4-on-5: Assessing the Commodores basketball team


Ziyi Liu

Just a couple months after Turner took over, Williams, Zeppos and Drew were all gone from the program.

At 8-7 overall, Vanderbilt men’s basketball has officially reached the halfway point of the 2016-17 season. The Vanderbilt Hustler sports staff teams up to answer five questions about the state of the team and the rest of the season.

1. Overall, how would you characterize this season so far? A success, a failure or somewhere in between?

Josh Hamburger, Editor in Chief: The season has got to be seen as somewhere in between. Dominating wins against LSU and Auburn make up for some early season struggles against teams like Bucknell and MTSU because it shows this team is improving and open to change.

Cutler Klein, Assistant Sports Editor: I would characterize this season as a feeling-out process, not necessarily a success or failure. This is the first time that the Commodores have had a new coach in 16 years, so there was no expectation that this team would instantly click. The pieces are there for this team to be incredibly successful, but the team can become wildly inconsistent at times. In addition, the team lost arguably their two best players in Damian Jones and Wade Baldwin IV. Players needed time to figure out their new roles without those two in the lineup. With all this considered, it’s no surprise this team is hovering around the .500 mark.

Robbie Weinstein, Sports Editor: It’s been somewhere in between, closer to a failure at this point. An 8-7 record simply isn’t any good, and preseason hopes of at least competing for an NCAA tournament at-large bid are close to gone. Going into the season, it wasn’t clear that this would be a rebuilding year. But, despite some positive signs, that’s what it’s looking like at this point.

Max Schneider, sports reporter: It’s hard to label a season as a failure with a new head coach and the loss of two star players to the NBA, but the first 15 games for Vanderbilt have been a disappointment. Their non-conference schedule put the Commodores in a position to pick up a couple of quality wins, and they flopped on all of them. All four matchups against top-50 teams ended in defeats, coupled with an opening day embarrassment against Marquette and an inexcusable loss to Bucknell. The good news is that they seem to have turned over a new leaf in conference play, starting out 2-1 with two convincing victories, but for a team that went out and hired Bryce Drew to make a run, 8-7 three games into conference play is disappointing.

2. Who has been your “player of the season” so far?

Hamburger: Matthew Fisher-Davis seems like the team’s best player at this point, given how well he’s been shooting the ball in recent games. Losing Wade Baldwin was clearly going to be a tough hole to fill, but MFD has at least been filling in plenty well on the offensive side of the ball.

Klein: It has to be Matthew Fisher-Davis. He’s been a workhorse on offense, drilling seemingly impossible shots and leading the team in scoring. When he’s hitting shots, the team seems to find its groove. When he’s off, like he was against Alabama, the team falters. Fisher-Davis has been instrumental in the Commodores keeping themselves in the running in the SEC.

Weinstein: He certainly hasn’t been the best player, but I think Payton Willis has best embodied the nature of Vanderbilt’s season. The freshman has struggled with turnover issues, but he’s shown excellent offensive potential with good three-point shooting and his highly impressive finishing at the rim. Willis’ surprising athleticism and defensive ability bodes well for the future, as does Vanderbilt’s recent uptick in play, but ultimately it’s unlikely that he’s consistent enough right now to lead the team to NCAA tournament contention. In that way, he’s been the player of the season for me.

Schneider: Definitely Riley LaChance. Matthew Fisher-Davis is the scorer, but LaChance provides a shooting touch that even Fisher-Davis hasn’t been able to match. At the start of the season, this team knew that it was going to need the LaChance of old to show up if it wanted to contend in the SEC, and he has far surpassed expectations. The junior guard out of Wisconsin leads the team in field-goal percentage and three-point percentage, shooting nearly 60 percent from beyond the arc. He has also been able to thrive off the ball in Drew’s new offense, while still managing to lead the team in assists. He may not make the highlight play, but LaChance has been a reliable player and shot-maker on a nightly basis.

3. How do you think Drew has performed? Are there any positive signs or concerns that stick out to you?

Hamburger: I’ve been a fan of Bryce Drew since day one, and nothing has changed my mind in the other direction. The early season losses certainly were tough to wrap my head around, but it is clear that he has made scheme changes that are working. He hasn’t been afraid to experiment with the team. I like his freshness and adaptability that he’s shown.

