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Vanderbilt Kentucky Basketball

Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew reacts to a play during overtime of a recent game against Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky.

It's as if Valparaiso's Bryce Drew never packed up and left for Nashville, Tennessee.

Vanderbilt's second-year basketball coach sees Northwest Indiana 2.0 almost everywhere he looks.

His parents, Homer and Janet, moved to Nashville and just down the street from campus when Bryce accepted the Vanderbilt job.

He hired Casey Shaw, a longtime professional basketball player, as an assistant and Casey and wife Dana — Bryce's older sister — moved to Nashville with their four children.

Bryce also added Roger Powell Jr., Jake Diebler and Luke Simons from his staff at Valparaiso University, where he was 124-49 in five seasons.

And then came a recruiting coup as Drew landed two-time Tennessee Mr. Basketball and five-star point guard Darius Garland, son of former Gary Roosevelt star Winston Garland, who played eight years in the NBA.

Darius lived in Gary until seventh grade, when the family moved to Nashville, and had been a regular at Drew's summer camps.

Northwest Indiana 2.0 may need a bigger sign.

"It's definitely nice to have some familiar faces around when you go to a new job, that's for sure," Drew said. "I love Northwest Indiana. That''s where I grew up and played high school, played college.

"The Region will always have a special place in my heart."

As career moves go, Vanderbilt was not like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. More like from a tanning salon into a blast furnace.

With all respect to the Horizon League, this is the potent Southeastern Conference, sort of like the NBA's Western Conference.

It didn't matter that Drew was the 1994 Indiana Mr. Basketball or that he hit "The Shot" — from 23 feet away — to upset Ole Miss in the 1998 NCAA tournament or that he played in the NBA.

In the SEC, it's really quite simple. You win, you keep your job.

This season, the league is as deep as any in the country, with 11 teams within touching distance of the bubble or the NCAA tournament.

All 14 teams are in the top 100 at KenPom, 11 teams are in the top 75 of the Rating Percentage Index and 13 are in the top 100 of the Basketball Power Index.

Some nights, even your "A" game isn't enough.

"Last year, we played the No. 1 strength of schedule in the country," Drew said. "This year, we were '3' last week. It's definitely making me a better coach; making me dig deeper on the things that we do and why we do them."

The Commodores headed into Tuesday night's road game with LSU at 11-16 and 13th in the SEC. They're a young team with two freshmen starting and lost highly-regarded senior Matthew Fisher-Davis to a torn labrum before conference play began.

That left Vandy with two seniors.

Drew also lost four returning upperclassmen who were either drafted or transferred. And because of Vandy's rigid academic standards, there is no "quick fix" where you can bring in junior college players.

Being 0-9 on the road is just another hurdle to clear.

"We feel on any night, anyone can win in this league," Drew said, regardless. "The league is substantially different now than what it was when I took the job. We're on pace to get the most teams in the NCAA tourney that the SEC has ever had in basketball."

At age 34, the baby-faced coach still looks more like a college player with all the mannerisms of a parking valet at your country club.

"I coach the same way," Drew said. "Of course I'm competitive and want to win but I'm also positive with my guys and try to teach as much as I can during the course of a game.

"I keep my jacket on a little bit more," he added with a smile. "But that would be about it."

The signing of Darius Garland, who made official visits to Kentucky, Indiana and UCLA, sent a buzz throughout the SEC, which has averaged nearly seven national titles a year in all its sports since 1990.

Drew guided the Commodores to the NCAA tournament his first season and preaches the value of academics as much as game fundamentals.

Garland was quick to buy in.

"This was the best fit for me and my family. I can have the best of both worlds in academics and basketball at Vanderbilt," Garland told ESPN at his news conference in November.

"Someday the ball will stop bouncing and I want to prepare myself for that situation."

The term student-athlete isn't a joke after all.

"He's a program-changer who can take over games and players are drawn to playing with him," Drew said.

Here's proof: Four-star shooting guard Aaron Nesmith of South Carolina has also signed with Vanderbilt.

Garland reportedly said he's working on getting New Albany guard Romeo Langford to pick Vanderbilt over Indiana and Kansas.

If I'm Bryce Drew, I buy a lottery ticket this instant.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at al.hamnik@nwi.com.

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