Vanderbilt looks to rebound with talented recruiting class
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Bryce Drew is entering his third season at Vanderbilt with the highest-rated recruiting class the Commodores have ever seen.
The timing for the infusion of talent couldn’t be better considering the Southeastern Conference boasts five preseason Top 25 teams, including two — Kentucky and Tennessee — that the Commodores will play home-and-home this season.
“It’s going to be a challenging year for all of us,” Drew said.
The Commodores are coming off their worst season since 2002-03, and three starters from that team are gone along with three others who decided to transfer. In their place, Drew has a pair of consensus five-star recruits in Darius Garland and Simisola Shittu along with a four-star recruit in forward Aaron Nesmith. Drew also has a pair of transfers who sat out last season finally available in junior forward Matt Ryan and center Yanni Wetzell.
All the changes finally gives Drew a roster with more athleticism and length to play the style the young coach wants to use.
“We needed to increase our talent level, and we feel good that our talent level has really increased this last year and a half,” Drew said.
What to know about the Commodores who open the season Nov. 6 hosting Winthrop:
Garland is the touted recruit that Drew managed to keep home in Nashville with the 6-foot-3 point guard getting offers from Kentucky, Duke, Indiana, UCLA and Arizona State. Shittu was the top-rated power forward in the 2018 recruiting class, while Nesmith was named the Gatorade Player of the Year from South Carolina ahead of Zion Williamson, who signed with Duke.
“Darius Garland, he’s a leader of our team,” Drew said. “He makes others around him better. Simi’s a very unique player. He’s 6-10, 240, but he can play the point guard position, so you’ll see him handling the ball quite a bit. And Aaron Nesmith is one of the better catch and shoot players in the country.”
The freshman tore his right ACL and had surgery in late January. Drew says Shittu has been cleared completely. “He’s practicing full-speed the whole practicing, playing 5-on-5. We fully expect him to be ready Nov. 6 and have no restrictions,” Drew said.
Ryan shot 39.8 percent from 3 in 72 games, including the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament, at Notre Dame before deciding to transfer. He brings more size to the lineup at 6-8 and has been with the Commodores over the past year. Wetzell also is a junior and a big one at 6-10 and 240 pounds. Drew likes the experience both Ryan and Wetzell bring to the roster along with their abiity to help space out the floor, giving room for Garland, Shittu and Lee to create. “We really like how the pieces fit together,” Drew said. “Now we have to go out and prove they really do fit together.”
Drew has two starters back in guard Saben Lee and guard-forward Joe Toye — the lone senior on this roster — and Lee averaged 10.6 points and 3.1 assists as a freshman. Matthew Fisher-Davis, Riley LaChance and Jeff Roberson now are gone, leaving plenty of opportunity for the four freshmen and five sophomores to play immediately.
The Commodores hit the road quickly visiting Southern California for their second game of the season in a nonconference schedule that includes North Carolina State on Dec. 1 in Miami, Arizona State (Dec. 17) and a trip to Kansas State (Dec. 22). That’s enough considering the SEC slate features a trip to Kentucky on Jan. 12 with the Wildcats coming to Nashville on Jan. 29 and Tennessee visits Jan. 23 with the return trip Feb. 19.