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The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Three Thoughts: A Spider problem

A shorthanded Vanderbilt team dropped their first game of the year on Wednesday 78-67 to Richmond at Memorial Gymnasium, marking their third consecutive loss to the Spiders.
An+ugly+first+half+was+too+much+for+the+Commodores+to+overcome+on+Wednesday+as+they+lost+to+Richmond+78-67.+%28Hustler+Multimedia%2FTruman+McDaniel%29.
An ugly first half was too much for the Commodores to overcome on Wednesday as they lost to Richmond 78-67. (Hustler Multimedia/Truman McDaniel).

Exactly 13 months from this past Monday, Vanderbilt traveled to Virginia to take on Richmond for the first time since the Spiders soiled the Commodores’ 2011 NCAA Tournament. Despite an electrifying 34 points from Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt was unable to come away with an overtime win, dropping to 2-1 in head coach Jerry Stakhouse’s inaugural season.

Quite a bit has happened since that loss, but once again the Spiders dropped the Commodores to 2-1 on Wednesday, only this time with a convincing, 78-67 win.

“Last year they beat us, so we kind of had revenge in our minds today,” a dejected Scotty Pippen Jr. said after the game. “We weren’t able to do it, but we played hard in the second half, that’s all I can really say.”

The Commodores failed to find revenge in the afternoon matinee at Memorial. But in a game that featured two very different halves, Vanderbilt was forced to play with a refreshing sense of urgency for the first time this season.

First half woes

The first half was downright ugly and there is no way around it. 

The Spiders jumped all over Vanderbilt, boasting their experience and chemistry while adhering to a simple offensive game plan: move the ball quickly and force Vanderbilt to rotate.

They caught defenders sleeping, forced the Commodores into difficult rotations and shot an incredible 72% from the field in the first half, thanks in part to their hot shooting and Vanderbilt’s lackluster defense.

The frame ended fittingly, with an inexcusable Commodore turnover following a Richmond basket. A careless inbounds pass from Braelee Albert resulted in an easy steal for the Atlantic 10’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year Jacob Gilyard, who promptly gave it up to his teammate Connor Crabtree for the easy score. 

“It was deflating that we didn’t really compete,” Stackhouse said after the game. “They got a lot of confidence early on from us. We had good looks. I think there was an opportunity for us, even though they were making shots, to still be within it, but we didn’t make shots ourselves.”

Vanderbilt shot just 6-28 in the first half, and it was obvious that their lack of success on offense translated into failed execution on defense. With the absence of DJ Harvey to anchor the attack, Pippen Jr. was charged with leading the way, but his afternoon got off to a slow start.

The Commodores missed far too many open shots to keep up with Richmond’s hot shooting, and an overall lack of fight left Stackhouse’s team down 24 entering the second half. 

By then, the Commodores could have easily chalked up the loss to being short-handed. But amidst plenty of possible excuses, Stackhouse kept his team engaged, and the Commodores responded with a sense of urgency in the second half.

“He [Stackhouse] was pretty fired up [at halftime]. He was just letting us know that it isn’t about this game, it’s just about experience at this point,” Pippen Jr. said.

To spark his team, Stackhouse benched starting guards Max Evans and Tyrin Lawrence and center Quentin Millora-Brown, turning to Trey Thomas, Braelee Albert and Jordan Wright to help Vanderbilt work back from their 24-point deficit. 

Scotty Pippen Jr. rises for a contested layup against Richmond. (Hustler Multimedia/Truman McDaniel).

The Commodores utilized a smaller lineup and turned up the speed and intensity. Using an unorthodox but at times effective 1-3-1 press, Vanderbilt dictated the pace of the game, turning the second half into a track meet.

For the first time all season, it felt like the Commodores were actually playing for something. That something was, of course, the fear of losing by 40 on their home court, but the situation forced them to tap into an energy and intensity not seen from this group thus far.

That tone was set by Pippen Jr. He came out with an attacking mindset, getting downhill with speed and seeking out contact. He controlled the pace of the game on both ends and was able to help Vanderbilt match its first half point total just 5:30 into the second half.

A quick 21-12 run featured a trio of three pointers, three energetic dunks and an attention to detail that the Commodores have not played with yet this season, and it was refreshing to see.

Despite cutting the Spider lead to nine with just ten minutes remaining and outscoring the Spiders 46-33 in the second half, the hole was simply too big to climb out. The game marked the second Southeastern Conference win for Richmond, a team that, if they were in the SEC, would likely compete for a top-three spot in the conference.

Finding the Magic

Stackhouse still has much to learn about this year’s Commodore team. It was evident on Wednesday that he has yet to find the lineup combinations that will maximize his team’s potential.

