2016-2017 SEC basketball preview: Vanderbilt Commodores
With longtime coach Kevin Stallings out, how far can Bryce Drew take the Commodores in his first year at Vanderbilt?
When the AP preseason poll was released last October for the 2015-2016 season, the second-highest ranked SEC team was Vanderbilt at No. 18.
Needless to say, the Commodores failed to live up to expectations, finishing 19-14 overall with an 11-7 conference record. To make matters worse, they were stunned by the No. 12-seeded Tennessee Volunteers, 67-65, in their first game of the SEC Tournament.
Surprisingly, Vanderbilt still received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, but were promptly rocked by Wichita State in the play-in game to the tune of 20 points.
As a result, longtime coach Kevin Stallings was let go and former Valparaiso head coach Bruce Drew was hired.
The Commodores aren’t ranked heading into this season. However, they do retain a few key pieces and are still considered one of the conference’s strongest teams.
Basketball is increasingly becoming a jump shooting game. Just take a peak at the NBA, where teams like the Golden State Warriors have completely altered how teams compose rosters in order to compete for championships. In fact, look no farther than last year’s championship game between Villanova and North Carolina, where two dramatic three pointers were nailed in the final seconds.
If all else fails, Vanderbilt will be one of the nation’s top three-point shooting teams thanks to the return of Matthew Fisher-Davis and Jeff Roberson. All the sharpshooting combo did was finish first and second in the SEC in three-point shooting percentage. It’s no surprise that, as a result, the Commodores finished second in the SEC in three-point shooting percentage as a team.
As good as Vanderbilt was at shooting the three last season, it was even better at defending it, finishing fourth in the entire nation in three-point field goal percentage allowed (29.4 percent). The team’s ability to potentially dominate the perimeter on both ends of the court is an incredibly valuable asset, especially against the athletes in the SEC.
Uncertainty. With a new head coach and two of the team’s best players (Wade Baldwin and Damian Jones) gone, projections are difficult to make for the Commodores at this moment.
While Drew led Valparaiso to a pair of NCAA tournament appearances —no small accomplishment— nobody is confusing the Horizon League for the SEC. Can he formulate a gameplan worthy of an SEC program? Does he have the ability to lure recruits away from other SEC powers? These questions won’t be answered during the first season, but the foundation is currently under construction.
In addition, with the absence of Baldwin and Jones, multiple players will see their roles increase dramatically. While Vanderbilt still retains plenty of talent from last season’s team, heightened expectations can crush players ill-prepared to tackle a heavier workload.
Players to Watch
G Matthew Fisher-Davis, Jr. — No player in the SEC was better at shooting from beyond the arc than Fisher-Davis. The junior converted on nearly 46 percent of his three-point attempts and took over five per game. Given basketball’s direction, the value of lethal jump shooters has skyrocketed. If Fisher-Davis continues to be a threat from down town, he’ll give the Commodores a chance to win any game.
G Riley LeChance, Jr. — The loss of Baldwin is devastating for Vanderbilt, given he was the conductor of the offense. Now, it’s LeChance’s chance to take on the role as the team’s orchestrator. Last season, LeChance finished second on the team in assists per game. If he can distribute the ball effectively —especially along the perimeter— then the Commodores’ could boast one of the conference’s most dynamic offenses.
F Luke Kornet, Sr. — The preseason second-team All-SEC selection stands at seven-foot-one, but is listed as a forward. Make no mistakes about it, Kornet can move and isn’t afraid to pull the trigger from beyond the arc, averaging three three-point attempts per game last season. However, his real impact will come inside, giving Vanderbilt balance on offense. Kornet finished tenth in the SEC in rebounds per game last season (7.2). With Jones gone, that number will likely increase.
Matchups to watch
Nov. 24 vs Butler — If anything else, Butler is an early season test for a team with new players and a new head coach. The Bulldogs certainly won’t be at the same caliber as Kentucky or Texas A&M will be, but given the program’s history, the Commodores have a chance to deliver a statement win during the early stages of the Drew era.
Jan. 14 vs Tennessee — Vanderbilt University Memorial Gymnasium is only an eight-minute drive from Bridgestone Arena, also known as the scene of the crime from last season’s SEC tournament. Vanderbilt is a significantly better team than Tennessee —they beat the Vols both times by double digits during the regular season last year— but the taste of revenge will be sweet for the Commodores. Vanderbilt also travels to Knoxville on Feb. 22.
Feb. 28 at Kentucky — There’s a reason why Kentucky is routinely crowned the SEC’s top team each preseason. However, with this being a late-season matchup, it’ll be a good indication for how far the team has progressed during Drew’s first season. In addition, conference tournament seeding potentially plays a factor in this contest.
Vanderbilt is predicted to finish sixth in the SEC, which is a fair assessment of the current state of the program. Due to a new coaching regime and a number of players forced to step up into roles they may feel uncomfortable with, the Commodores won’t reach sixth place, but they won’t fall off the face of the Earth either. Instead, they’ll finish smack dab in the middle at seventh.
Edited by Dalton King
Featured image by Craig Bisacre, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics
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