NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A mix of emotion and frustration was palpable in the aftermath of Vanderbilt basketball’s latest loss.
This one, however, signaled the end to the Commodores’ season.
“It hurts a lot,” center Yanni Wetzell said.
Vanderbilt’s season did not unfold as many around the program had hoped. On Wednesday, its 69-52 loss to Texas A&M on the opening night of the SEC Tournament was the end to a year of deflated hope on West End. The Dores finished 9-23 overall and 0-18 in the SEC, ending their campaign with 20 consecutive losses.
Figuring out where to go from here is a priority for third-year head coach Bryce Drew. But as he faced a dejected locker room at Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday, the culmination of disappointment came to fruition.
“This has been an emotional ride for them, adversity that none of us have faced before,” Drew said. “My first priority is to them. I’m a basketball coach but I’m also a mentor, I’m a leader.”
There was little Drew or the Commodores could do to shine the dull finish on the 2018-19 season. He acknowledged the elephant in the room in the substantial turnaround job that lies ahead. But if a silver lining exists in an otherwise disappointing year of Vanderbilt basketball, it’s the program’s young nucleus of talent, one that could point to brighter days ahead for Commodore Nation.
Throughout the year, sophomore Saben Lee and freshman Aaron Nesmith stood tall as young players who filled big shoes in the face of adversity. Simisola Shittu showed flashes of big-play ability unusual for his 6-10 frame. And sophomore center Ejike Obinna, who redshirted this season, expects to bolster the Dores’ front line a year from now.
Lee and Nesmith, in particular, were key playmakers amid a difficult season for Vanderbilt. Lee entered Wednesday as the team’s leading scorer at 12.5 points/game, and he led the Commodores with 19 points against Texas A&M. His slashing ability and above-the-rim potential make him an SEC difference-maker as a junior next season.
Nesmith came to Vanderbilt as a four-star signee and eventually emerged as a starter for the Dores. He ended up leading the Dores in scoring in SEC play (13.5 points/game) and becoming an emotional leader on the court. During one stretch this season, he earned co-SEC Player of the Week after he averaged 25.0 points, 11.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.5 steals in games against Florida and Auburn.
Drew said those key pieces, along with an eligible Obinna and a more seasoned Shittu, could combine with his next freshman class to turn the tides for Vanderbilt basketball.
“As you look at this team, guys have shifted from their strength areas into some other areas,” Drew said. “Next year, as we put this thing together, we’ll be able to put these guys back in their strengths like they were last year. The experience they gained is going to be invaluable for us.”
On Wednesday, the Commodores said they won’t soon forget this painful experience as they hit the gym during the offseason. In fact, Lee said, expect that to serve as fuel for next year.
“Going through this season was definitely frustrating for the guys,” Lee said. “I mean, we’re competitors. We want to win. But I think it’s a testament to the guys in this locker room and how we deal with adversity.”