There is no way to sugarcoat Vanderbilt’s 2019 SEC basketball season itself. This is pure misery. Another week has come and gone, and another pair of losses have appeared on the ledger sheet. Vanderbilt came agonizingly close to winning at Arkansas, giving up an open 3-pointer in the final seconds to lose in Bud Walton Arena.
By Matt Zemek
Then the Commodores made a gallant rally against Alabama but dug themselves too deep a hole to complete a comeback on Saturday night. More losing. More helplessness. More disappointment at not being able to get a single SEC win this season.
It’s not as though teams 9-13 in the SEC are that great. The league is very, very good this season, but it is not going to get 10 or 11 NCAA Tournament bids as some had either thought (myself) or hoped (fans throughout the conference) at the beginning of the campaign in November. Keep in mind that the NCAA Tournament bubble is very, very weak right now. An Indiana team which is 4-9 in the Big Ten is right on the bubble, neither in good shape nor out of the mix. The SEC’s lower tier figured to be better than that, but it isn’t… and yet Vanderbilt still can’t get one win. That is a profound failure, even with Darius Garland out. Only so much of this team’s struggles can be assigned to that injury. It obviously destroyed VU’s NCAA Tournament chances — I don’t think many people would dispute that particular point — but the idea that this team needed Garland to win ANY SEC games this season is going overboard.
Sure, Garland was the linchpin of this team and especially the offense, but Saben Lee and Joe Toye are solid players. Surely Vanderbilt can find a way to beat a few opponents which have not established much of any consistency this season. Arkansas was — and is — one such example. That we’re still here on February 11 without one SEC win is enormously frustrating for everyone involved with Vanderbilt men’s basketball. Again, you can’t sugarcoat a season like this.
One can, however, look at another SEC basketball program and say that it is in a worse spot than VU right now.
What? One such program exists? I think so, as hard as that might be to believe.
Go to Athens, Georgia, for the answer.
Say this much about Vanderbilt head coach Bryce Drew: In a season in which his young team is simply struggling to master the basics of execution, he understands the art of being delicate and indirect in describing his players’ uphill climb. After the Arkansas loss, Drew said, “This has been a tough stretch, a tough stretch for a lot of reasons. Three of these games, in the last 1:30, just every break has gone against us.”
That might be true, but Vanderbilt committed seven charges — SEVEN! — in that game against Arkansas. I know referees struggle with block-charge calls, but even if one was to say that four of those block-charge calls were wrong, it still would have meant that Vanderbilt committed three charges. That is too many in a single game. Drew could have thrown his players under the bus, but he didn’t.
In a January 20 story, Drew told Adam Sparks of The Tennessean, “As a coach, I’m not going to quit talking Xs and Os and execution to them until we get it right,” Drew said. “We will keep going over and over it again until we can pick it up and be more successful at it.”
On the things Drew says to his team during in-game timeouts, the coach remarked that “A lot is just reminders of what we practiced, just simple things. Unfortunately, I can’t create any drills or anything in practice that equals experience. So a lot of times we do it well in practice, and then you get into a game and it’s usually the underclassmen that just don’t make the simple play that we practiced.”
That is a patient and professional way of describing the growing pains involved in coaching a young team. That’s how a coach should speak about a frustrating season. Drew knows his team is dealing with the process of learning how to develop skills and qualities which will translate to victories in the future — hopefully in the next month, realistically next season.
Tom Crean, on the other hand, isn’t handling that challenge very well at all, despite his many years of experience in this profession and a Final Four appearance on his resume as the coach of Marquette (and Dwyane Wade) in 2003.
This is what Crean said after his Georgia team lost at home to Ole Miss on Saturday, in remarks which have circulated throughout the SEC community:
“It’s all on me, because I’m the one who decided to keep these guys,” Crean said about a first-year roster he inherited from Mark Fox. “It’s all on me, and I get it. Because the last thing I can do, with making decisions, on keeping guys in the program in the spring, is [to] get overly mad at them because I’m the one who made the decision. So I live with that every day.
“And it doesn’t mean that they’re not great kids, but very few programs, when there’s a takeover, okay, when you [have] guys who haven’t done it at any point really in their career, a lot of those guys, they move on. That’s what happens when there’s a job change. And I didn’t do that. And so I’m not going to complain. And we’ve just got to do everything we can to fix it.”
It is remarkable that a first-year coach would blame first-year players this emotionally and vigorously. Drew — if he wanted to — could have thrown his players under the bus, given that this is his third season in Nashville, but he didn’t. Crean is attacking players he INHERITED? That’s utter insanity.
I don’t think Vanderbilt fans should feel “good” about this, but this story offers the simple point that for as bad as this season has been, it could actually be worse.
Vanderbilt could be Georgia.
Take the small bread crumb of perspective when you can get it.