Titans load up, Preds rolling, Vols chase history, Vandy’s got a new guy: Rexrode mailbag

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Let’s start with Bobby Cremins. No, not as a guest answerer of your questions, but with some answers I got from him on new Vanderbilt men’s basketball coach Mark Byington.

If you missed our initial story on Vandy’s choice of the former James Madison coach — and Cremins’ longtime top assistant at College of Charleston — Cremins said: “He works as hard as anybody I’ve been around. He knows the game extremely well and what he did this year is amazing. This is a great opportunity for him in a tough league — a very tough league. But I think he fits the mold.”

He said this, too: “(Byington’s) strength, I think, is his demeanor. He’s very levelheaded — I was a little wild. He loves up-tempo basketball, and that we share in common. But I was a little more old school as a coach. His demeanor with the kids, how he coaches them on the court, that’s so important today and he has a great feel for that.”

The Tennessee Titans are ripping up the offseason, the Nashville Predators are having their best season in years and Rick Barnes’ Tennessee Volunteers are two wins from a Final Four. But we begin again with Byington.

(Gestures broadly at Mark Byington) How we feeling? — Peter N.

It’s a good hire. It makes sense. That doesn’t mean it will work. The same was true when Vanderbilt hired Bryce Drew from Valparaiso eight years ago, and that didn’t work despite what some college basketball media who feel compelled to revise history would like to tell you. He was a good recruiter and a bad coach at Vanderbilt. But after Malcolm Turner’s failed Jerry Stackhouse experiment, AD Candice Lee opted for a successful mid-major coach who plays an up-tempo, offensively efficient brand of basketball.

That’s the right way to go. Apparently on the interwebs some Vanderbilt fans wanted more of an “exciting personality,” and some have pointed out that Byington has just one NCAA bid as a coach — this year’s fantastic James Madison team, which won at Michigan State and thumped Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament before running into Duke on the wrong day. But see, when you coach in one-bid leagues, you can be consistently good and still not collect those. Byington’s teams have been consistently good.

Recruiting (high school prospects and out of the portal) will tell the story. That’s where Stackhouse failed and Byington must be much better.

Hey Joe, has Candice Lee unearthed her next dream hire to resurrect Vandy men’s basketball? Can the JMU approach work at Vandy, or will coach Byington have to mold and transform? Is this hire back to the “recruiter over X’s and O’s” hire, or is this guy the one that brings both skills?  —Erich G.

Drew recruited and struggled to coach. Stackhouse coached and struggled to recruit. I’m confident Byington’s system will work and his coaching will be effective. So in a sense, the question is the same with him as it was with Stackhouse — can he get and keep good enough players to make this a regular NCAA Tournament program again?

It is said that Vandy has accumulated a decent amount of NIL money. Who decides how the NIL money is spent as far as which sport and which players receive the money? – John D.

I’m hesitant to answer any NIL/collective questions with certainty because the people who receive that money often have the same questions. But I know that in many cases, the folks who give substantial money to a collective do it for a specific sport. At times, for a specific player. For example, a year ago when Vanderbilt had a key player go into the portal, money was raised specifically to keep that player. He stayed. A lot of money was raised for Clark Lea’s program late in the season, for that money to be used as best it could to increase the overall talent level in the program.

Can Rick Barnes get past his ceiling of the Elite 8? – Scott C.

For the record, in a seven-year span at Texas, Barnes had a Final Four, two Elite 8s and two more Sweet 16 appearances. The ceiling to date is the Final Four — though that was 21 years ago. If Tennessee beats Creighton, that will be his fourth venture that deep into the tournament — and the second in Tennessee history. I like his chances against Creighton. I think the Vols present more matchup issues defensively than the other way around, though Jonas Aidoo and Tobe Awaka have to be on their game and physical against another good 7-footer.

Can UT beat Purdue — I’m penciling Purdue in over Gonzaga — to reach the Final Four? Sure. We saw those teams play in Hawaii and it went down to the end. I would pick Purdue right now because I’ve had the Boilers as my national champ all season and they’ve done nothing to change my mind. But that would be a fantastic matchup.

Is Kellie Harper out? Pat Summitt’s legacy cannot be followed like this. — Aniket S. 

Give us your thoughts on Lady Vols coach Kellie Harper. Is it time for the Vols to consider a new head coach? — Jim Y.

I don’t think Harper will be out. I do think that could be a real discussion next season, given five seasons of good-not-great basketball from this program under her. Rickea Jackson is an absolute star and will be great in the WNBA. To not reach the second weekend with a talent like that is problematic. Look, coaching in Summitt’s shadow is going to make most coaches look bad by comparison. But this is one of the two greatest programs in the history of the sport, and it’s not in the top two in the SEC anymore. The question is how much that bothers Danny White right now.

Should Titans fans be worried about L’Jarius Sneed’s knee injury? Second question, if LT (Joe Alt) is the presumptive first-round pick, what is your best guess as to what happens in the second round? — Ari H. 

If Alt is there at 7, he’s the pick, right? … Right?? — George R. 

The verified reporting on Sneed is that he missed several training camp practices with knee swelling. His performance last season was exceptional and was not that of an injured player. So it appears the downplaying of his injury during camp was not spin. At this point, I would not deem that a major concern. As for the draft, I do think Alt will be there, and I would think the Titans would go there and lock up their hopeful left tackle for the next decade. If that’s the case, in terms of need, an edge or interior defensive lineman would be the obvious way to go. But what if a receiver at the top of the Titans’ big board is there? Go with the big board.

