From midnight conversations to nightly buckets, Cressler helps lead Commodores

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Ziyi Liu

Nolan Cressler (24) as Vanderbilt defeated South Carolina 71-62 at Memorial Gym February 18, 2017.

Robbie Weinstein, Sports Editor

On the eve of Vanderbilt’s 2016-17 season opener, Commodore seniors Nolan Cressler and Luke Kornet had a conversation that would drive their approach to the whole season.

The ‘Dores were preparing to take on Marquette the next day at a neutral-site event in Annapolis, Maryland. But first came the pow wow that Cressler still looks back on months later.

“I remember before the first game of the season, we’re at Annapolis and me and Luke [Kornet], we were roommates, we literally stayed up ‘til two in the morning talking about how we wanted this year to go, how we wanted to feel about this year looking back on it,” Cressler said. “That’s pretty much what it is, it’s making sure we leave our footprint in this new culture and this new program that’s taken on a direction of its own.”

Cressler and Kornet’s late-night discussion didn’t pay immediate dividends: Vanderbilt was torched by the Golden Eagles the next day and struggled to an 8-10 start to the season. But the team has played better recently in winning six of its last nine, and Cressler’s improved play has been a major reason why.

The sharpshooting redshirt senior guard from Pittsburgh was supposed to be the Commodores’ secret weapon in 2015-16 after transferring in from Cornell. Heading into a season in which they were expected to make a deep NCAA Tournament run, coaches and teammates spoke of Cressler’s impressive play in practice and his killer mentality.

It didn’t work out. As Vanderbilt struggled through a tumultuous 19-14 season, Cressler battled back problems and managed only 27.4 percent three-point shooting and 4.8 points per game, down from 16.8 in his final year with the Big Red.

“I would say last year was a little bit of an adjustment period,” Cressler said. “I mean, any time you’re in a new system, there’s gonna be that adjustment period. And from sitting out a year, that probably has more of an impact than I anticipated sitting out a year would do.”

Now, he has settled in. While Cressler may not be new head coach Bryce Drew’s go-to scorer — he takes fewer than six shots per game — he’s leading the team in field-goal percentage and is second in three-point percentage. Similarly, he ranks second in the SEC during league play in effective field-goal percentage, which accounts for the added value of three-pointers compared to two-pointers.

Cressler may only average 7.7 points per game, but he’s arguably the best 7.7-points-per-game scorer in the entire country. Until recently, he had produced double-figure scoring outputs nine times out of a 13-game stretch. His 20-point performance against Iowa State on January 28 helped lead Vanderbilt to one of its best wins this season, and his 13 points in a win over No. 21 South Carolina on Saturday kept the Commodores afloat. Cressler rarely takes a bad shot, and the ones he does take have been going in at an extremely high rate.

“I don’t know if there’s a reason for [the increased efficiency], I just don’t feel rushed this year,” Cressler said. “I kind of felt like I had to explode onto the scene last year, and I don’t think that’s a good way to approach anything. You’ve just gotta stay consistent, and I’m enjoying it more this year, I don’t feel rushed, I’m just kind of playing to play.”

A number of factors have contributed to the uptick in Cressler’s confidence and production, and his talk with Kornet was emblematic of one of them. Cressler is comfortable in his role and is determined to give everything he has in his senior season.

He’s finally healthy after having healed from a back injury suffered during the preseason. It also helps that he has a great working relationship with Drew, who has been eager to seek his two seniors’ opinions on matters ranging from the team’s offensive system to practice routines.

Drew said he admires Cressler in part because of his willingness to sacrifice for the good of the team. During the preseason, Drew decided to use Cressler at power forward, often labeled the “4” position. Cressler has shown the toughness of a big man, matching up against much bigger players despite the fact that, at 6’4” and 210 pounds, he’s the size of a shooting guard.

“I think that started in the preseason because [Drew] would do box out statistics during practices and scrimmages and stuff, when we scrimmaged Baylor, and I was consistently our best box-out guy in terms of percentages, just clearing people out,” Cressler said. “I’ve just kept trying to do that all year and do all of the little things, whether it’s guys my size or bigger guys. So I think that’s just translated into me, whenever Jeff needs a break or whatever, I just slide down to the 4.”

Kornet and Drew lauded Cressler’s toughness while playing the 4, while Cressler himself credited his work in practice against starting power forward Jeff Roberson and former Commodore James Siakam for having prepared him. Much like Siakam, Cressler hasn’t let his height hold him back when he needs to go to work in the paint.

“He’s really strong and physical, and he’s a tough player,” Kornet said. “He doesn’t really care who he’s playing against; he’s gonna be competitive and he’s gonna knock you down if it comes down to it.”

That’s all well and good, but the fact that Cressler has played well — not just hard — when defending opposing 4s is what stands out the most.

According to Synergy Sports Technology, Cressler has allowed only 18 points in 20 possessions when defending around the basket, which ranks in the 60th percentile nationally. While a 20-possession sample size is a small one, Cressler rates as the team’s best defender among its seven primary rotation players as well, allowing a measly .707 points per possession. He’s also one of the team’s better defensive rebounders by the percentage of opponents’ misses he corrals, according to KenPom.com, posting numbers similar to those of the 7’1″ Kornet, 6’10” Djery Baptiste and 6’8″ Clevon Brown.

Nobody would mistake Cressler for a true lockdown one-on-one defender — he generally doesn’t guard the other team’s best player — but he gets as much out of himself as one could expect.

Cressler’s energy translates to the practice court, a key part of his role as a team leader. Kornet and Cressler both make a point to keep each other focused.

“Ever since we had that talk it’s kind of been understood between the two of us that we’re gonna hold each other accountable every single day,” Cressler said. “There’s been days I’ve been sluggish in practice and he’s gotten on me, and that’s not something a lot of people are comfortable doing. But because we’ve kind of gotten on that same page, I feel a responsibility to hold him accountable and make sure he’s doing the things we’ve seen him do in the summers and bits and pieces the last couple of years.”

As the season goes on, it’s easy for the younger Commodores to be discouraged by their 13 losses to date and not bring the necessary focus to practice and film sessions. Siakam spoke of the same issue during the 2014-15 team’s 1-7 start to SEC play, in which the squad’s five freshmen struggled through January and early February. Keeping younger teammates on track is arguably Cressler’s most important task due to their impact on the program’s long-term trajectory.

“Whether it’s bringing a smile before practice every day or whenever Joe Toye goes in the game, getting under his skin and making sure he’s playing with the right energy he should be playing with,” Cressler said. “Mainly with guys like that, Joe and Payton [Willis], Clevon [Brown], that’s probably my biggest thing is I’m trying to work with them and leave an imprint on those guys, and hopefully a positive one.”

Cressler’s improved play is easy to notice, but he’s only focused on winning. The arrival of his senior year has left him with a renewed sense of urgency, and as a result he’s evolved into an irreplaceable part of the team. After such a brutal first year in a Commodore uniform, he’s become a low-usage, uber-efficient version of what fans, coaches and teammates originally expected. And that isn’t even close to where his contributions end.

“My main thing this year is just trying to leave a positive imprint on this team and mainly on the culture of this team,” Cressler said. “I’ll forget about statistics, and I’ll forget about individual shots I made, but I think what I’ve made a conscious effort to do is making sure I remember the times that I had a positive impact on this team.”