Bryce Drew is closer to fulfilling a big promise he made when he was hired last year to turn the Vanderbilt basketball program around: a trip to the Final Four, a first for the Commodores.
Now, with just the SEC conference tournament left to play, Vanderbilt sits at 17-14 overall, 10-8 in the SEC. Not an overly impressive record, but the Commodores closed out the season by winning nine of their final 13 games, including a 73-71 upset over No. 12 Florida on March 4. In fact, it was a clean season sweep of the Gators for Drew’s squad this year, which might be just enough to catch the corner of the NCAA Tournament Committee’s eye.
“Vanderbilt was more poised,” Florida coach Mike White said after the game. “They were more solid both offensively and defensively. They made better decisions. Two veteran teams, they played like a veteran team. We didn’t play enough like one. They were terrific.”
With the win against the Gators, Vandy improved to 3-2 this season against Top-25 opponents and 2-1 against ranked teams at Memorial Gym.
Prior to Saturday’s win over Florida, the Commodores came extremely close to upsetting first-place Kentucky in the Wildcats’ own house. And Kentucky coach John Calipari had only kind things to say about Vandy after that bout.
“We played a team that, again, is playing out of their minds right now,” said Calipari. “That’s an NCAA tournament team. I don’t care what you say. They’ve got the number one schedule in the country. The number one schedule in the country. They’ve got us and they’ve got another game with Florida, and that will be the number one schedule. They were number two before today. I imagine they’ll be number one now.”
Vanderbilt held the Cats to just 24 points in the first half, the fewest points UK scored in any half this season. Kentucky shot 31 percent from the field in that first half (9-29) and just 20 percent from 3-point land (2-10). Yes, Vanderbilt ultimately blew a 19-point lead and gave the Wildcats their biggest comeback win in the Calipari era and the biggest since 1997, which showcased a mental lapse. But the talent and ability is there.
The new-look Commodores have been diligently following Coach Drew’s game plan: free-flowing offense combined with a more hands-on, suffocating defensive approach. The switch from zone defense to man-to-man was not an easy one, but it yielded the results Drew was looking for.
Vanderbilt held its opponents to 69 points per game, 42.6 percent from the field and 34.4 from beyond the arc on the season. Offensively, they are led by junior Matthew Fisher-Davis, who averages 14 points per game and senior Luke Kornet, who averages 13.8 points per game, 6.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks. He also has a team-high 64 swats.
Kornet is the all-time NCAA leader for threes made by a seven-footer (148) and is only one block shy of tying the Commodores’ all-time blocks record of 204 held by former Vanderbilt player Festus Ezeli. He was recognized as SEC Player of the Week for his performances at Kentucky and against Florida.
All of these numbers and honors are wonderful, but if the Commodores don’t make the tournament, it will still feel like the same old team—even though it is far from it.
“If we had 20 (wins) right now, I’d feel really good,” Drew said in an interview for the VU website, “but obviously we don’t. We can only control what we can control. These last 10 or 11 games, we’ve played almost as well as anyone in the country.”
All that is on any Vanderbilt fan’s mind now is the tournament and whether or not the Commodores will get an at-large bid—hoping that the Commodores’ strength of schedule, the toughest in the country, will speak to those behind the brackets.
“Now, they’ve got to finish… they’ve got the tournament,” preached Calipari after Kentucky’s comeback against Vanderbilt. “They’ve got chances. But the committee all wants us to play good schedules. Well, they played the best.”
Seeded seventh, the Commodores face 10-seed Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament on Thursday.
But beyond the madness, lies a bigger plan. Yes, Drew made a promise to make it through March, but what fans should focus on isn’t Drew’s words but rather his actions. Drew preaches unselfish play; he relishes low-star guys with a blue-collar work ethic. If his previous success at Valparaiso is any indication, he will build his Vanderbilt program the way Mike Montgomery built his at Stanford in the 90’s and early 2000’s: by being fundamentally sound, mentally tough and investing in the kind of guys you can trust.
One thing that will remain the same: shooting. The man behind “The Shot” moniker is certain to maintain one of the most beloved, if not mostly inconsequential, streaks in program history: a made 3-point field goal in every game.
Vanderbilt is one of only three teams to make a shot beyond the arc in every game since the rule was implemented in the 1986-87 season, per Wikipedia. This piece of history is confirmed by KenPom.com, which dubs it one of the most boring records in sports. But a record it remains.
So maybe your Vanderbilt team has something in common with your dad’s squad after all.
Sports writer. Avid fan, former player, once-upon-a-time coach, reluctant referee. I do digital media things with my friends. I also jinx kickers. Bay Area born & raised.