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KLEIN: Bryce Drew deserves one more chance, but with conditions

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KLEIN: Bryce Drew deserves one more chance, but with conditions

Photo by Emily Goncalves

Photo by Emily Goncalves

Photo by Emily Goncalves

Photo by Emily Goncalves

Cutler Klein, Sports Editor

This column is part of a set of stories on the debate surrounding Bryce Drew’s tenure as Vanderbilt’s Men’s Basketball coach. For Associate Sports Editor Max Schneider’s column on why he thinks Drew should be fired, click here.

Vanderbilt Basketball went 0-19 in the SEC. They did not win a game at all after the calendar turned to 2019.

Those are unavoidable facts, and those facts alone make a compelling case for why Vanderbilt Head Coach Bryce Drew should be fired right away. However, there are a number of other factors at play that show why Drew should get just one more chance.

Before we go any further, let’s make one thing clear: I am not trying to argue that Drew is the long-term answer as Vanderbilt’s head coach. All I am trying to argue is that Drew deserves one more season to prove that he belongs in this role.

Let’s start with a massive factor in Vanderbilt’s downfall in 2019 that was beyond Drew’s control: the season-ending injury to Darius Garland. When Garland was in the lineup, the Commodores looked dangerous and electric. Drew built the team’s system around the player that could end up being the top guard taken in the 2019 NBA Draft. When that player got hurt, the team had a near-impossible task of completely changing philosophies while also trying to win basketball games.

The Garland excuse became invalid by the time SEC play rolled around in terms of winning and losing games, but it’s still valid in assessing Drew’s job status. No one could have planned for a season-ending injury like that, and given Garland’s incredible talents, the Commodores could have been at least a bubble NCAA Tournament team had he stayed healthy. That’s not to say that Drew couldn’t have done more to soften the blow of the injury and still salvage something from the season, but at the very least it earns him a mulligan on some of the events of this season.

Photo by Ziyi Liu

Beyond Garland, the rest of the Commodore roster did not perform up to expectations. Players like Saben Lee did not take major steps forward in their development. Five-star freshman Simisola Shittu turned out to be far more raw than anyone anticipated. These are serious concerns, but they can be offset by the emergence of freshman Aaron Nesmith.

Under Drew’s tutelage this season, Nesmith emerged as a future star at Memorial Gym. Night in and night out, he was Vanderbilt’s most consistent player, and he gradually took on a bigger role on the team. He averaged 11 points (second-best on the team excluding Garland) and 5.5 rebounds per game (second on the team). In addition, Nesmith’s 353 total points on the season is good for eighth all-time by a Vanderbilt freshman, narrowly beating out future NBA champion Damian Jones on the list. The trajectory of his development from the beginning of the season to the end was the exact opposite of the team’s trajectory: upward.

Nesmith’s presence and growth disrupts two narratives that have developed about Drew: that he can’t develop players and that his players stopped trying on the court for him. It’s difficult to adequately judge the hustle level a team that has been downtrodden, stomped on and cast aside like Vanderbilt has. But, you cannot argue that Nesmith did not improve as the season went on, and you cannot argue that he stopped playing with heart and hustle.

If Drew can get this much out of Nesmith, perhaps he can get more out of other players in the end.

Finally, Drew should not be fired now because new Athletic Director Malcolm Turner is not in a position to do so just yet. Turner has been on the job for just over one month, which means he has not fully established himself in the Vanderbilt Athletic Department. He’s barely had time to fully get to know the best lunch spots around McGugin Center, much less assess the coaching job for one of Vanderbilt’s top programs.

Beyond the financial implications of buying out the remaining years on Drew’s contract, firing such a major coach after less than two months on the job would be a cutthroat, aggressive move that would send shockwaves through McGugin and plant the seeds for a more hard-nosed culture that the department likely isn’t ready for (not yet, anyways). Turner wants his coaches to trust him, and making a major firing this quickly is not the way to do that.

So, now is not the time to fire Drew. That doesn’t mean that the events of the 2018-19 season are acceptable by any standards. If Drew wants his tenure as head coach to extend beyond the 2019-20 season, there are some conditions he’ll have to meet.

Photo by Ziyi Liu

First, he’ll have to keep up his incredible work on the recruiting trail. As of right now, 247Sports lists Vanderbilt as a top contender for five-star center Walker Kessler, five-star guard Nimari Burnett and four-star guard Keon Johnson. Given all of the complex dynamics of college basketball recruiting, it would be impossible to pin his job security on those three recruits alone. However, one of Drew’s bright spots over his first three seasons on the job has been his ability to recruit high-level talent. If he can keep that up despite the program’s struggles, it would go a long way to right the ship.

Second, his players have to show improvement in a number of areas. Across the board, players like Lee and Shittu must show that they are better players than they were the year before. That’s on Drew and his coaching staff to coach these players and to work with them on their development. Of course, it’s on the players themselves to take in the information and use it, but the coaches have to get the process started.

In addition, Drew’s players must find a way to stay composed down the stretch and close out wins effectively. The 2018-19 Commodores could have had three, maybe four SEC wins if not for massive mistakes in the waning moments of games (missed foul shots vs. Tennessee, the technical foul vs. South Carolina, missed threes vs. Kentucky, etc.). When collapses happen that regularly, it’s on the coaching staff to demonstrate to the players how to remain composed and do what needs to be done. Perhaps with another season for an inexperienced group, they’ll be able to do that.

Third, Drew’s style and demeanor need some tweaking. No one wants another Kevin Stallings that curses at players and comes one thrown chair short of a Bobby Knight-style meltdown. However, as great as Drew’s radiant positivity is most of the time, it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence to see him smiling and upbeat in a press conference following a blowout loss.

In the words of Dodgeball character Patches O’Houlihan, you’ve got to get angry. You’ve got to get mean. That’s the only way you can play.

There are a number of ways Drew can put these changes into action. The most obvious method would be to shake up his coaching staff. As important as many of his assistants have been in Vanderbilt’s recruiting boom, it might be time for some new voices and new expertise on the bench. Vanderbilt Football Head Coach Derek Mason was afforded an opportunity to make staff changes after a dismal 2017 season, and it paid dividends in 2018. Drew could take advantage of the chance to do that this offseason.

All in all, Drew needs to produce results next season. The Commodores will need turn all of these changes into notches in the win column. Drew is only going to get a fourth season on good faith, so he will have to produce wins in order to fulfill his end of the bargain. At the very least, Drew has to bring the Commodores to the NCAA Tournament bubble next season, and likely have to get into March Madness. Even a run in the NIT might not be enough to keep him around beyond 2020.

If Drew can make changes, right the ship and deliver in a bounce-back season in 2020, he’ll put his tenure back on track and restore faith in a storied and proud basketball program. If next season is more of the same, Turner will be able to make the easiest decision of his life and move on from Drew in 2020.

The ball is in Drew’s court. It’s now up to him to deliver.

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About the Writer
Cutler Klein, Sports Editor

Cutler Klein ('19) is the Sports Editor of the Vanderbilt Hustler. He previously served as Assistant Sports Editor. He is majoring in Communication Studies...

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