Life grows tough on the road in the SEC, or any conference, each January. Staying focused on the process and living in the moment becomes critical.
Vanderbilt, led by first-year coach Bryce Drew, dropped its fourth game in a row Tuesday night at Georgia, falling behind by six points in the opening four minutes and double-digits midway through the first half before losing 76-68.
The Bulldogs eliminated Vanderbilt’s best weapon, the 3-point shot, in the first 20 minutes. The Commodores found nowhere else to turn. They dipped to 8-10 after the loss and the first losing season in Drew’s six seasons as a head coach was becoming a real possibility.
The road remained rugged Saturday, with a trip to No. 19 Florida. But, just like that, Vandy responded with the signature victory a coach hopes to secure during his first year in a new job. Knocking off ranked teams builds credit with donors and goodwill with fans.
Matthew Fisher-Davis, who did not start for the first time all season against Georgia, scored 19 points to lead Vandy.
“It’s been a tough stretch,” Drew said after the 68-66 victory in Gainesville. “We have lost a lot of close games. Our guys came out with a lot of energy today in a great environment.”
Remaining in tune with the big picture is important for any coach leading a program through a transition. Even after the disappointing performance against Georgia, the Commodores’ coach found positive aspects to highlight.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Drew said. “A couple of times we could’ve fallen behind 15-20 points and we got it to 10 and had a chance to win. There were points of the game when we caught a good rhythm. When we shoot the ball well, it helps us obviously on the defensive end.”
The coach's comments foretold what would happen over the weekend. Vandy hit 56 percent of its 3s in the second half, made 10 for the game and held below its season efficiency average of 1.10 points per possession.
Drew’s background and family ties have given him the tools to thrive on the sidelines.
Drew replaced Kevin Stallings early last April following a successful five-year run at his alma mater, Valparaiso. At the high major level, recruiting is accelerated. SEC rivals were entertaining juniors and courting freshmen and sophomores last spring. Drew salvaged the class, nothing else. He signed players but neither is making an impact as a freshman. Payton Willis and Clevon Brown combined for 27 minutes and four points against Georgia.
When you consider what Vandy lost off last year’s NCAA tournament team, a 9-10 overall record and 3-4 SEC mark isn’t surprising.
Here’s a trivia question to win a beer off your buddies at the bar: Name the three schools who had the most players selected in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft - Kentucky (of course), Washington and … Vanderbilt each had two apiece.
Wade Baldwin, a 6-4 point guard, went to Memphis with the 17th pick in the first round.
Golden State took 7-foot center Damian Jones with the 30th pick. Baldwin left after two years. Jones left after three years. With them, Vanderbilt might have possessed the talent and experience to challenge the Wildcats for the SEC crown.
Nobody was surprised when they left. It’s difficult to pass up a guaranteed three-year contract worth millions of dollars. But their departure put Drew in a position where the focus must remain on the future for now.
Bright spots have come in different shapes and sizes this season.
They lost to Kentucky by six points which means the Commodores have played the No. 5 Wildcats better than any SEC team at this point. Kentucky beat Texas A&M by 42. Ole Miss by 23. Arkansas by 26. Auburn by 20.
Vandy beat LSU in a high-scoring shootout reminiscent of 80s era Nuggets - Sonics - or any Golden State Warriors game these days. The teams set a conference record for 3-point marksmanship. Vandy hit 16 of 32 from beyond-the-arc, which was the second-best shooting performance in the Maravich Assembly Center. LSU hit 17 of 28, but Vandy won the game 96-89.
For the most part, long-range bombing hasn’t been the problem. The Commodores are connecting on 39 percent entering Tuesday night’s visit from Arkansas. They’ve scored 40.8 percent of their points beyond-the-arc, eighth in the nation. Even on a night when they aren't sharp from the perimeter, they find a way to be productive. Despite a 1-for-9 effort in the first half against UGa, the Commodores still made 10 for the game.
Vanderbilt appears destined to spend the next six weeks scraping and fighting to climb above .500. Drew hopes they show the resolve he loved in the second half against Georgia, which obviously carried over to their performance in front of a hostile crowd at Florida.
This scenario is far removed from the 124-49 record Valpo rolled to in the last five seasons. They made two NCAA tournament appearances and reached the NIT Championship game last year.
At Valpo he replaced his brother Scott (now the coach at No. 6 Baylor), who replaced their dad, Homer.
Bryce Drew was infamous on one SEC campus before he was hired at Vandy last spring, however. He hit, of course, the most famous shot in Valpo history, one replayed hundreds of times each March and considered one of the best buzzer beaters in NCAA tournament history, to lift the Crusaders past the Rebels in the opening round in 1998
A Google search of ‘Bryce Drew Shot’ produces 529,000 results in 0.58 seconds, topped by a YouTube video of his teammates burying him in a dogpile just feet from where he swished the wide open shot on the right wing. His dad designed the beautiful three-quarter court pass and pitch that created the shot, which makes the scene more memorable.
Similar scenes are certain to occur at Vanderbilt during Drew’s tenure. Perhaps this past Saturday offered a glimpse of the moments to come. The road will be smoother, in time.