The catalysts are undoubtedly Pippen Jr., Disu and Harvey, when he eventually returns to the court. But the supporting cast is extremely fluid at this point. It’s clear this has been frustrating for Stackhouse, and by benching three starters entering the second half, he sent a message to this team that defense and effort will translate into playing time.

One of the players who took advantage of this opportunity was Thomas. The freshman has been heralded for his quickness and ability to shoot from long range, but it wasn’t until Wednesday that Commodore fans saw the added dimension that he brings to the table.

Thomas’ game is similar to that of former Auburn star Jared Harper. Despite their sub-six foot statures, both play hard and fast. Thomas is never standing around and he is meaningful with his dribble. He snakes his way into the paint, runs off screens well, and has a quick trigger that will help him retain valuable minutes.

 

Of all the Commodores who have played more than one game, Thomas boasts the highest plus-minus on the team at +15, and at just 5’11”, Thomas racked up five rebounds against Richmond, demonstrating a scrapiness that this team will need moving forward. 

For 14 of 20 second half minutes, Stackhouse used a smaller lineup with Disu at the center position that has found success early on this season. Curiously, Stackhouse expressed a reluctance to play this lineup, rooted in frustration with his frontcourt players.

“We shouldn’t have to go small and have to play Dylan at the five,” Stackhouse said. “Yeah, it gives us somewhat of an advantage on offense, but it’s taxing for him defensively for him to have to bang with those types of guys especially with Clevon out, Clevon solves a lot of issues for us.”

When Brown is healthy, Commodore fans should fully expect Stackhouse’s go-to lineup to be Pippen Jr., Evans, Harvey, Disu and Brown. But lineups with Disu at the five and Wright at the four have been far too good for Stackhouse to abandon.

That is because these lineups open the entire offense for Pippen Jr., who is quickly emerging as one of the SEC’s best point guards.

Pippen Jr. is at his best when he can attack the lane, force the defense to collapse and make a creative pass to a teammate for a layup or open three pointer. But when Obinna, Millora-Brown, or even Albert are in the game, opposing forwards can clog the lane and prevent Pippen Jr. from attacking.

As the Commodores continue to get healthier, players such as Obinna and Albert will likely be phased out of the rotation. Small mistakes such as missed layups and an inability to knock down an open three pointer hold both of these players back, despite their above-replacement defensive abilities.

And it’s no doubt Stackhouse’s hope that once Brown, who does have the ability to space the floor, returns, he will have a physical defensive anchor on the court while still creating the space Pippen Jr. needs to work on offense.

Although he has yet to find the perfect lineups, Stackhouse should be pleased with the energy that his team responded with in the second half. Memorial Magic will be hard to come by this season without fans in the stands. But the Commodores found a swagger Wednesday afternoon that was fueled by adversity and that is something they can build upon.

Stack out of the house

The game capped off a taxing week for Stackhouse, as news of his father’s passing circulated on Monday, but the Commodores’ head coach elected to be with his team Wednesday in a move he knows his father would have approved of.

“What I got from my dad is always, ‘a man gotta do what a man gotta do.’ That was one of his favorite sayings, so I just felt like I needed to be here to take care of my business,” Stackhouse said.

However, he also indicated that he would not be with the team for their next matchup on Saturday against Radford in order to be with his family. This will present an interesting opportunity for one of his assistants to lead the team into their penultimate non-conference game against a well-coached Radford team.

While he has not decided who will be at the helm, he cited assistants Faragi Phillips and Adam Mazarei as possible candidates to assume his position. Look out for his special assistant Nicki Gross as another possible fill-in as well.

Even more pressing, however, is the uncertainty with which he spoke of Harvey, Myles Stute and Clevon Brown. He suggested that they would likely not be back on Saturday, but he is hoping to have them for the beginning of conference play on Dec. 30.

With just two contests left before a visit from the Florida Gators, Stackhouse will have little time to finish preparing his team for SEC play. Expectations will need to be tempered for this team as they may have just 40 minutes on the court at full strength before conference play begins. But Saturday will offer another chance for Stackhouse to learn a bit more about his group, albeit from the film the next day.

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About the Contributor
Justin Hershey
Justin Hershey, Former Sports Editor
Justin Hershey ('22) was Sports Editor for The Vanderbilt Hustler. He has been on staff since freshman year, previously serving as a Staff Writer, Deputy Sports Editor and Lead Sports Analyst. He majored in human and organizational development with minors in business and economics. In addition to writing, he hosts The Hustler Sports 30 Podcast, enjoys playing golf and is waiting for his hometown Philadelphia 76ers to complete The Process. For tips and comments, feel free to reach out to: [email protected]    
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