The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

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.

Women’s Basketball: Three Pertinent Preseason Ponderings

After some rough sledding, the Commodores finally have a chance to make big strides this season, and it all starts with a winning pedigree.
Vanderbilt Athletics
Vanderbilt freshman Kendal Cheesman with head coach Shea Ralph this week. (Vanderbilt Athletics)

The last year has been a turbulent one for the Vanderbilt women’s basketball program. One might argue the turbulence has been present for the last five years, but there are a slew of reasons to be excited as a fan in 2021.

Vanderbilt enters this season with a brand new head coach, Shea Ralph, after dismissing Stephanie White following five lackluster seasons that all concluded with NCAA Tournament misses. The Commodores are also coming off a season incomplete, as they played just eight games in 2020 before deciding on Jan. 18 to suspend their season.

The team also returns only two seniors, both who saw minimal to no action last year due to injury and COVID-19 complications. If that wasn’t enough adversity, throw in the fact that the Commodores will be tasked with competing in the best conference in college basketball—Vanderbilt has quite a daunting season on its plate. Big change could be just what Vanderbilt needs, but all of these moving parts surely leave many questions. 

New captain on board: How will the Commodores change under the leadership of Shea Ralph?

Experience clearly won’t be a concern with this hire as Ralph has been on the court practically her whole life. From her playing days at UConn, to being drafted by the WNBA’s Utah Starzz, to making the University of Pittsburgh into a nationally ranked program, to being an assistant under one of the best coaches of all time in Geno Auriemma—Ralph has seen it all. 

This hire indicates that Vanderbilt is determined to make a strong change to the culture of their program. If anyone has a winning pedigree, it’s clearly Ralph. 

I believe sustainable excellence starts and ends with people,” Ralph said in her introductory press conference. “I will look for key qualities that I know I can’t coach, for example confidence, competitiveness, coachability, a tireless work ethic [and] being a great teammate, just to name a few.” 

This is just what fans of the Commodores have been waiting for: a coach who sets the tone early, holds players accountable and promotes a strong work ethic above all else. So, how will this winning pedigree translate? When is the turnaround coming that seems to be promised with her hiring?

“I would love for it to be sooner than later, but what I’ve learned over my career is when you build something the right way, it might take a little bit of time but it will last forever,” Ralph said in response to that very question. 

Clearly, this hire was an indication from both Vanderbilt and Ralph that they are in it for the long run. If, for some reason, the national championships, countless awards and years of hard work in winning programs aren’t enough evidence of Ralph’s readiness for this job, simply take it from her as she declared to the press, “I have spent my entire life preparing for this moment.”

Best of the best: How will Vandy fare in the ultra-competitive SEC?

The SEC is known for having the fiercest overall competition in NCAA women’s basketball. The conference is stacked with teams that very well could punch their ticket to a Final Four appearance, including the No. 1 ranked team in the country, South Carolina. 

While the Commodores start their season with a fair amount of nonconference play, they will truly be put to the test in the SEC this year, playing solely conference games from Dec. 30 until the season’s conclusion on Feb. 27. On top of this, Vanderbilt will have three different instances this season where they face top-25 SEC opponents in back-to-back games. 

It’s going to be a challenging stretch for the Commodores this winter, but definitely a telling one. After just experiencing an all too short and disjointed season of basketball, they will certainly get valuable experience under their belt with a full plate of action in the 2021-22 season. In the last five years under Stephanie White, the Commodores were a measly 13-52 against SEC competition, including losses in all three bouts of the kind last year. This trend obviously needs to be flipped if Vanderbilt has hopes of joining the echelon of elite basketball programs in the nation. 

It is hands-down, and I’ve thought for a long time, the best conference in the country,” Ralph said of the SEC in her opening presser. “Day in and day out you’re battling, and I love a good battle.” 

Stepping up to the challenge of the SEC will certainly be Ralph’s main focus as we head into winter.

Changes, changes, changes: What will the squad look like minus the Commodores’ three leading scorers?

On top of switching the head of the dragon, Vanderbilt will look quite different when it comes to the wings, too. That analogy made sense, right? 

The biggest blow to the team came on Mar. 31, as sophomore star Koi Love entered the transfer portal, eventually ending up at No. 22 Arizona. Love has quite a resume, as she was ranked in the top 70 of her recruiting class, was named to the All-SEC Freshman team in her rookie campaign and led the Commodores in points (20.8) and rebounds (9.5) per game in their abridged COVID-19 season. 

This is not the only loss the Commodores suffered. Their second and third leading scorers from the 2020-21 season, Chelsie Hall and Enna Pehadzic, both graduated. It’ll be up to Ralph and co. to facilitate the blossoming of a new looking squad, presumably with seniors Jordyn Cambridge and Brinae Alexander at the helm. 

“I am completely healthy. The rust is completely knocked off. I’m just ready to play in a game,” Cambridge, who is coming off an ACL injury, told the media last week. 

It is also crucial that juniors Yaubryon Chambers, Demi Washington and Brylee Bartman continue their development in order for the Commodores to take the next step. New additions to watch include two top-100 ranked freshman recruits Sacha Washington and De’Mauri Flournoy, as well as Dartmouth graduate Asha Taylor. It will certainly be a year of new faces for the Commodores all around, but again, that might be just what the doctor ordered.

The Commodores will begin their season on Nov. 9 when they host Gardner-Webb at Memorial Gymnasium.

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About the Contributor
Jonah Barbin
Jonah Barbin, Sports Podcast Producer
Jonah Barbin (‘25) is majoring in human and organizational development and cinema and media studies. In addition to writing about sports, you can catch him acting, scouring the fantasy football waiver wire, playing golf and fantasizing about what Odell Beckham Jr.’s career would have been if the Giants never traded him. You can reach him at [email protected].
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