Klein: I like what I’ve seen from Coach Drew so far, both on and off the court. On the court, he seems to be instilling a trust with his players. They are buying in and listening to him. It will take a little time for the “Bryce Drew Era” to be in full swing, but he’s been strong so far. Off the court, he is making his presence known on campus. He is present on campus and a big face in the community, which is refreshing.

Weinstein: He’s been fine overall. It’s too early to say with much certainty that Drew is or isn’t the man to lead Vanderbilt back to national relevancy. After early hiccups like starting Djery Baptiste against Santa Clara only to have him defend out on the perimeter in a zone, Drew has made shrewd adjustments to the offense and defense that show he’s flexible and will put his ego aside to help the team. Drew’s refusal to criticize his players in press conferences and insistence on giving them all the credit for wins show he’s building a positive culture that wasn’t present here the last couple of years.

Schneider: Bryce Drew hasn’t had an ideal start as head coach, but he is clearly learning on the job. He is still working on perfecting the rotation and locking down more on the defensive end. Drew stressed before the season that the offense isn’t dependent on positions and that once the ball crosses half court, everyone can and will have the ball in their hands. So far that has held true, and it has worked wonders for guys like Riley LaChance and Payton Willis, who have been able to get good looks without having to constantly command attention at the point.

What is concerning is that this team is living and dying via the three-ball. Not enough looks have been going inside, in part due to the fact that Drew has been hesitant to play Luke Kornet and Djery Baptiste at the same time, leaving Kornet alone in the middle, a spot that looks uncomfortable to him. Drew should look to go with a bigger lineup more often so his roster isn’t totally reliant on the three-ball.

4. What would constitute a success for this season and this team?

Hamburger: I would imagine an appearance in the NIT would be something to strive for at this point. Obviously making the NCAA tournament is preferable, but if we want to be realistic for a first season under Bryce Drew, this should be what we can expect.

Klein: At base level, a successful season would see the Commodores finish as a top-five seed in the SEC and win one or two games in the SEC Tournament. Any postseason berth would be just icing on the cake, but there’s no expectation for them to make any tournament. It can happen, but if they don’t make a postseason tournament, it’s not the end of the world.

Weinstein: Making the NIT would be a good start, and winning a game after getting there would be great. A .500 record in SEC play would also be a significant positive. Ultimately, however, the team needs to continue improving over the course of the season.

Schneider: At this point, over .500 would constitute a minor success, but an NIT berth should be the goal. Barring a monumental run, Vanderbilt’s NCAA tournament chances look bleak, but a spot in the NIT certainly seems feasible. If Drew and his team can get a taste of the postseason and make some noise, it won’t be long before they’re back in the dance. At the very least, however, a winning record is a necessity for this team going forward. This team would be taking a major step backward if it weren’t able to win conference games with the veterans it has, but if it can right the ship, a postseason berth is in the cards.

5. Finish this statement: Vanderbilt must do ______ to make the postseason.

Hamburger: Vanderbilt must get some more consistency from Luke Kornet as the season continues on. The game against Alabama highlighted this best. He performed extremely well in the first half with 14 points, but Vanderbilt can’t expect to compete with top teams if he only scores one point in a half, which happened in the second half on Saturday.

Klein: Vanderbilt must keep hitting three-pointers and keep Luke Kornet healthy. When one of those things isn’t happening, the team can’t win.

Weinstein: It’ll probably need to have 18 wins once the conference tournament is over. To get those 18 wins, the Commodores will need to cut down on turnovers, keep shooting well from three and stay healthy.

Schneider: Vanderbilt must rebound the basketball to make the postseason. Right now the Commodores rank second-to-last in the conference in rebounding and 220th in the nation. That’s inexcusable for a team that plays two seven-footers. Vanderbilt is a team that thrives on getting open looks, and that all starts with its ability to rebound, whether it be on the defensive end to get on the break or the offensive end to kick out to shooters.

Making the postseason is going to come down to winning enough conference games, and to do so, Vandy is going to need to crash the boards better than it has. This is especially true in a conference with a plethora of glass-eating big men such as Yante Maten, Tyler Davis, Sebastian Saiz, Moses Kingsley and the guy they’re going to have to contain this Tuesday, Bam Adebayo. If they can improve on the boards and limit opposing big men on the offensive glass, the Commodores can win enough games to play late into March.