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Vanderbilt has some question marks, but shouldn’t fall off too much

The Commodores lose Damian Jones and Wade Baldwin but still could make a return trip to the tournament.

NCAA Basketball: Texas A&M at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

How Did We Get Here?

Kevin Stallings did the yeoman’s work of turning Vanderbilt into one of the more consistently respectable basketball programs in the SEC, but Vanderbilt fans had grown weary of the longtime coach. After making the NCAA Tournament five times in six years from 2007-12 — yet having a 3-5 record in the dance in spite of never being seeded lower than sixth — Vanderbilt’s program entered a rebuilding phase in 2012-13 that was exacerbated by a spate of departures after that season. Yet a surprisingly solid season in 2014-15, and the loss of just one starter off that season, led to high expectations for 2015-16.

Those expectations weren’t met. Vanderbilt scuffled to a 19-14 record, and the way the season ended — with a no-show in an SEC Tournament loss to Tennessee followed by a thrashing at the hands of Wichita State in the NCAA Tournament’s opening round -- had Vanderbilt fans clamoring for a change. Stallings, though, saved Vanderbilt from having to make a difficult decision about the school’s all-time winningest basketball coach when he showed himself the exit, taking the Pitt job at the end of March.

After a weeklong search, Vanderbilt scored a coup when it hired Bryce Drew away from Valparaiso. In five years at Valpo, Drew won 124 games and made the NCAA Tournament twice, and after getting snubbed for an at-large bid in 2016, he led his team to the finals of the NIT. It’s hard to think of two more different personalities. Stallings was an offensive mind who frequently seemed reserved; Drew is an outgoing personality and a defense-first head coach (his last Valpo team finished 8th in the country in defensive efficiency per KenPom.com).

And Drew inherits a team that’s already pretty good at defense. The Commodores ranked 23rd in the country in defensive efficiency — and 5th in the SEC -- last year in spite of Stallings’ reputation as an offense-first head coach. Vanderbilt ranked 2nd in the SEC in opponents’ effective field goal percentage and third in defensive rebounding — though they ranked last in the conference in turnovers forced. Now, that team (or most of it, anyway) gets paired with a coach whose team finished 8th in the country in defensive effective FG percentage and 11th in defensive rebounding.

Offense was a different matter: while the Commodores ranked 3rd in the SEC in offensive efficiency, almost all of that was tied to shooting percentages. Vanderbilt ranked second in the SEC in effective field goal percentage, and that was coming both from the inside (49.6 percent on two-pointers) and the outside (38.3 percent on threes). But Vanderbilt ranked 12th in the conference in offensive rebounding, and eighth in turnovers. That meant that the Commodores were much more dependent than most on getting shots to fall; when they weren’t, like in the Wichita State game in the Tournament (when Vanderbilt shot 30 percent from the floor, including 3-of-19 from three), things could get ugly. And depending so much on hitting jumpers meant that the Commodores could be incredibly inconsistent.

Vanderbilt did lose a pair of players who were drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft in June, but it’s easy to overstate just how much the Commodores are losing in Wade Baldwin IV and Damian Jones. Vanderbilt returns 64 percent of its minutes from last year, including seven of its top 10 players, and also returns 57 percent of its scoring.

To be sure, Baldwin and Jones were good players, but Vanderbilt still has a defensive stopper in the paint and also returns two incredibly efficient role players who will be asked to play bigger roles this year. To some degree, the people projecting a significant dropoff from last year may be overstating the impact of the two stars -- but also might be understating the impact of the returning players.

In short, Stallings didn’t leave a bare cupboard here: in addition to the returning starters, Vanderbilt also has three players from the 2015 and 2016 recruiting classes who ranked in the top 150 nationally. The easy response to a 19-14 team that lost a pair of NBA first-rounders is to project a big dropoff, but that’s probably not going to happen.

In fact, the end result could be similar to last year. Vanderbilt ranked 4th in the conference in a poll of TSK contributors, with a high of 2nd and a low of 6th. Bryce Drew should have a good enough team to contend for a NCAA Tournament bid in his first year.

