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VOL. 41 | NO. 50 | Friday, December 15, 2017

Recruiting wins eclipsing actual wins at Vanderbilt

By John Glennon

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Getting a commitment from Brentwood Academy’s Darius Garland was a huge win for second-year Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew. Adding Simi Shittu and Aaron Nesmith gives the Commodores one of the 10-best recruiting classes in the country. Adding five-star Romeo Langford gives VU its best-ever recruiting haul.

-- Ap Photo/Mike Strasinger

Only a couple months into his second season at Vanderbilt, men’s basketball coach Bryce Drew appears to be in the midst of transforming the program.

It’s not necessarily what Drew has done in his short tenure – though he’s one-for-one guiding the Commodores into the NCAA Tournament – but the monstrous foundation he’s building for the future.

In signing point guard Darius Garland, power forward Simi Shittu and small forward Aaron Nesmith, Drew has already compiled one of the top recruiting classes in the nation – ranked eighth overall by 247Sports, seventh by both ESPN and Rivals.

Should the Commodores add five-star shooting guard Romeo Langford in the spring – which many believe will happen – Vanderbilt will likely finish among the top two or three recruiting classes in the country.

The ‘Dores have never produced a top-10 recruiting class since 247Sports started its ranking process in 2003, and the program only once put together a class ranked in 247Sports’ top 20, finishing 19th in 2008.

“In the modern recruiting era, it’s without a doubt the top class in school history already,” says Mitch Light, managing editor at Nashville-based Athlon Sports and a 1993 Vanderbilt graduate.

“The school recruited very well in the ‘60s and ‘70s, so there were some very good classes. But if they sign Romeo Langford, that’s three top 10 guys, so that has to be the best class ever.

“I think (former coach) Kevin Stallings always did a good job bringing in top 100-ish guys, and obviously got two drafted in the NBA, so the program has always had decent talent. But never to this level, with what the incoming freshmen will bring.”

‘A real statement’

Vanderbilt’s big haul began in September when the 6-5, 190-pound Nesmith of Porter Gaud High in South Carolina – ranked the 116th-best prospect in the country by 247Sports – committed to the Commodores.

Some quality family ties played a part in the commitment of Garland, the 6-2, 175-pound point guard ranked as the No. 13 prospect by 247Sports. He picked Vanderbilt instead of college hoops blue-bloods like Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, UCLA and Indiana.

A Gary, Indiana, native and son of former NBA player Winston Garland, Darius Garland formed early relationships with the Drew family when he attended a basketball camp run by Homer Drew – Bryce Drew’s father and the former Valparaiso coach.

When Bryce Drew took over last year at Vanderbilt, he was overjoyed to learn that Garland – whose family had moved here when he was in sixth grade – had turned into a national prospect just a few miles away at Brentwood Academy.

Still, it was one thing for Drew to get Garland interested in nearby Vanderbilt, another thing to get him to sign.

“The Nashville area is not going to produce five-star kids every year, but when a kid like Garland does come out of the area – and you’re able to beat schools like Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, UCLA and Indiana for him, and keep him at home – I think that’s huge,” explains Jeff Borzello, ESPN’s national basketball recruiting analyst.

“I think that says a lot for Bryce Drew and the program. I know a question a lot of people were asking (Garland) up until the fall was, `Is Vanderbilt on the list because it’s your hometown school or are you really considering them?’

“So, I think for Vanderbilt to get involved early, stay involved and then get him was a real statement for Bryce Drew.”

In turn, it’s likely that Garland’s relationship with the 6-9, 220-pound Shittu – a power forward ranked the sixth-best overall player in the country by 247Sports – played a role in helping steer Shittu to Nashville.

He chose Vanderbilt instead of North Carolina and Arizona, among other schools, knowing his friend Garland would be waiting to deliver the ball to him next season.

“He’s a pure point guard and has a great personality,” Drew says of Garland. “Players are drawn to him because they want to play with a great guard who can pass and do a variety of other things. So, we think having him will attract more players.”

The 6-5, 191-pound Langford, a New Albany, Indiana, native, is ranked the fifth-best prospect in the country by 247Sports. He, like Shittu, is a friend of Garland’s. Should Langford commit to Vanderbilt in the spring – Indiana and Kansas appear to be the two other finalists – it would give the Commodores the nation’s third-ranked point guard, top-ranked shooting guard and top-ranked power forward according to 247Sports.

“I think we’re getting our first taste of what (Bryce Drew) is going to be like as a recruiter, and clearly with this class he’s passed with flying colors,” adds Brian Snow, 247Sports’ recruiting analyst.

“The key in recruiting classes is being able to stack classes, multiple classes in a row. But this was a really good job by them. They deserve all the credit in the world for bringing in such a talented class.”

‘Changes the perception’

One promising element of Vandy’s 2018 recruiting class – whether it turns out to be three or four players – is that all of the prospects play different positions, so it wouldn’t be difficult to put them all on the court together.

“All three signees play different positions, so they really complement each other well with their strengths,” Drew points out.

“Simi, with his size and strength, can go inside. Aaron can really catch and shoot. That’s great to go with Darius and Simi, who both have a great ability to create off the dribble.”

A long-term potential plus is that the talent and skill level of this recruiting class could lead to an immediate jump in wins and exposure for the Commodores, which could in turn lead to more top recruits developing an interest in Vanderbilt.

The cycle often builds upon itself.

“I think (this class) changes the perception of Vanderbilt in the recruiting world,” Light adds. “It puts Vanderbilt more on the map in recruiting with the top guys. So, next year’s class, you’ll see more top guys, maybe without those ties to Bryce Drew and his family, looking at Vanderbilt a little bit more.”

Of course, with the arrival of some of the nation’s top prospects comes the possibility of “one-and-dones,” players who could spend just one season at Vanderbilt before moving on to the NBA.

The Commodores haven’t had to concern themselves with that issue often in the past, but it would be no surprise to see the physically mature Shittu – and Langford, if he signs – head for the pros after one year in Nashville.

“It’s definitely something to consider, especially with recruiting behind those guys in the next couple of classes,” Drew acknowledges. “But one of the things about coming to Vanderbilt is to get the degree. We’ve talked to all of our players, including our signees, about getting that degree.”

If there’s any concern about bringing in such a talented recruiting class so early in Drew’s tenure, it’s that it might raise expectations for the program – both in terms of future recruiting classes and immediate success.

“That’s the funny thing,” Snow says. “If you do it once, everyone in the fan base expects you to do it over and over again. Whether that’s fair or not isn’t really relevant. That’s just the reality of coaching in today’s day and age.”

But all things considered, heightened expectations aren’t the worst thing in the world for a coach to worry about.

It beats the heck out of apathy or pessimism, and it means steps toward success have already been taken.

“I think people thought Bryce Drew was going to be a good recruiter, but nobody saw this coming,” Borzello adds.

“I think this class could really start a positive cycle that could result in sustained success for Vanderbilt on the recruiting trail, and therefore sustained success on the court.”

Reach John Glennon at glennonsports@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.

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