By Zac Ellis
SALT LAKE CITY – At Vanderbilt’s postgame NCAA Tournament press conference on Thursday, Bryce Drew was asked what his team could have done better during his first season as head coach. As he answered, Drew couldn’t help but smile.
“You know, I think how we played the last three or four weeks, I wish we could have done that back in November,” Drew joked. “That would have been great.”
The final stretch of the Commodores’ season was perhaps their best in Drew’s first year in Nashville. But in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Vanderbilt wasn’t able to extend that ride. The 9-seed ‘Dores fell to 8-seed Northwestern, 68-66, on Thursday in Salt Lake City, and it happened in heartbreaking fashion.
But if Vanderbilt’s season-long evolution under Drew proved anything, it’s that Commodore fans should grow accustomed to more tournament appearances in the future.
“I think the whole team sees where we were to where we are now,” Drew said. “We don't want the season to end. I think that's a good sign it's been a great experience for everybody.”
Vanderbilt departed Salt Lake City on the heels of a near-comeback against Northwestern. The ‘Dores rallied from 15 points down to take a 66-65 lead on a Riley LaChance layup with 18 seconds to play. But junior Matthew Fisher-Davis mistakenly fouled Wildcat guard Bryant McIntosh on the inbounds play. That sent McIntosh to the line for two free throws, which he sank to give Northwestern a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
Fisher-Davis acknowledged his miscue in the postgame locker room, but the rest of the Commodores were quick to point out the junior’s true impact on the game: Fisher-Davis scored 14 of his team-leading 22 points in the second half, which spearheaded his team’s rally.
“He made a mistake at the end,” senior Luke Kornet said. “…He's the type of person that he feels some blame for it. But in the second half, we had no chance if he didn't make some of the shots that he did. I just wanted to let him know that, we're with him no matter what.”
Added Drew: “One play doesn't lose the game for you. And I'm proud of the guys fighting back and being in that situation. Without him, we're not even close to being in that situation at the end.”
The loss sent Vanderbilt back to Nashville earlier than it expected, but its NCAA Tournament setback was not enough to erase a stellar second half to the season. In mid-January, the Commodores sat 8-10 and riding a four-game losing streak. They regrouped to finish 11-6 with five top-25 wins, six top-50 victories and 11 top-100 RPI wins, all against the No. 1-ranked overall strength of schedule and non-conference schedule in college basketball. All six top-50 wins came since Jan. 28, including three over ranked Gators squads.
The difference was a buy-in to Drew’s defensive philosophy and a switch of the lineup, where Fisher-Davis flipped from a starter to a lethal sixth man. Plus, the former head coach at Valparaiso had two seniors – Kornet and guard Nolan Cressler – on hand to help lead the charge.
On Thursday, Drew acknowledged the difficulty of watching his seniors’ careers come to an end in Salt Lake City.
“Anytime a new coach comes in and there's a coaching change, it's a lot on the players,” Drew said. “And I couldn't ask for two better seniors that have stood with me throughout the season, that have battled adversity, and have led our team and represented Vanderbilt in an unbelievable way.”
Drew became the first coach to lead Vanderbilt to the NCAA Tournament during his first season on campus. After witnessing the successful growth of his first team, it’s easy to say this likely won’t be Drew’s last trip to the Big Dance at Vanderbilt. Even without Cressler and Kornet, the bulk of this year’s roster is set to return in 2017-18, including Fisher-Davis, LaChance and forward Jeff Roberson.
Drew’s first Commodore squad set the standard for his tenure on West End, particularly in the last few weeks. Next year, Vanderbilt will look to build on it.
“Part is the journey and the process and the growth and the togetherness of our team,” Drew said. “And even though coaches and players have only known each other for nine -- 11 months, something there -- it's been a great relationship that we've had, especially over this last month.”