Vanderbilt Can’t Live In A World Of Regrets

Darn, why didn’t we hire Will Wade or Kermit Davis instead of Bryce Drew?

Shucks. Arkansas might be able to find a new coach pretty soon. And look at Mississippi State improving its program.

By Matt Zemek

It is very easy to live in a world of regrets and could haves and should haves if you are a Vanderbilt basketball fan right now. It is so accessible, so proximate, so undeniably planted right in front of your face: There are so many ways the past few seasons could have been different. If only we had gotten the right guy. If only this injury hadn’t occurred.

If only we hadn’t blown that late six-point lead against Tennessee, and if only some very absurd calls had not gone against us. If only Arkansas hadn’t hit that late three in Bud Walton Arena. On and on we go.

It’s easy… but in a time of great difficulty — a time which is not expected to get any more comfortable anytime soon, especially with a trip to Knoxville coming up — that inclination has to be resisted.

First of all, you can’t look at what Will Wade did at VCU and say it was a slam-dunk to hire him. LSU was taking a chance, but there was reason to think the move might work. In December, no one expected LSU to rocket to the top of the SEC standings and win in Rupp Arena. This all changed very quickly, and it was made possible in part by LSU getting a gift from Missouri in the final 2:14 of that 14-point comeback in late January. If that game hadn’t unfolded the way it did, I’m not sure LSU would have felt bulletproof enough to slug it out with Kentucky the way it did. LSU used that Missouri escape to put on the armor of a team which believes in itself to a degree other SEC teams haven’t been able to match (other than UK and Tennessee, of course). The Tigers are 3-0 in overtime and just don’t get rattled late in SEC games. Wade had them prepared for Kentucky, but at so many other points along the way, LSU needed help to get through a difficult situation. It is the perpendicular opposite of Vanderbilt, at the other end of the SEC spectrum this season. Yes, there is a lot more talent on LSU’s roster, but these two seasons — LSU’s and Vandy’s — could easily be four games different. This doesn’t mean Wade is overrated or that Drew is just about to bust through. It DOES mean that even an immensely successful season can have a fragile undercurrent. It also means that putting together consecutive big seasons is a much fuller measure of coaching acumen, and we’ll have to wait a year to see what happens in that regard.

Don’t live in a world of regrets.

As for Kermit Davis, look at the team he inherited. Breein Tyree makes life a lot easier for a first-year coach, and Davis has been able to integrate other players into the rotation around him. Tyree is the centerpiece player Vanderbilt was going to have in Darius Garland, but Garland got hurt. Tyree did not. Drew has not been able to coax more quality performances out of Simi Shittu, Joe Toye, or Saben Lee. More precisely, Drew has not been able to get those three players to play well at the same time in the same game. Getting merely TWO of those three to play well in the same game has been a challenge. Drew cannot be viewed favorably through that lens. Yet, Kermit Davis shows what can happen when the centerpiece player is there to hold together the supporting cast.

Ben Howland finally appears to have Mississippi State headed to the NCAAs, but this was no quick fix. It took several seasons for Howland to get to this point, so the idea that this was a wave of the magic wand is not worth taking seriously. Maybe with Kermit in Oxford, but not with Howland in Starkville. The SEC has upgraded its coaching stock the past few years, and while Howland was a good hire, it wasn’t a rock-star hire which has led to phenomenal results. It is paying off, but the Bulldogs had to travel a long road to get to this improved vantage point.

For another perspective on Vanderbilt’s troubles — and the need to not get caught up in should have dones or might have beens — consider the team Vanderbilt and Drew lost to in the NCAA Tournament two very short (or is it very long?) years ago.

When Vanderbilt and Northwestern played in Salt Lake City in that 9-versus-8 game in 2017, both programs’ fan bases were giddy with excitement — not just for that game, but for the future… and they had reason to be. Two young coaches, both the sons of famous coaching fathers, had struck it rich early in their tenures at their respective programs. Drew guiding VU to the Dance in his first season was a terrific accomplishment. Chris Collins leading Northwestern to its first-EVER NCAA Tournament made him a college basketball immortal. He will always be remembered for one thing above all else. It was natural to think that breaking through in a Chicagoland program would get high-end recruits banging on Collins’ door.

Look where we are now.

No one needs to explain the Vanderbilt situation to a Vanderbilt audience, but what about Northwestern? The Wildcats, a lot like VU, simply can’t shoot. They simply can’t score. They simply can’t create instant offense. NU fans are fed up with Collins, just two years after achieving the goal they pursued and dreamed about for decades.

It’s not just Vanderbilt. It’s many places. The frustrations being felt are real. They shouldn’t be dismissed. Yet, the churn and turmoil involved in building a consistent winner are profound forces which can’t easily be turned aside. Will Wade and Kermit Davis are making it look easy, but one season’s joys can become the next year’s misery.

Look at South Carolina, where the 2017 Final Four (something Vanderbilt fans would give an arm and a leg for, just once) hasn’t translated to sustained prosperity. It probably will lead to a strong 2020 season for the Gamecocks, but we’re about to have two straight years without an NCAA Tournament in Columbia.

Even when the going was great, the going doesn’t necessarily stay great.

It’s not fun. It’s not thrilling… but be patient, and don’t live in a world of regrets.

Maybe next year. Not now.

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