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2017-18 SEC Basketball Season Preview: Vanderbilt Commodores

Bryce Drew looks like he’s building something special in Nashville.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Tournament-Florida vs Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt Commodores 2017-18 Season Preview

Head Coach: Bryce Drew (19-16, 1 year; 143-65, 6 years overall)

Last year: 19-16 (10-8 SEC); KenPom rating: 33; lost to Northwestern in first round of NCAA Tournament

Returning starters: 3

Returning possession-minutes: 70.6%

Recruiting class ranking: #51 nationally; #10 in SEC


How Did We Get Here?

It took a while for Vanderbilt to figure things out in 2016-17, but the Commodores eventually did.

Vanderbilt started Bryce Drew’s first season with a blowout loss to Marquette, and a loss to Dayton on December 21 put them at 6-6. Granted, all six losses came against teams that would ultimately play in the NCAA Tournament, though that was little comfort about a home loss to Bucknell and a 23-point loss at Middle Tennessee. And things didn’t get better when SEC play started: after beating LSU and Auburn to open conference play, Vanderbilt dropped four straight and was sitting at 8-10 on the season.

But things started turning around on a road trip to Florida. Vanderbilt beat the Gators, 68-66, though they’d blow a 15-point lead against Arkansas three nights later. They got a big home win over Iowa State and beat Texas A&M on the road. Still, a 20-point road loss to an awful Missouri team on February 11 put the Commodores at 12-13, 5-7 in the SEC, and the season seemed to be over.

Only it wasn’t. Vanderbilt closed the regular season by going 5-1 (the one loss coming by six points in Rupp Arena) and picked up big wins at home over South Carolina and Florida. They’d beat the Gators for a third time in the SEC Tournament, and at 19-15 they set a new record for most losses by an at-large team. Their early schedule certainly helped: while there were a lot of losses, Vanderbilt only dropped a single game to a team outside the KenPom top 100.

Vanderbilt had a short bench by necessity last year: the Commodores only had nine scholarship players available after semester break, and two of those were freshmen who didn’t play much. But late in the season, Bryce Drew got through and turned the Commodores into a legitimately good defensive team.

Now, with Luke Kornet gone, Drew will have to rebuild the defense. The offense, though, should be fine: Vanderbilt is the only team in the SEC with two 1,000-point scorers currently on the team in Matthew Fisher-Davis and Riley LaChance, and a third senior, Jeff Roberson, was also a double-figure scorer and the team’s leading rebounder a year ago. The frontcourt is an unknown, but Bryce Drew’s quotes sound like he’s not afraid to play a guard-heavy lineup. This should be a pretty good team, and if one of a few young big men can step up, it can be better than that.


Backcourt

# Player Height Year Notes
0 Saben Lee 6'2" Fr. #105 recruit
1 Payton Willis 6'4" So. 5.2 ppg/1.9 apg
3 Larry Austin Jr. 6'2" Jr. 1.8 ppg/1.1 apg (Xavier)
5 Matthew Fisher-Davis 6'5" Sr. 13.9 ppg/3.2 rpg
10 Maxwell Evans 6'2" Fr. #244 recruit
13 Riley LaChance 6'2" Sr. 10.5 ppg/3.9 apg
14 Isaiah Rice 5'11" Fr. walk-on

It was a strange year for Matthew Fisher-Davis. The 6-foot-5 senior was rolling along early on, averaging 17.6 ppg through Vanderbilt’s first 14 games, including five 20-point games and a 33-point game against Auburn. He slowed down a bit in SEC play, but even as late as the Ole Miss game on February 4, he was averaging 15.6 points per game.

Then, Fisher-Davis drew a suspension and didn’t travel to the Arkansas game on February 7, which ended up being a 72-59 win. Joe Toye played well enough in his absence that Fisher-Davis never reclaimed his starting job (It didn’t hurt that the team was notably better defensively playing Toye instead of Fisher-Davis).

Fisher-Davis still got minutes, but his play declined: he had four games in a row without scoring in double figures, including getting shut out of the scoring column completely at Kentucky. He did score 22 against Northwestern in the NCAA Tournament, almost single-handedly rallying Vanderbilt back from a 15-point second half deficit, and then practically lost the game with a boneheaded foul in the final minute.

MFD was very good as a sophomore, when he was strictly a shooter, but the transition to being a featured scorer was bumpy. Still, on the season he shot 37.2 percent on threes (though that number dropped to 33.6 percent in SEC play). If he plays a whole season like he did early in 2016-17, this should be fine.

Riley LaChance had his own mystery year as a sophomore, but last year he recovered to show the form he did as a freshman. He shot 48.6 percent from three on the season and picked up a lot of the slack down the stretch when Fisher-Davis was in a slump, averaging 12.1 points over Vanderbilt’s last ten games. The 6-foot-2 senior also spent a lot of time playing the point for Vanderbilt, and while he did decently in that role, he’s much better off the ball.

That happened mostly because Vanderbilt didn’t really have a point guard last year, though unlike Texas A&M the Commodores managed to find an acceptable solution. That shouldn’t be a problem this year. Larry Austin Jr. comes in as a transfer from Xavier, where he averaged 1.8 points and 1.1 assists per game as a sophomore backing up Myles Davis.

The staff is also high on Saben Lee, a 6’2” freshman out of Tempe, Arizona, who was a four-star recruit. Austin seems like the likely starter, but Lee could be impressive enough to get minutes here.

Payton Willis flashed some potential as a true freshman, though his turnover rate (3.6 per 40 minutes) was high and he shot poorly from three-point range (31.2 percent.) In spite of that and shooting nearly 60 percent inside the arc, he attempted more threes than twos, so shot selection may be an issue. But he has the ability to back up both guard spots.

