For a fleeting moment during halftime of Wednesday night’s game against South Carolina, there was reason to be hopeful again about this Vanderbilt Commodores basketball team.
Aaron Nesmith had found his shooting stroke, as he scored 16 points in the first half and ended up with a career high 23 points, Simi Shittu was bullying his way to the basket and earning trips to the free throw line, and the Commodore defense held South Carolina to 33% shooting.
But as the lead slipped away in the second half for this team’s worst loss since Darius Garland’s crushing knee injury, it became harder and harder to believe that this team has legitimate promise. As fans filed out of Memorial Gym, there was a sense of doom after the Vanderbilt’s first-ever 0-4 start in SEC play.
“I’m sure you guys are saying the same thing that I’m saying right now,” head coach Bryce Drew said. “How in the world did we lose that game? That was a game we should have won, that was our game to win.”
While the first four games of the SEC were not all too encouraging, what should be more discouraging is what lies ahead. Over the next four games, Vanderbilt will play four ranked games: Mississippi State, Tennessee, at Oklahoma, and Kentucky. They will not be favored in any of those games, and it should not come as a surprise if two weeks from now the Commodores sit at 0-7 in the SEC and 9-11 overall. For a team with so much promise heading into the season, this is a tough reality to face.
Even as the losses start piling up, there are still reasons to keep watching the Commodores, mainly the development of Nesmith and Shittu, the latter who seems increasingly likely to return given the lack of national attention Vanderbilt will be receiving as the season slips away.
As frustrating as it can be for the fans, it’s just as frustrating, if not more frustrating, to the players themselves.
“Me and Simi, we’re not losers,” Nesmith said. “We’re natural-born winners. At some point this season, we’ll turn it around and start winning games back-to-back-to-back. We don’t take losing lightly. A change is going to happen and it’s going to come pretty soon.”
For Nesmith, there are glimpses in each game of his improvement. At the beginning of the season, Nesmith was a sparkplug off the bench, but tonight’s game he flashed potential knocking down threes both as a spot up shooter and, more impressively, coming off of screens.
Shittu’s progress has been less linear throughout the year, although it should be noted that Shittu had a prolonged absence coming into this season following knee surgery, which could be impacting his lack of consistency. At times, Shittu seems unable to adjust to no longer simply being able to overpower his defender.
He careens into the lane uncontrollably, leading to careless turnovers and offensive fouls, but at the same time he shows great passing skills and is a force inside the paint. Undoubtedly, the loss of a playmaker of Garland’s caliber has limited Shittu’s ability to display his talent within the pick and roll, which Drew seldom turned to in tonight’s game.
However, that doesn’t mean that the coaching staff doesn’t see a road to success for this team despite all the struggles.
“We’re all upset, we had multiple guys crying in there, and we’re not going to coddle them,” Drew said. “We’re going to keep working at it and we believe in all of them that we can win these games and we should win these games. We’re going to push them but we’re going to push them while believing in them.”
Drew has yet to really be tested as a player developer. Saben Lee was his only highly-talented recruit in 2017, yet Lee has shown little improvement in his second season. His shot is still his biggest weakness and he does not seem able to carry the burden of being a lead guard in the absence of Garland.
After recruiting Garland, Shittu, and Nesmith, Drew’s recruiting prowess cannot be questioned. However, Commodore fans should track the development of Lee, Nesmith, and Shittu throughout the rest of this season and into next year because how these players develop over time will answer the questions that will undoubtedly arise throughout the rest of this season as to whether Drew can recruit and coach.