Backcourt

# Player Height Weight Year 247 Rating MPG PPG RPG APG TPG SPG WS Notes
Wade Baldwin IV 30.4 14.1 4.0 5.2 2.8 1.2 4.5 Declared for NBA Draft
Carter Josephs 4.7 0.2 0.3 0.8 0.3 0.1 0.1
5 Matthew Fisher-Davis 6'5" 185 JR. 0.9321 27.4 9.7 3.6 1.1 0.8 0.5 3.0
13 Riley LaChance 6'2" 192 JR. 0.9209 24.8 6.9 2.4 2.5 1.3 0.6 1.6
24 Nolan Cressler 6'4" 210 SR. NR 12.3 4.8 2.2 0.8 0.7 0.1 0.9
0 Camron Justice 6'3" 180 SO. 0.8956 9.9 3.4 1.0 0.3 0.5 0.3 0.6
1 Payton Willis 6'4" 182 FR. 0.9000
14 Larry Austin Jr. 6'2" 175 JR. 0.9076 Transfer (Xavier); sitting out 2016-17

In Matthew Fisher-Davis, Vanderbilt has not only one of the SEC’s best shooters, but one of the country’s best. The 6’5” junior from Charlotte shot 44.6 percent on three-pointers in 2015-16, and attempted 5.5 threes per game. In SEC play, Fisher-Davis ranked third in the SEC in effective field goal percentage.

Now, the question is where Fisher-Davis can become more of an all-around contributor rather than just a three-point gunner. The last two years, Fisher-Davis had Baldwin and Jones drawing the attention of the defense; but unless somebody else steps up, Fisher-Davis will be one of the focal points of the offense in 2016-17. It’s not clear whether he can deal with the attention from defenses when he’s not the third or fourth option on offense.

It’s also an open question who Vanderbilt’s point guard is; Riley LaChance will get the first crack after a mysterious sophomore year. The 6’2” junior from Brookfield, Wisconsin, went from averaging 12.3 ppg as a freshman to 6.9 as a sophomore. Some of that had to do with playing, and shooting, less, but LaChance’s effective field goal percentage cratered from 53.4 percent as a freshman to 44.7 percent as a sophomore. Much of that, oddly, had to do with his two-point percentage dropping from 49.4 percent to 34 percent; his 3-point percentage barely changed. But the decline in his free throw percentage — from 87 percent as a freshman to 76.5 percent as a sophomore — suggests that there may have been some issues with his confidence. It got to the point that LaChance was the player that Ben Howland elected to put at the foul line late in a loss at Mississippi State.

Still, it would take Vanderbilt a long way if LaChance can regain his freshman year form, because Vanderbilt doesn’t have a whole lot of other options in the backcourt. It was telling that even with LaChance’s struggles, Stallings continued to play him well into February. Nolan Cressler, a 6’4” senior from Pittsburgh, did not have a great year in his first season with the Commodores after transferring from Cornell. Cressler had a reputation as a shooter coming in, but shot just 27.4 percent from three and 52.2 percent at the foul line (albeit in a limited number of attempts), and was also something of a defensive liability. Cressler could be a valuable bench player if he can get his jump shot to start falling, but his defense probably limits him to a sixth-man role.

In Camron Justice’s case, a groin injury that nagged him for most of the season probably prevented him from playing more minutes. The 6’3” sophomore from Hindman, Kentucky, finished his high school career as the third all-time leading scorer in Kentucky (it helped that he played five years), and Kevin Stallings called him one of the best shooters he’s ever coached. But Justice struggled to find a rhythm as a freshman, though he did shoot 38.9 percent from three in limited playing time. After surgery in the offseason, Justice could be ready to be a contributor in 2016-17, though he’ll probably come off the bench behind Fisher-Davis.

Freshman Payton Willis is a 6’4” combo guard out of Fayetteville, Arkansas, who was recruited by Stallings to play the point, but Drew may have different ideas for him; Willis is also a good shooter and could spend more time at the two. It’s telling that Drew brought in Larry Austin Jr. (a transfer from Xavier who’s sitting out this year) as well as two point guards in the class of 2017, suggesting that Drew doesn’t really see Willis’s future being at the point. But his shooting could make him a valuable backup for Vanderbilt as a freshman.

