VOL. 42 | NO. 3 | Friday, January 19, 2018
Vanderbilt seniors taking one for program
By John Glennon
Senior Jeff Roberson leads the Commodores in scoring this season and was on the SEC Academic Honor Roll in 2017. -- Photograph By Joe Howell | Vucommodores.Com
The past has been good to Vanderbilt’s men’s basketball team. The future looks outstanding. It’s the present, however, that’s not so pretty, which is the challenge facing Commodores seniors Matthew Fisher-Davis, Riley LaChance and Jeff Roberson.
Heading into this season, the trio of starters had helped Vanderbilt produce 59 victories and earn three postseason invitations – two to the NCAA Tournament.
There was hope for a solid season this year, as well, despite the loss of valuable former seniors Luke Kornet and Nolan Cressler.
Instead, the Commodores head into Saturday’s game against LSU near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference, in danger of suffering their first losing record since the 2012-13 team finished 16-17.
“We all expected to be better than we are right now,” Fisher-Davis says. “But the results are what they are to this point. So, to continue to get better is what we’re striving for.”
Vanderbilt fans can soothe themselves with thoughts of next season, when star recruits Darius Garland, Simi Shittu and Aaron Nesmith will pump immediate life into the Commodores program. Should Vandy add guard Romeo Langford in the spring, the ‘Dores will likely end up with one of the top two or three recruiting classes in the nation.
But next year doesn’t mean as much for Vandy’s three seniors, all of whom would much prefer the future start now.
“Obviously the program is headed in a great direction,” LaChance says of next year’s recruits. “But we’re trying not to focus on what the media is talking about. We’re more focused on what’s going on with this team.”
To that end, Roberson has stepped up his game nicely this season.
He’s averaging about 15 points per game and shooting over 40 percent from the three-point line, noticeable improvements from the 10.8 points he averaged last year on 34 percent shooting from the arc.
“It’s just having a year in coach (Bryce) Drew’s system and being more comfortable with it,” Roberson points out. “We lost a lot of production last year in Luke and Nolan, so I’ve had a lot more opportunities. I’ve just been trying to be efficient and make the most of them.”
LaChance is chipping in at about 11 points per game like he did last season, but his three-point shooting has dropped off from 2016-17. Fisher-Davis, too, has seen some slippage in his stats from last year, even though he’s still averaging about a dozen points per contest.
All three seniors are missing the presence of Kornet, the 7-1, 250-pound big man who averaged 13 points and six rebounds for Vandy last season. Kornet’s ability to hit from three-point range opened up the court offensively and created space for his teammates.
“It’s a totally different team,” Drew explains. “Obviously, Luke was a tremendous rim protector for us and he also did a lot of things offensively. We have to manufacture points in a different way and we have to figure ways to keep the ball away from the rim in a good spot.”
To the seniors’ credit, they have remained upbeat, despite three separate losing streaks of at least three games this season.
Having already made major contributions to the program – each has topped 1,000 points during his career – Fisher-Davis, LaChance and Roberson are passing on their knowledge and experience to younger teammates.
They feel a responsibility to help steer the program back to its winning ways, even if it doesn’t necessarily happen this year.
Just the other day, for instance, Fisher-Davis was tutoring freshman guard Max Evans, explaining to Evans that he could play physical defense with his body – not with his hands – and avoid getting called for fouls.
“We had guys here before that helped us out when we were young, guys like Shan Foster,” Fisher-Davis adds. “So, we definitely feel like helping the program moving forward as well. It’s kind of our responsibility.”
Which is not in the least to say the seniors have given up their final season, despite the team’s struggles to date.
The Commodores need only look back to 2016-17 to see how quickly fortunes can change. Vanderbilt was 12-13 with less than a month to go in last year’s regular season, but went 7-2 down the stretch to earn an NCAA bid.
“We were in a bad situation last year and made the most of it,” Roberson acknowledges. “So, this year, hopefully, we can get things turned around and put some wins together. It’s all about how we bounce back and deal with this going forward.”
The Commodores seniors would like nothing more than to get back on a winning track, one that might lead to a fourth straight postseason berth before they depart.
All that talk of the incoming recruits is great, after all. But as far as Fisher-Davis, LaChance and Roberson are concerned, next year can wait.
Reach John Glennon at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.