Going into this weekend’s game at LSU, Vanderbilt was in position to be the Southeastern Conference’s first winless team in more than 60 years. The last team not to win an SEC game was Georgia Tech, which had an 0-14 league record in 1953-54.
And even if Vanderbilt somehow pulled off a shocking upset of LSU, the Commodores were already assured of being the first SEC team in 50 years to win only one league game. Alabama — coached by C.M. Newton — went 1-17 in 1968-69.
After an 84-48 home loss to Arkansas on Wednesday, Vandy’s third-year coach, Bryce Drew, apologized to fans for the “big scar” this season has become. Against Arkansas, the Commodores went more than 20 minutes without making a shot (the one basket in that time was the result of a goal-tending call).
Drew also made an interesting attempt at keeping Vandy fans believing. He said his father, Homer Drew, went through a similar competitive desert devoid of many victories early in his 22 seasons as Valparaiso coach. In fact, the elder Drew had losing records in his first five seasons as Valpo coach. In a three-year period beginning with the 1989-90 season, the team had a record of 14-68 overall and 5-39 in the Mid-Continent Conference.
The Vandy coach smiled as he got to the happy ending. Twenty years later, Valparaiso christened “Homer Drew Court.” By then, Homer Drew was Valpo’s winningest coach (371 victories) and had led the Crusaders to eight league championships and seven NCAA Tournament appearances.
Rags-to-riches stories run in the family. The Vandy coach’s older brother, Scott Drew, had losing records in his first four seasons as Baylor coach. In that time, the Bears were 12-52 in Big 12 games. Since then, he’s guided Baylor to 12 straight winning seasons and seven NCAA Tournament appearances.
“What my dad did is read the Book of Job,” Scott Drew said when asked how his father persevered. “And he told me during that time (at Baylor) I needed to read the Book of Job. And that’s the advice he’s given my brother as well.”
Job set the standard for weathering a bad season. The Old Testament figure was a wealthy landowner. Then he lost his cattle. Then his servants were killed. Then his sons and daughters were killed. Then he developed sores all over his body.
Through it all, Job’s faith in God did not wither away.
A season-ending injury to freshman point guard Darius Garland, the first McDonald’s All-American successfully recruited by Vandy, ensured that Vandy’s 2018-19 season would be a test of faith.
On the SEC coaches’ teleconference Monday, Bryce Drew spoke of this trying season as a prelude to better days.
“Very difficult to lose,” he said. “We do have a young team, so part of that is good because they focus on getting better for the future.”
Unlike during his father’s time at Valpo, patience and big-picture perspective are in shorter supply now. Coaches this season average 5.8 years at their schools, statistics savant Ken Pomeroy wrote in an email. Scott Drew also noted the impact of social media. “So much more positivity and negativity can happen now,” he said.
Bryce Drew has been remarkably upbeat when talking about this difficult season in news conference settings.
This, too, reflects advice from his father.
“You’ve got to be extra positive for your players,” Scott Drew said his father advised. “Because, after you, they’re feeling the next worst. They need someone to keep their spirits up.”
Bryce Drew has even extended this sensitivity to reporters covering the Vanderbilt team.
“My dad’s always had that positive attitude,” Scott Drew said. “I mean, everyone’s got a job to do. And you need to respect everyone doing their job. There’s no reason to get personal.”
Player of the Year
The week of the SEC Tournament will bring results in voting by media and coaches for all-league teams, Player of the Year and Coach of the Year.
When asked on Monday about who should be Player of the Year, several coaches said they had not given it a lot of thought yet. But a re-election of Tennessee forward Grant Williams sounded likely.
“Once you wear the crown, it’s hard to take it away from you if you’re performing better …,” South Carolina Coach Frank Martin said. “I know PJ Washington has had a heck of a year. The point guard at LSU (Tremont Waters) is special and should be in that conversation.”
After saying he had not seriously thought about who should be Player of the Year, Martin added, “I think Grant Williams is still basically the leader.”
During a news conference Thursday, Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes noted how Williams has improved since last season.
“There isn’t anything that he hasn’t gotten better at,” Barnes said. “Even mentally. He has had to face double teams and all kinds of things from game to game. And I think his mental approach has probably been his biggest improvement.”
But Barnes also said last week that a Player of the Year case could be made for “a lot of guys.”
One man, one vote
Should anyone need it, here’s an All-SEC ballot ready for submission.
My all-league votes:
PJ Washington, Kentucky. He blossomed as a sophomore and served as an example of how testing the NBA waters and returning to college for a sophomore season can work out well.
Grant Williams, Tennessee. Last season’s SEC Player of the Year averaged more points and rebounds, plus shot better overall and from the free throw line this season.
Chris Silva, South Carolina. Going into the final week of SEC play, he ranked in the top 10 in scoring, rebounding and blocks.
Tremont Waters, LSU. He led the league in steals and assists. Pound for pound, no SEC player had more on-court presence.
Breein Tyree, Ole Miss. He was part of the three-headed backcourt triad that made the Rebels the league’s surprise success story.
Player of the Year: Can this decision be put off so the SEC Tournament can serve as a tiebreaker between Washington, Williams and Waters?
Coach of the Year: Kermit Davis Jr., Ole Miss. In its preseason poll, the media voted Ole Miss to finish 14th. The Rebels contended for one of four double-byes in the SEC Tournament. Arguably no team provided its fans with more basketball drama: nine league games decided by six or fewer points.
Barring a crowd estimate for Senior Day that defies believability, Kentucky will not lead the nation in home attendance this season. UK led the nation in attendance the past three seasons, 13 of the last 15 and 28 times in the previous 42 seasons playing in Rupp Arena.
Syracuse, which led the nation in the 14 seasons that UK did not since Rupp Arena opened in 1976-77, will be No. 1 in home attendance this season. The Orange averaged 21,992 for 19 home games. That got a boost with the crowd of 35,642 for the Feb. 23 game against Duke.
Going into the Senior Day game against Florida on Saturday, Kentucky averaged 21,533 in home attendance. If the math skills are still good, UK would have had to announce an attendance of 29,850 Saturday to average 21,993 in home attendance. Rupp Arena has a listed capacity of 23,000.
UK’s home attendance figures are estimated. Syracuse counts tickets sold.
An Open Records request revealed that UK’s average home attendance this season according to the turnstile count was 16,624 going into the Florida game.
Regarding the coming week’s SEC Tournament in Nashville, the UK Alumni Association will sponsor a pep rally on Friday at the Wildhorse Saloon (120 2nd Ave. North). The rally is scheduled to start at 3 p.m. Eastern Time.
In addition to appearances by the UK cheerleaders, dance team and pep band, the rally will also feature such music acts as Jamie Saylor, A Common Wealth Band and Hannah Ellis.
Admission is $10 for students and Alumni Association members. It’s $15 for non-members. There’s no charge for children 12 years old and younger.
Proceeds benefit the Greater Nashville UK Alumni Club.
To Anthony Davis. He turns 26 on Monday. … To former UK Coach Eddie Sutton. He turns 83 on Tuesday. … To Rashaad Carruth. He turns 37 on Tuesday. … To former Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy. He turns 51 on Wednesday.