Frontcourt

# Player Height Weight Year 247 Rating MPG PPG RPG APG TPG BPG WS Notes
Damian Jones 26.2 13.9 6.9 1.2 2.0 1.6 3.8 Declared for NBA Draft
Josh Henderson 10.2 3.5 2.2 0.6 0.7 0.4 1.0
Samir Sehic 4.7 1.2 1.4 0.2 0.1 0.0 0.4 Transfer (Tulane)
3 Luke Kornet 7'1" 250 SR. 0.8100 27.4 8.9 7.3 1.5 1.1 3.0 2.9
11 Jeff Roberson 6'6" 224 JR. 0.8265 26.8 9.3 5.6 1.2 1.1 0.2 3.8
2 Joe Toye 6'7" 208 SO. 0.9135 8.6 3.6 1.2 0.3 0.4 0.1 0.9
12 Djery Baptiste 6'10" 240 FR. 0.8766 Redshirted 2015-16
15 Clevon Brown 6'8" 219 FR. 0.9246

Luke Kornet’s progression in three years at Vanderbilt has been pretty incredible. Lightly-recruited out of high school (Kornet grew from 6’3” to 6’10” during his senior year, and grew three more inches after arriving at Vanderbilt), Kornet was overmatched in the paint as a freshman. As a sophomore, his jump shot came along, and while he fell off a bit on the offensive end as a junior, Kornet emerged as one of the SEC’s best defenders in 2015-16. He led the SEC in blocked shots in spite of missing five games with a knee injury.

Now as a senior, Kornet will be the leader of this team and gives Vanderbilt a nice cushion on the defensive end. If he can stay healthy — which has been a problem for Kornet; aside from missing time with the knee injury last year, he was limited in the offseason after undergoing foot surgery — he could be an All-SEC player.

Vanderbilt has some talent alongside Kornet as well. Jeff Roberson, a 6’6” junior from Houston, is capable of playing both forward spots and was an incredibly efficient role player a year ago. Roberson shot 43.5 percent on threes and 83.3 percent at the foul line as a sophomore, and was the second most-efficient offensive player (behind Derek Willis) in SEC play. But like Fisher-Davis in the backcourt, Roberson will be playing a bigger role in the offense, and how he adjusts to being a player that defenses are keying on is an open question. If that transition goes smoothly, Roberson is a potential All-SEC player.

Of course, Roberson might not have to do so much if Joe Toye can deliver on his potential. The 6’7” sophomore from Chicago was lightly used for much of the season, but played 49 minutes total and scored 10 points in each of Vanderbilt’s last two games of the season (the SEC Tournament loss to Tennessee and the NCAA Tournament loss to Wichita State). Now, Toye should be a starter as a sophomore and his length and athleticism could make him a plus defender. He actually shot well (52.8 percent on twos, 42.9 percent on threes) in limited playing time as a freshman.

The combination of Kornet, Roberson, and Toye could give Vanderbilt a good frontcourt, but there’s not much depth. Djery Baptiste has an SEC-ready body at 6’10” and 240 pounds, but his lack of development led to a redshirt year in his first year on campus. That said, Vanderbilt really only needs Baptiste to give them 10-15 minutes a night spelling Luke Kornet, and if he can provide some defense and rebounding, any offensive contributions in that role will be a bonus. The other player off the bench is another freshman, Clevon Brown. Brown was rated as a four-star recruit, and Bryce Drew might have done his best recruiting job to date by getting him to stay in the fold after Kevin Stallings left. Brown should give Vanderbilt quality minutes off the bench but don’t expect much more than that. And with so little depth in the frontcourt, Vanderbilt may be using a lot of smaller lineups this year.

