Tuesday night at Memorial Gym didn’t feel like a blowout victory. It didn’t feel like a 120-point performance that flirted with the team’s single-game scoring record.
Instead, it felt quiet. Excitement seemed to escape the crowd on nearly every big moment, and the 8,271 attendance count felt more like just 71. Maybe it was because it was a Tuesday night. Maybe it was because the opponent was Savannah State.
But more than likely, it was because people were taking Darius Garland’s torn meniscus pretty hard.
Perhaps nobody took it harder than Bryce Drew.
“It’s definitely been an emotional roller coaster,” said Drew. “I’ve known his family and I’ve known him for such a long time. First, I’m just crushed for him that he doesn’t get to play when he was playing so well and the team was really getting better in getting to where we wanted to get.”
Freshman guard Aaron Nesmith echoed that sentiment.
“I didn’t believe it at first. I really didn’t,” said Nesmith. “He sent the team a text and I read it and texted him and told him ‘Please tell me this isn’t true.’”
This is a program that built its identity around Garland. The Nashville native was already one of the most popular players in school history before he even stepped on the court. Memorial Gym was never louder than when he would hit a three, or when his name was announced in the starting lineup. He was, for all intents and purposes, the big man on campus, which made his absence on Tuesday seem at best, awkward.
“Our team is very close. You could tell our players were affected because they really cared for him and they want him with us,” said Drew. “I think when he gets back with us on the bench that will help even more when they see him actually physically there cheering with us.”
Drew knows that this injury isn’t something Vanderbilt can easily move past. His team is going to have to undergo a complete shift to counteract the loss of its star floor general, one that many believed was already the best point guard in the nation.
“I don’t think it’s something that’s like we’re over it and ready to move on,” Drew said. “But we know that we have a lot of good players on our team and we know that we have a lot ahead of us and we have to move forward the best that we can and prepare the best that we can. These guys are motivated.”
The Commodores didn’t have a lot of practice in the wake of the injury. Drew said he gave his guys a couple days off before Savannah State, but going into the brutal non-conference gauntlet that is December, he knows that without Garland, his team is going to have to work overtime.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do before the game on Saturday,” said Drew. “Darius gave us a big spurt on that offensive end and we could put up points really quickly. We have the potential to do that but we’re going to have to lock in even more.”
Even as Vanderbilt approaches the toughest part of its nonconference slate, it’s hard to imagine the rest of the season without that “what if” factor. A program looking at its best recruiting class in history watched both its five stars suffer serious knee injuries. Of course, Simi Shittu has fully recovered, but Garland may never don the black and gold again.
Drew knows that, but he has a job ahead of him, and that job isn’t getting easier.
“We gave the guys a couple days off to kind of get away and try to get refocused coming in,” he said. “But now, the clock is ticking.”