So, too, does freshman Maxwell Evans, a 6-foot-2 combo guard who at the very least will provide depth in the backcourt. Evans posted a strong performance during Vanderbilt’s August trip to the Virgin Islands, suggesting he may be better than his recruiting rankings imply.


Frontcourt

# Player Height Year Notes
2 Joe Toye 6'7" Jr. 6.4 ppg/2.6 rpg
4 Yanni Wetzell 6'10" Jr. sitting out 2017-18
11 Jeff Roberson 6'6" Sr. 10.8 ppg/7.0 rpg
12 Djery Baptiste 6'10" So. 1.8 ppg/1.9 rpg
15 Clevon Brown 6'8" So. 1.6 ppg/1.5 rpg
32 Matt Ryan 6'8" Jr. sitting out 2017-18
50 Ejike Obinna 6'10" Fr. #154 recruit

Jeff Roberson put up an incredible shooting performance as a sophomore. Last year, playing a larger role in Vanderbilt’s offense, the 6-foot-6 senior saw his percentages decline — to 33.9 percent from three and 46.6 percent on twos — but those numbers were still acceptable.

He also started all 35 games and led Vanderbilt with 31.7 minutes per game. Where LaChance and Fisher-Davis are the big scorers in the senior class, Roberson is the glue guy; he led Vanderbilt in rebounds and steals last year while also being its third-leading scorer.

But this year, Bryce Drew might have to play Roberson at center (essentially, to the extent that there are still positions). Vanderbilt has some rather inexperienced options inside. 6-foot-8 sophomore Clevon Brown is the most advanced of the three, and he averaged 7.6 minutes per game last year. Brown and 6-foot-10 sophomore Djery Baptiste, who averaged 7.8 minutes per game, both ended last season with 14 blocks, but Brown is closer to being an acceptable offensive player.

Baptiste managed to average 8.6 fouls per 40 minutes, which will have to come down. Those two will be joined this year by 6-foot-10 freshman Ejike Obinna, who was initially thought to be a redshirt candidate but may end up playing, both by necessity and because he’s closer to being ready to contribute than initially expected.

On the wing, 6-foot-7 junior Joe Toye is an excellent athlete but still needs to figure out just what he is. Toye shows a nice jump shot (40.4 percent from three for his career at Vanderbilt) and also shows the ability to finish at the rim, but can’t seem to put it together for a full season. And yet, Vanderbilt went 8-4 after Toye replaced Matthew Fisher-Davis in the starting lineup in February, largely due to Toye’s superior defensive ability.

Matt Ryan, a transfer from Notre Dame, and Yanni Wetzell, a transfer from Division II St. Mary’s (TX), are both sitting out this season and will be eligible in 2018-19.


Schedule

Date Opponent
11/10 Austin Peay
11/13 at Belmont
11/17 UNC Asheville
11/19 Southern Cal
11/23 vs. Virginia
11/24 NIT Season Tip-Off
11/28 Radford
12/3 Kansas State
12/6 Middle Tennessee
12/17 at Arizona State
12/20 Houston Baptist
12/22 Alcorn State
12/30 at Florida
1/2 Alabama
1/6 at South Carolina
1/9 Tennessee
1/13 Kentucky
1/16 at Mississippi State
1/20 LSU
1/23 at Tennessee
1/27 TCU
1/30 at Kentucky
2/3 at Auburn
2/7 Georgia
2/10 at Arkansas
2/14 Mississippi State
2/17 Florida
2/20 at LSU
2/24 Texas A&M
2/27 Missouri
3/3 at Ole Miss

Last year, Vanderbilt arguably made the NCAA Tournament due to a tough nonconference schedule, and Bryce Drew has scheduled that way again. The Commodores will play seven teams ranked in KenPom’s preseason Top 100 (counting the second game of the NIT Season Tip-Off, which will be against either Rhode Island or Seton Hall), along with a home game against #102 UNC Asheville and a “road” game at #128 Belmont (which is about half a mile from campus, but still).

The only real breathers are the season opener against Austin Peay and home games against Houston Baptist and Alcorn State just before Christmas.

Vanderbilt perennially has one of the toughest conference schedules thanks to two of its permanent rivals being Florida and Kentucky, and if Tennessee gets good again that will be even more brutal. At the very least, though, the other two teams this year are Mississippi State and LSU; having LSU and Tennessee on the schedule twice about balances out Kentucky and Florida.


Outlook

It’s amazing how much a coaching change can alter a fan base’s perception of a season. Had the 2016-17 season occurred on Kevin Stallings’ watch, Vanderbilt fans’ reactions would have been very negative. But in the first year under Bryce Drew, rallying to make the NCAA Tournament after a slow start was viewed positively in most quarters.

Now, the team has to move on from Luke Kornet, who was named First Team All-SEC and is now playing for the New York Knicks. While there’s no obvious replacement for Kornet, the Commodores should be pretty well-set everywhere else.

They’re likely to start three seniors (LaChance, Fisher-Davis, and Roberson), with a redshirt junior (Larry Austin Jr.) starting at the point. Vanderbilt could go small with Joe Toye as the fifth starter, or they could try one of a few young big men inside. They have three freshmen who are pretty talented, but none of the three will be forced into big roles right away unless they prove they can handle it.

That said, this season still has the feel of a transition year. Vanderbilt could have a big signing class on the way in 2018, but even with three senior starters, the team has a big question mark in the paint. That’s probably less of a problem than having question marks in the backcourt (there aren’t any), and at the very least any one of the three youngsters could provide some rim protection.

In any case, Vanderbilt projects to finish in the top half of the SEC and has NCAA Tournament upside again. Of course, we may have yet another debate about a team with a lot of losses being in the tournament conversation with this nonconference schedule.