Schedule

Date Opponent Time (CT) TV
11/11 vs. Marquette (Annapolis, MD) 5:30 PM CBS Sports Network
11/15 Belmont 8:00 PM SEC Network
11/18 Norfolk State 7:00 PM SEC Network+
11/21 Bucknell 8:00 PM SEC Network
11/24 to 25 Las Vegas Invitational
11/29 Tennessee State 7:00 PM SEC Network+
12/3 vs. Minnesota (Sioux Falls, SD) 7:00 PM ESPN3
12/6 High Point 7:00 PM SEC Network+
12/8 at Middle Tennessee State 6:30 PM CBS Sports Network
12/17 Chattanooga 7:30 PM SEC Network
12/21 at Dayton 6:00 PM TimeWarner SportsChannel
12/29 at LSU 8:00 PM ESPNU
1/4 Auburn 6:00 PM SEC Network
1/7 at Alabama 6:00 PM ESPNU
1/10 Kentucky 6:00 PM ESPN
1/14 Tennessee 7:30 PM SEC Network
1/17 at Georgia 8:00 PM ESPNU
1/21 at Florida 11:00 AM CBS
1/24 Arkansas 7:30 PM SEC Network
1/28 Iowa State 3:00 PM ESPN2
1/31 at Texas A&M 8:00 PM ESPNU
2/4 Ole Miss 2:00 PM ESPNU
2/7 at Arkansas 7:30 PM SEC Network
2/11 at Missouri 2:30 PM SEC Network
2/16 Texas A&M 6:00 PM ESPN or ESPN2
2/18 South Carolina 7:30 PM SEC Network
2/22 at Tennessee 5:30 PM SEC Network
2/25 Mississippi State 3:00 PM ESPNU
2/28 at Kentucky 8:00 PM ESPN
3/4 Florida 1:00 PM ESPN or ESPN2

Vanderbilt’s nonconference schedule is sneaky tough: It’s light on “name” opponents (the biggest name is either Butler or Iowa State, though the Commodores could face Arizona in the Las Vegas Invitational), but the slate features five teams that made last year’s NCAA Tournament (not including Arizona) and three more that made the NIT, plus a Marquette team that’s in Ken Pomeroy’s preseason top 50. This is the kind of schedule that the RPI likes: There are a couple of true road games and four neutral-site games, and there aren’t many truly awful teams on the slate — Norfolk State, which finished second in the MEAC last year, is about as bad as it gets.

In conference play, too, Vanderbilt plays Kentucky, Florida, Texas A&M, and Arkansas twice each. If you haven’t figured out by now, the first three of those are projected as the SEC’s three best teams, and Arkansas should be pretty good as well. This is a tough schedule that should do Vanderbilt a lot of favors if they’re on the bubble.

Outlook

After 17 years, Vanderbilt needed to move on from Kevin Stallings, and in Bryce Drew they made about as good of a hire as they possibly could have. Drew, like Mike White at Florida, flew a bit under the radar largely because he hadn’t made a big NCAA Tournament run at Valpo, but he won 72 percent of his games over a five-year stretch, including a 65-19 record in conference play.

Vanderbilt probably won’t win 77 percent of its conference games this year (that would equate to a 14-4 record), but the pieces are there for the Commodores to contend for a NCAA Tournament bid in Drew’s first year. The starting five — likely consisting of LaChance, Fisher-Davis, Toye, Roberson, and Kornet — could be pretty solid, particularly if LaChance returns to his freshman year form and Toye lives up to his potential.

That said, the depth is a question mark; Vanderbilt only has ten scholarship players available (with Larry Austin sitting out) and the frontcourt looks especially thin, and none of the five players projected to come off the bench have proven that they can be contributors on an SEC team. Even LaChance and Toye are question marks, and while having Kornet, Fisher-Davis, and Roberson as your three best players is a good start, there are just too many question marks to say this is a sure NCAA Tournament team. The most likely outcome is that Vanderbilt will hang around the bubble for most of January and February, and the good news is that the schedule will probably inflate their RPI — which could leave Vanderbilt on the good side of the cut line in the end. On the other hand, if Luke Kornet isn’t healthy, this team could be in a lot of trouble. But this should still be a team that finishes in the upper half of the SEC standings.