Fewer than 20 minutes ahead of tipoff at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Vanderbilt's players sit quietly in their assigned locker room, awaiting the arrival of coach Bryce Drew. Junior forward Matt Ryan deploys a muscle stimulator up and down each leg to loosen up, while receiving notes from assistant coach Casey Shaw on the NC State forwards he's set to face.
"He's a catch-and-shoot guy," Shaw -- a former NBA center (and Drew's brother-in-law) -- advises Ryan of Wolfpack forward Torin Dorn. "Just be there. This dude's really good."
Nearby, 6-foot-10, 240-pound freshman center Simi Shittu, one of Drew's most decorated recruits, politely declines a Gatorade.
The Commodores' other heralded freshman, point guard Darius Garland, is not in Miami on this December Saturday. Garland, the top recruit of Drew's career and the highest rated in school history, tore his meniscus eight days prior, two minutes into what would become a loss to Kent State. He's expected to miss the remainder of the season.
Garland stayed in Nashville while his team traveled for this neutral-site game in Miami. His loss is considered a devastating blow to a team that entered 2018-19 with very real NCAA tournament hopes.
But Drew doesn't have time to mourn Garland or consider what his presence might have meant during this season or even this game. There are a dozen players and a staff counting on Drew to figure out life without him.
The 44-year-old Drew, wearing a black suit with a crisp white shirt and gold tie -- Vandy colors, enters the locker room and his young roster perks up. "They're going to run and jump for 40 minutes," Drew says, diagramming the Commodores' press break in detail. "This is very important. We all got that?"
It is Season 3 for Drew at Vanderbilt, and the expectations have arrived.
Vandy made the NCAA tournament in Drew's first season, with a 2016-17 team led by current New York Knick Luke Kornet going 10-4 down the stretch to reach the field as a No. 9 seed (the Commodores lost to Northwestern). Last season's group was younger, less physical and struggled to defend throughout a disappointing 12-20 season. The 20 losses were a school record.
But Commodores fans were mostly willing to give Drew the benefit of the doubt. A terrific recruiting class was already in place -- in addition to Garland and Shittu, the team added another strong, instant piece in forward Aaron Nesmith -- and hopes for a big 2018-19 mounted.
The ability to recruit high-level SEC players was a promise Drew had already delivered the fan base, a vision of talent spotting that was inherited as much as it was learned.
Says Homer Drew, Bryce's dad and the legendary longtime coach at Valparaiso, "I used to tell our staff: Recruiting is like shaving. If you miss a day, you look like a bum."
While a consistently strong program, Vandy has spent most of the past couple of decades in the shadow of Kentucky, Florida and a rotating group of SEC flavors of the month. The Commodores' last SEC title was in 2012 (they won the conference tournament), also their most recent season with an NCAA win. The program Drew took over in 2016 last reached the second weekend in 2007. The last SEC regular-season hardware came in 1992-93. There's no entitlement here, but there's expectation. With Garland lost, Drew must manage that expectation ... although it's the sentiments of those inside the locker room that are his primary concern.
"He's a special player," Drew acknowledges of Garland. "They're disappointed. ... The mentality now is this is who we are. We can still have a great season."
It's halftime, and Vanderbilt has fallen behind NC State 46-34. The Wolfpack have shot 49 percent from the floor; NC State has 10 offensive rebounds and 12 second-chance points. In the locker room, Drew's first words have little to do with basketball, however.
"Someone tell me why I'm really disappointed in our team."
To cement his message, Drew writes an assortment of key points on the board, including "body language," "focus" and "togetherness," while drawing different islands to represent everyone playing for himself and not the team.
"Let's be clear," Drew says, "there is one guy who gets on the refs, all right, and that's me. ... One guy can be negative with the refs. You guys worry about playing the game. The first four minutes, we told you they're not going to call fouls, all right, they're not going to give us anything. So just play through it, and be aggressive and be physical. So bad body language? Give me something else."