Very excited by the bulk of the Titans’ free agency signings, but I’m concerned about the inside linebacker spot. I know the position has been a little devalued but I can’t imagine the front office is planning on going into the season with Jack Gibbens as the starter again. You think it’s more likely they draft somebody or pick up another free agent? Or are they higher on the Gibby/Kenneth Murray pairing than everyone else seems to be? — Tom H.

One thing Brian Callahan mentioned to reporters at the owners’ meetings this week was the missing of some targets in free agency, which was part of the reason the Titans had more money to push toward pursuing Calvin Ridley. Ran Carthon has said the Titans wanted to keep Azeez Al-Shaiir and Denico Autry. The Titans were in on Jerome Baker before he signed for a year and $7 million in Seattle. So it should be clear this situation was not the plan. Will it end up the reality? I’m with you, Gibbens is ideally a backup. We will see if they can address that. I’ll be very surprised if at least one add isn’t made at that spot.

What are your predicted AFC South rankings at the end of the season? — Reid B.

Let’s go Texans and then … Titans. Then Jags. Then Colts. A clear No. 1 to me, and then very close among the next three. Had the Colts been able to get Sneed instead of the Titans, I might have a different order.

Three questions with a preamble to hopefully help guide the thought process for them. I keep hearing the complaints of national media (or any media outside of Nashville) making poor takes on the Titans. I hear the same complaints pretty frequently about the Predators not receiving the national attention they deserve or players like Roman Josi not getting the award attention he should get. Both of these complaints generally boil down to the same main point of neither team receiving the coverage they “deserve.”

Is there truth to the Titans and Predators not getting national recognition? Is there an actual discrepancy in coverage caused by these teams being small market or is it just they traditionally haven’t had news worth covering? What does a team have to do to not be a small-market team? — Harrison A.

On your last question, Harrison, market size is market size. Nashville is growing rapidly but still down the list as Nielsen’s No. 26 TV market. But here’s an important point: If you have a star in your market, that can bring massive coverage to your team. See: Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City. Also see: Ja Morant in Memphis. Derrick Henry brought some of that to the Titans. P.K. Subban elevated the Preds’ profile — and their play for two seasons to true Cup contender. Coverage followed.

But the main point for me here is that, in general, local media cover teams much better than national media. If you’re a fan in any market who wants the best coverage of your teams, you will get better information and insight from people who are there on a daily basis than from people who cover the leagues/sports at large. The national folks get things wrong on plenty of teams, not just the ones from Nashville. It’s just that you don’t notice those mistakes, right?

Given the recent success of the Predators, how much should the offseason plan change? Meaning is Juuse Saros still a trade option if we make a deep run, or would we be better off keeping him and bringing Yaroslav Askarov up as a backup or even 1A/1B (much the same way we did with Pekka Rinne and Saros for Pekka’s last couple of seasons)? Will the Preds shift away from rebuild mode? SHOULD they? — Jason S.

So you’re going to give Saros an eight-year deal around $8 million AAV and have him split time? The comparison to his split with Rinne is flawed because Rinne was much closer to the end of his career. The Preds are going to have to invest around that level if they’re keeping Saros. And if they do that, they have to move Askarov and recoup assets for him. It’s bad asset management otherwise. And at this point, as well as this team is playing, as well as Saros is playing, I’m back to believing they should invest in Saros and move the kid. In terms of rebuild mode, the plan was always going to be to use these assets to go get difference-making forwards. That’s still the plan. Easier to state than execute, but it’s the right plan.

With the way the Preds are playing, I don’t know how any team in the NHL can beat them in a seven-game series. They are bound to lose some, but if they play with this level of commitment, they should win the Stanley Cup. I got them at plus-6000. now they are plus-3500. What a story that would be. — Rob C.

This has been an amazing run. Good luck on your wagering. But calm down, Rob! You don’t know how any team in the NHL can beat them in a series? Let’s see who they draw and see if they can maintain this excellence and win one series first, OK?

It seems like there still isn’t much traction for Barry Trotz or Andrew Brunette to win GM of the Year or the Jack Adams Award, respectively. Why is that? Not saying they both should be front-runners, but they have certainly put this team in a position most did not think they would be in this season. — Tanner B.

Both should be right there. I think Rick Tocchet has been the presumed winner of the Jack Adams for what he’s done in Vancouver, but if the Preds carry this all the way to the end? Brunette should get a serious look. Trotz might be in an even better position to win if that’s the case.

Any momentum for the Nashville Stars? Would MLB want Nashville to be in the AL given the proximity of several NL teams? — Bill W.

Yes on the AL. No on the first question. Not until you tell me who’s paying or moving here.

Will Nashville become a “core” Super Bowl site for the first 20 years after the new stadium is built, meaning it would host it two to four times? — Jonathan S.

I strongly believe Nashville will be in the rotation to some extent for the Super Bowl, not just get the one that automatically comes with a new stadium. Weather is the only possible deterrent, but it’s usually fine in February. Everything else about the city screams Super Bowl regular.

(Photo of Mark Byington: Elsa / Getty Image)

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