious home court advantage in Nashville.

Floor: 12-18

On the other hand, if the influx of new pieces results in a jumbled mess rather than an organized unit, this team look quite similar to last year’s squad despite all the new faces. This dystopic view assumes that Vanderbilt’s vaunted freshmen are unable to quickly transition to the college level and that the other new additions fail to bring the best aspects of their games from their previous teams. As a whole, the team would have to entirely not progress or develop on track and Drew would have to show that he does not have what it takes to coach at a major D1 school.