Initially, Drew's message works. Vandy is revitalized in the second half, showcasing a renewed focus, ultimately cutting NC State's double-digit lead to two. Nesmith makes a terrific hustle play that results in a chase-down block, followed by an and-1 for his fellow freshman Shittu. Nesmith goes out of bounds to make another great play and Shittu follows with a fast-break dunk, with an eruption from the bench heard throughout the entire arena.
Despite its efforts, Vandy ultimately runs out of gas late, succumbing to the older, more experienced and healthier Wolfpack 80-65.
In his postgame speech, Drew deliberately makes eye contact with every player, offering a direct, concise message that -- perhaps surprisingly in this era of college basketball -- is free of obscenity. He challenges the players to find an individual identity, which he hopes will lead to the development of a team identity.
"Something's gonna have to give here in the next couple weeks," Drew says. "How can you help us win games right now? How can we win basketball games? I'm gonna have to change as a coach. You're gonna have to change as a player, because we're not good enough right now. We're not good enough. ... We need honest, sincere, deep-hearted truth from you guys before we can take a step forward."
If the name Bryce Drew is meaningful to the casual sports fan, it's probably because of "The Shot." Drew's buzzer-beater to lift Valpo to a win over Ole Miss in the first round of the NCAA tournament on March 13, 1998, is one of the iconic moments in college basketball history.
It outpaces the other not-insignificant pieces in the basketball life of Bryce Drew, including his six-year NBA career, and the two NCAA tournaments he coached Valpo to after Homer Drew passed the reins to the program on to his youngest son in 2011. Bryce's older brother, Scott, is in his 16th season of an extremely successful tenure at Baylor, which includes two Elite Eight appearances.
Homer Drew says he realized early that Bryce had the mental fortitude to become a head coach, but never pushed him down that path.
"He was always very analytical," says Homer. "He could always see things. He ran the point for us, so he knew all positions. He always had a great feel for the game."
That said, for the best coaches in the game in 2018, being a basketball savant isn't going to be enough. Relationships are critical, and it's there where Drew has managed to stand apart.
"I know what it feels like when the coach really likes you," Drew says. "I know what it feels like when you think the coach doesn't like you. We try to relate to them on a personal level. I'm concerned about the person. Our staff is very family-oriented. There's not going to be a great division because the team is part of our family. That's how I was raised. When we recruit, we try and build relationships with both."
Evidence of the bond can be found in players like Yanni Wetzell, who was raised about as far away from major college hoops as it gets -- New Zealand. A former junior tennis star from Auckland, Wetzell began playing basketball only four years ago, in large part because he sought the team element that tennis could not provide. At 6-foot-10, 240 pounds, by way of Division II St. Mary's University in Texas, he transferred to Vanderbilt because of how he related to Drew's approach. Wetzell's parents -- who would make the 8,000-mile trek to watch him play Dec. 5 in Nashville -- saw the young and vibrant head coach as a reliable steward to help their son develop on and off the court. They spoke of the safety net and family dynamic of the program.
"We had a checklist," says Clem Wetzell, Yanni's father. "We went through and checked off each box at Vanderbilt."
Ejike Obinna, a Nigerian-born center who is redshirting this season, echoes those sentiments.
"He's very demanding as a coach and he pushes us to get better every single day," Obinna says. "It's more than basketball here. ... He's like a father figure to everybody, to keep us together as family. We need that one person to talk to."
"We're a very close team, on and off the court," Shittu says.
"I think trust is huge," says assistant coach Jake Diebler, who played for Homer at Valpo before serving on the Crusaders' staff. "[Bryce] has a gift at taking his knowledge and communicating that with younger guys who have less experience, but doing so in a manner that they can take it and apply it pretty quickly. ... He has a great basketball mind, but also how hard he had to work as a player to get to the NBA."
The elder Drew has also been impressed with Bryce's connection to his team.
"You want to know your players," Homer says. "I need to know how you respond to coaching because every player is different. You do it by encouragement and when there is a difficulty, then you do it privately, so that you never embarrass the kid in front of 14,000 people. You make your corrections private, so if there's something I really don't like about you, I'm gonna bring you in. ... Bryce is an encourager, but he's also very firm."
