Key Returners: Matthew Fisher-Davis, Riley LaChance, Jeff Roberson, Joe Toye, Payton Willis
Key Losses: Luke Kornet, Nolan Cressler
Key Newcomers: Larry Austin, Saben Lee, Ejike Obinna
Postseason Projection: 9-11 seed
Outlook: I tend to gravitate towards certain factors with college basketball teams; chief among these are good coaching and strong guardplay. Vanderbilt appears to have both this season, with Bryce Drew at the helm and a perimeter group that includes returnees Riley LaChance, Payton Willis, and Matthew Fisher-Davis along with Xavier transfer Larry Austin and freshmen Saben Lee and Maxwell Evans. This will be Drew’s second year in the SEC (after 11 seasons either as an assistant or head coach at Valpo), and learning the league can only be helpful for the former NCAA Tournament hero. The backcourt has a nice blend of experience, talent, shooting, and passing, and it should be one of the better units in the conference.
Of course, another of my favorite factors is teams that play intelligent basketball, so it’s hard for me to forget the baffling way the Commodores managed to lose in last year’s NCAA Tournament. My colleague Matt and I stood in horror at a Las Vegas sports bar, Vandy bet slips in hand, watching incredulously as Fisher-Davis fouled Northwestern’s Bryant McIntosh despite being up 66-65 with 14.6 damn seconds left and having no fouls to give. It was like watching Rickon run across the battlefield in Game of Thrones while Ramsay shot arrows at him; you could see the disaster coming before it even happened, despite every person watching screaming, “ZIG-ZAG YOU IDIOT! SERPENTINE PATTERN!” Alas, Rickon took an arrow through the heart, and Vandy lost after McIntosh buried both free throws, leaving the ‘Dores to wonder what might have been if MFD’s head hadn’t been wandering up his own rear.
Aside from sneaky-effective wing Nolan Cressler and center Luke Kornet (an American with an extremely Euro big man game), everyone of substance returns from that squad, meaning hopes are relatively high in Nashville entering this season. Fisher-Davis is the linchpin, a deadeye shooter from deep who exhibited a gigantic usage jump last season (up 9.5% - that’s a ton) while still maintaining a modicum of efficiency. Interestingly, the team’s season turned when Drew decided to bring MFD off the bench following a one-game suspension. After a baffling loss to Mizzou in Fisher-Davis’s first game back, Vandy ripped off wins in 7 of its next 8 games to save its season, including three combined wins over Florida and South Carolina. Drew’s lineup change stabilized the team’s roles, enabling LaChance and Kornet to get comfortable in the game flow before MFD came off the bench firing. With the addition of Austin and Lee, the development of Joe Toye, and that configuration’s success last season, I’m betting that trend continues in 2017-18.
Toye is another reason for major optimism. He’s an athletic forward that can do a little bit of everything, and if he experiences a nice bump in usage and efficiency with Cressler gone, he could be the X-factor in helping Vandy to an even better year than last year. If MFD continues his sixth man exploits, Toye will start next to Jeff Roberson, probably the team’s best and most consistent player. A high-effort forward with considerable athletic tools of his own, he used his quickness edge at the four spot to consistently get to the basket and the free throw line (plus, he can hit open threes).
The loss of Kornet looms large on both ends of the floor. His shooting from the center spot opened up the floor, and he was a smart defender within Drew’s system. Vandy plays largely man-to-man, but Drew will mix in some zone to confuse opponents; Kornet's shot-blocking at the back of either alignment will be difficult to replace. For evidence of Kornet's importance, look no further than the team's Hooplens splits:
The Commodores were a worthy NCAA team with Kornet on the court, but when he needed a breather, Vandy turned into North Carolina A&T, statistically (that is NOT a compliment - they were 349th in the country per KenPom). Djery Baptiste, Clevon Brown, and Ejike Obinna will need to fill the center minutes, with Baptiste and Obinna being more traditional posts and Brown offering an element of floor spacing on offense. Each has some decent upside defensively, but unless one significantly outperforms expectations, Vandy will have a significant dropoff from the “man in the middle.” One interesting possibility – they could go small with Roberson and Toye at the forward spots along with three guards. That would give them more dynamic potential offensively, but the interior defense would suffer, and in Drew’s conservative scheme, rim protection and rebounding are crucial.
Bottom Line: Re-shaping the team’s identity without Kornet’s unique combination of shooting and shot-blocking will be a challenge, but Drew is a good coach and should only get better in his second year in the SEC. The league is stronger around them, but with an excellent perimeter group and some versatile forwards, Vanderbilt should build on last season’s late run - let's just hope Fisher-Davis remembers the score.