The word surrounding the Vanderbilt men's basketball program headed into 2016-2017 season was change. For the last 16 years, one man held the helm of head basketball coach on West End but that was changing with the hire of Bryce Drew.
Nobody had an idea how Coach Drew would come in and change the program around. Everyone had an idea about who he was and what kind of style the new coach was bringing to Nashville but really had no clue what they would see.
The season did not start the way anyone would of hoped. Injuries were the first issue to arise as both Luke Kornet and Nolan Cressler had to deal with problems during pre-season practice and neither player became fully healthy until deeper into the season. It didn't help that your lone two seniors were injured headed into the season under a new regime.
Coach Drew was going to immediately put his team to the test in game one, as it turned out to be the best non-conference schedule in the country. The first game of the year against Marquette was an eye opening experience showing everyone that major work had to be done. A 24 point loss to the Golden Eagles put an uneasy feeling in the stomach's of the Commodore faithful but it was still the first game of the year.
It didn't get much better for the Dores. Vanderbilt went 6-6 during the early part of the non-conference schedule but did play some very good teams tough. Contests against Butler, Minnesota and Dayton were all close games and could of gone in the favor of Vanderbilt had a few things gone their way. All was not lost as Vanderbilt went into SEC play but things didn't look good.
Defense and learning to play the way Coach Drew wants, was the biggest issues the team had during the early part of the season. Players weren't comfortable running Coach Drew's offense and weren't moving nor communicating on defense.
Southeastern conference play begun with a road game at LSU where the Commodores won a road game over the Tigers but it was a little deceiving. Vanderbilt might have won but they gave up 89 points to a team that ended up possibly being the worst team in the SEC. Winning is winning, so you take it no matter how it comes but things still weren't right for this Vanderbilt team.
The Dores did start the SEC season at 2-0 after a home win over Auburn but the wheels began to fall off after that. After the win against the Tigers, Vanderbilt proceeded to go on a four game losing streak that pushed their record to 8-10 with a road game looming at Florida.
Vanderbilt needed to figure something out if they wanted to consider this season any success. Concentrating on defense during practice while working hard as a more cohesive unit, the Commodores would take this new approach to Gainesville and come away with a 68-66 road upset of the Gators. This was a surprising win to many, considering how Vanderbilt had been looking coming into the game. This was a small positive step in the right direction but not a turning point just yet.
A big reason to why Vanderbilt hadn't turn the corner was the 20 point loss on the road to Missouri. The Tigers has been the worst team in the SEC over the past several years and to lose to them by 20 was a blow to the gut. The season began to look good after another SEC road win over Texas A&M and a big home win over NCAA Tournament team Iowa State but the Missouri loss took the breathe out of everyone involved.
A team and player only meeting took place after the Mizzou loss and the Commodore seniors in particular took it upon themselves to make their last ride at Vanderbilt a special one and the rest of team jumped on board.
An dedicated emphasis to defense is what turned this season around for Vanderbilt and that honestly started in the road win over Arkansas, prior to the loss at Mizzou. The Commodores revenged their loss to Arkansas earlier in the season at home and did it by playing stellar defense and knocking down shots from deep. These ingredients were what propelled Vanderbilt the rest of the way, including a four game win streak that put the Commodores on the NCAA Tourney map.
The streak started with a home win over Texas A&M but the very next game against South Carolina, might have been the signature point in the season where Vanderbilt finally grew up and started playing like the team Coach Drew and everybody wanted to see. The Commodores played possibly their best defense of the season against the Gamecocks but also played cohesive, crisp offense. Vanderbilt was clicking against South Carolina and they ended up winning the game as well as adding to their ever growing resume.
Vanderbilt picked up their 5th SEC road win of the season in the very next game at Tennessee. Another stellar defensive performance, the Dores held the Vols to 56 points and made them look pedestrian on the offensive end of the court. Another win at home over Miss State gave the Commodores a four game winning streak headed into their final two games against SEC leading Kentucky and second place Florida.
Sitting on squarely on the bubble, Vanderbilt needed to at least split between the Cats and Gators and they almost won both. Leading almost the entire game, Vanderbilt gave up a late lead to Kentucky and eventually lost by six. Even in a loss, Vanderbilt seemed to impress people but still needed another signature win to find themselves closer inside the NCAA bubble. They would get that signature win at home over Florida. Another standout performance from the Dores on offense and defense, helped them defeat the Gators for the 2nd time this season and finish the regular season at 17-14 overall and 10-8 in the SEC.
Headed into the conference tournament, Vanderbilt was viewed as a team that needed to win their first game of the tourney, just to solidify their position in the NCAA Tournament. Not only did Vanderbilt win one game, they won two! The Commodores beat A&M in game one then proceeded to beat Florida in the quarterfinals for the third time of the season. The Commodore would lose to Arkansas in the semi's but they had done enough to earn a spot in the Big Dance.
Vanderbilt did indeed earn an at large bid to the 2017 NCAA Tournament seeded 9th in the West Region. They would go on to lose in the 1st round to No. 8 seed Northwestern, 68-66 but that's not the point of the story. The fact that this Vanderbilt team, under a new staff, with a team lacking in many area's, made the Big Dance and actually improved as the season went on.
By the end of the year, Vanderbilt was tired. It had spent so much energy and emotion getting back into the season and placing themselves in the NCAA Tourney that it just ran out of gas when it mattered most and that's ok.
It was nice seeing a team continue to improve but more importantly look themselves in the mirror, know their faults and address them. Coach Drew has quickly instilled a culture of not looking over your shoulder and treating everyone on the team like they are family members. The closeness he built over this short period of time is amazing. Part of that goes to Kornet and Cressler for taking on the senior leadership roles and refusing to give into losing.
This season may not have gone exactly many would of wanted but what it did do was set the standard for many Vanderbilt teams in year to come. It set the standard for how Coach Drew wants his team's to be both on and off the court. It gave hope to a fan base that was itching for something good to happen for a long time. It showed that hard work and desire does matter and if you continue to work, regardless of win's or losses, special things can happen.
The 2016-2017 season will be one to remember as a year that possibly set the path for Vanderbilt to not only compete for SEC titles but one day find themselves in their first NCAA Final Four.