Four days after being humbled in Miami, the Commodores are back on the court, this time for a home game against Middle Tennessee.
Garland is in the building for this one, albeit wearing sweats after undergoing surgery nine days before. As he exits the locker room during warm-ups, Garland fulfills an earlier promise to a couple of young fans seeking autographs. More fans follow suit, and the 18-year-old is soon seen happily obliging for photo ops.
The collegiate career of the point guard, still ranked 10th in ESPN's latest 2019 NBA draft rankings, looks as though it will end up as a case of what might have been. An explosive scorer and playmaker who metabolizes strategic concepts at a prodigious rate, Garland was ESPN's No. 1-ranked point guard in his class and turned down offers from Duke, Kansas and Kentucky to attend Vanderbilt and play for Drew.
"I knew he was gonna be really connected when he started recruiting me," Garland says of Drew. "His style of play -- speed -- I love getting up and down, and that's what he likes to do. We had that [family] connection since we were in Indiana. [Garland, the son of former NBA player Winston Garland, is originally from Gary.] It took us a long way."
The bond was strong. Drew was not afraid to buy into the excitement around Garland, and helped feed it, as well.
"There's no reason Darius can't do for us something like Trae Young did for Oklahoma last year," Drew told the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook in the preseason. "Darius is a program changer."
Then, the injury. After a brilliant start to his freshman season, which included a 33-point outburst against Liberty, as well as a 19-point performance in a win over USC and its own projected lottery pick Kevin Porter Jr., Garland took a bad step on a layup attempt against Kent State and crumpled to the floor.
Garland, a projected lottery pick in the 2019 NBA draft, will likely never wear a Vanderbilt uniform again, but the connection he's formed with Drew seems set to remain.
"My family loved Coach Drew as well and all my teammates do, too. They will always be there for me. He teaches me a lot."
In a week dominated by thoughts and worries about final exams at the prestigious academic institution that is Vanderbilt, Drew & Co. also have the matchup with a historically dangerous Middle Tennessee program here at Memorial Gymnasium to consider. The afternoon shootaround was lively, as Drew reviewed offensive scenarios and counters, mostly dependent on how the Blue Raiders defend ball screens and how his defense could limit penetration from MTSU's top scorer, Antonio Green, who was coming off a 30-point outing.
"Everything he gets is at the rim," Drew said.
Losing Garland, it should be noted, has also changed Vandy's style of play. Former NBA player Drew had adopted a litany of pro sets, with the idea of playing an exciting brand of fast-break basketball that would result in top-end recruiting classes, which in turn would result in more wins. Minus Garland's electric playmaking as a ballhandling wizard, the job has gotten tougher.
Now, with game time near, Drew implores his team to "set a tone. We are all invested, we are all into this game. We are on fire."
The younger Drew cares deeply about effort -- specifically defensively -- and this is where his team notches its most complete game of the season, just when it needs it. In the 79-51 win, Vanderbilt holds MTSU to under 36 percent shooting and just 14.3 percent from 3 -- a drastic difference from the NC State game.
"That was our best effort defensively of the year, by far," Drew tells his team afterward. "Not that I want anyone getting hurt, but I know a few guys got bruised up and bloody. That type of effort translates to wins."
Hours after Vanderbilt's victory over MTSU, Drew remains at the arena on the fourth floor in his office, surrounded by his wife, Tara; son, Bryson; and coaching staff -- while snacking on food, since he hasn't eaten for hours.
The setting is relaxed. The Commodores won't be back on the floor for 12 more days, at which point they'll face a difficult back-to-back with Arizona State and Kansas State. In the meantime, Drew will figure out how to keep his program moving forward, amid final exams and the never-ending recruiting trail that continues to pay dividends. The challenge will continue to be steep without Garland, but no tears will be shed for Drew and his staff. No one weeps for you in Season 3.
"Growing up a coach's son, just being around basketball and playing in the NBA ... I've seen a lot, but this is the only thing I've known."