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Fall Hoops Check-In: Vanderbilt

Basketball season’s not too far away. To get ready for the season we’re checking in with every SEC school. First up, the Vanderbilt Commodores

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Texas A&M vs Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

You may not have noticed due to LSU football rolling to a 6-0 start and Joe Burrow putting every single season school record in his crosshairs, but the college basketball season is less than a month away.

LSU had a successful and tumultuous 2018-19 season. The Tigers won the SEC regular season championship for the first time since 2009 and made it to its first Sweet 16 since 2006. The Tigers’ head coach Will Wade was also suspended from the regular season finale on as he was tied up in a possible pay for play mess which made Dick Vitale go on local radio and yell loudly.

But you knew these things. What we don’t know is what lies in store for the 2019-20 season. So to get us ready for the looming basketball year, I interviewed writers across the conference to get us more familiar with the league. These are running in reverse order of how the teams finished last season, so up first will be the Vanderbilt Commodores and assisting me is Thomas Stephenson over at Anchor of Gold. You can follow him on Twitter at @tcstephenson1.

1. It wasn’t that long ago that you could count on Vanderbilt to provide some depth in the league as far as basketball is concerned. Vanderbilt’s made the NCAA Tournament eight times since 2000 and made it five times this decade. But Vanderbilt just made history in all the wrong ways by being the first team in SEC history to go 0-18 in league play. How did we end up here?

A few things happened, and it really started around 2011 when Kevin Stallings got lazy with his evaluations and recruiting. He did get a good class in 2013, but that was mostly by accident: Damian Jones came for the academics, and Luke Kornet was a questionable take at the time who happened to develop into an All-SEC player (and also a guy who was going to come basically no matter what given that both of his parents went to Vanderbilt.) Then he had Yanni Hufnagel recruiting for him in 2014, but those guys were gone after 2018. His 2015 class was a disaster, particularly when most of the players in that class left, and the 2016 class was his coup de grace, when he took Payton Willis over Carsen Edwards and reportedly decided that Grant Williams (who very much wanted to go to Vanderbilt) was not good enough to play in the SEC. So, bangup job there.

So Bryce Drew was already sort of behind the 8-ball, at least once Stallings’ last good recruiting class worked its way out of the program, but the best recruiting class in school history was supposed to start fixing that. Only one of the 5-stars (Darius Garland), as has been well-documented, was lost for the year in the fifth game of the season, and the other 5-star (Simi Shittu) appeared to be less interested in playing college basketball than Ben Simmons was. With one of the 5-stars gone and the other one gone at least in spirit, the rest of the roster just wasn’t up to snuff -- though it still shouldn’t have gone 0-18. Getting to 0-18 was something that really snowballed, with early efforts not being rewarded in the win column and subsequent efforts getting worse and worse, particularly late in the season as guys decided they were going to move on after the season. It didn’t appear that Drew spent much time making adjustments to win a few games, and somewhere along the way he had forgotten to recruit players other than Garland who could put the ball in the basket.

*Editor’s Note: Thomas would like us to know he’d compare last year’s Vanderbilt team with the Ben Simmons team. Meaning that they shouldn’t have been that bad but were because of “inept coaching and players appearing to quit on the season.”

2. Jerry Stackhouse gets Saban Lee and Aaron Nesmith to start off his coaching tenure, but other than that he’s not inheriting a whole lot to work with. What’s a fair expectation for Stackhouse in year one?

So, the way that Vanderbilt’s nonconference schedule sets up, the Commodores should have the opportunity to pad their record a bit before conference play starts. There are 13 games on the docket and only one of them (an early visit to Richmond, who’s not very good) is a true road game, and only one other (a neutral-site game against Loyola-Chicago) is away from Memorial Gym, and the home schedule basically looks like Vanderbilt found the weakest schedule they could get past the SEC office. And as I implied in the first answer, last year’s team wasn’t really a team that should have gone 0-18 in the SEC. So actually a .500 overall record is a reasonable goal, even if the conference record isn’t very good; in theory, going 11-2 out of conference and then going 5-13 in the SEC gets you there. The latter might feel like a bit of a stretch, but it’s certainly reasonable.

3. Let’s assume Vanderbilt doesn’t repeat last year’s 0-18 in league play feat. Where’s SEC win No. 1 coming from?

It might not take very long. Vanderbilt’s second game on the conference schedule is a home game against Texas A&M, whom I suspect Vanderbilt will be battling for the cellar. For the record, I actually think Vanderbilt’s roster is better than Texas A&M’s, though the Aggies probably win in the coaching department at this point.

4. What are Commodore fans hoping to see from Aaron Nesmith in his sophomore year?

I’d expect Nesmith to become the focal point of the offense, and also to go into the season with that as the expectation (as opposed to last year, where he was coming off the bench to start the season.) I would expect that he’ll shoot better from three than he did in 2018-19; his 82.5 percent free throw shooting suggests that he’s capable of better than the 34 percent he shot from three. With his talent, and with relatively few mouths to feed on the offensive side of the ball, it’s not unreasonable to think his scoring average will approach 20 ppg. At the very minimum he should be averaging 15. It wouldn’t shock me if this is his last year at Vanderbilt, though, as he’s starting to show up on 2020 mock drafts.

5. Ejike Obinna will be back on the floor for Vanderbilt after redshirting during the 2018-19 season. But despite his 6’10” frame, Obinna only blocked two shots in 25 games. How does Obinna fit into the rotation, especially with center Clevon Brown entering his senior season?

The decision to redshirt Ejike Obinna was sort of controversial; Bryce Drew basically said in an interview with Pete Thamel after the season that he could have played Obinna if he thought his job was on the line. (Which was kind of a telling comment, because it suggested that he might not have cared about going winless in the SEC if he thought he would still have his job.) Realistically, Obinna probably should have redshirted in his first year on campus, but that wasn’t in the cards because of a lack of depth. (For the record, Obinna didn’t turn 18 until December of his freshman year, so he was unusually young for a college freshman.) I think Vanderbilt will probably rotate Obinna and Brown in kind of an offense-for-defense setup. Brown is probably the team’s best defender in the paint, but in four years at Vanderbilt he’s never shown much of an offensive game. Obinna showed something of a good offensive game as a freshman even while being very raw, and it’s reasonable to expect that he’s improved on that in his redshirt year, but he may not be the kind of defensive eraser you’d like at the position.