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

Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball Mailbag: SEC play has arrived

Jerry Stackhouse and the Vanderbilt Commodores are set to begin their 18-game SEC campaign on Tuesday against Arkansas.
Scotty+Pippen+Jr.+drives+against+Alabama+State+on+Nov.+10%2C+2021.
Josh Rehders
Scotty Pippen Jr. drives against Alabama State on Nov. 10, 2021. (Hustler Multimedia/Josh Rehders)

It’s officially 2022 and the new year has brought SEC basketball back to West End. On Tuesday, head coach Jerry Stackhouse and the Vanderbilt Commodores will head to Fayetteville, Arkansas, for their opening conference game against the Razorbacks.

Vanderbilt will head west following a successful winter break on and off the hardwood. From Dec. 22-25, the Commodores competed in the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii, eventually taking home the championship due to COVID-19 protocols preventing the Stanford Cardinal from competing.

Following the cancellation, the Commodores will have logged nearly two weeks without a game, which should help a number of lingering injuries. Center Liam Robbins continues to rehab from a foot injury while forward Jamaine Mann battles his way back from a knee sprain suffered in Hawaii. Freshman guard Shane Dezonie was also playing with a sprained ankle in the Diamond Head Classic.

At 8-4, the Commodores have postseason aspirations again. Sports Editor Justin Hershey and Deputy Sports Editor Bryce Smith answer all your mailbag questions below about a tough SEC slate to come.

What should Vanderbilt’s target record be in the SEC to demonstrate the program is headed in the right direction under Jerry Stackhouse?

Justin Hershey: The answer to this question lies here: what SEC record enables Vanderbilt to play postseason basketball? After two years of being in the dumpster of the SEC, the Commodores have more talent and age than they have had under Jerry Stackhouse. With that, there are increased expectations. Vanderbilt needs to make the NIT at least to show that the program is headed in the right direction. To make the NIT, the Commodores need a winning record. Last year, Mississippi State made the final of the NIT by going 15-14 in the regular season. Vanderbilt—currently 8-4—can get to 15-14 with seven conference wins. There is my number: 7. Seven wins would also be the Commodores’ most in-conference since 2016-17.

Bryce Smith: I like your thought process here. Making the NIT would certainly be a sign of progress for Stackhouse in Year 3 and would be good enough to keep him around for next season, one would think. Couple that with the program’s best recruiting class in Stackhouse’s tenure and I think the program would be clearly heading in the right direction. Anywhere between seven and 10 wins is doable because as we discussed on our podcast yesterday, there are wins to be had on the schedule. Vanderbilt will get Georgia twice, South Carolina twice, Missouri at home and Ole Miss. That’s six games the Commodores will be favored in and there will be 12 more opportunities besides those to notch a victory. I’m thinking Stackhouse will have this ship pointed in the right direction when we revisit this conversation come season’s end. 

JH: I think the recruiting point is a good one. If Vanderbilt can go to the NIT, Stackhouse will have a clear selling point to recruits down the line: we have made progress and won’t be stopping anytime soon. After just six SEC wins in the past two years, he was already able to land four recruits in the class of 2022 that really fit his schemes. Imagine what he could do if he could pitch NCAA Tournament hopes and the Vandy United campaign—which seemingly will address basketball first—to the class of 2023? To play devil’s advocate for a second, though—if Vanderbilt fails to make the NIT, then athletic director Candice Storey Lee is going to have some serious evaluation to do. Stackhouse will be around next year, I don’t have a doubt about that. But if real, tangible, visual progress isn’t made this season, it’s going to be tough for this fanbase to jump behind Stackhouse for the future.

If you had to choose one player you think is primed to see either an increased role or just really come on strong throughout the rest of the season, who would you say and why?

JH: Bryce and I might have the same answer here—but I get to go first. Shane Dezonie is my pick. The freshmen guard is currently dealing with a high ankle sprain but is day to day as of now and was really terrific in two games during the Diamond Head Classic. Coming into this year, I pictured Dezonie as a guy with immense upside who was not great at any one thing, but was solid at everything. I think that assessment is pretty spot on, if I do say so myself, but I think he is a little better than solid at everything. His minutes have slowly ticked upwards, and they should continue to do so, but he just does a little bit of everything. My favorite parts of his game are his playmaking and his ability to play above the rim. In Hawai’i, he had a few coast-to-coast takes that were really impressive, he banged a couple of open 3s, and is also averaging over a steal per game his last three games. His per minute statistics are off the charts and I’m excited to see what he might be able to do against some SEC competition.

BS: Yep, I think Dezonie was my pick too, but the nice thing about this year’s roster is that there are a number of guys up and down the lineup that I’m intrigued to see more from. Another guy that is interesting to me is Myles Stute. I’ve been hard on the sophomore in the past for his tendency to disappear from games at times, but Stute had easily his best game of the year against BYU. He has started 10 games already this season, so I don’t necessarily expect his contributions to increase in terms of playing time, but I think he falls under the “come on strong throughout the rest of the season” category. At 6’7”, 210 lbs. Stute has SEC size for a wing player and a good stroke from deep. The thing with him is consistency with his 3-point jumper and effort on defense and on the glass. Against BYU, he provided all of those things and it was a big boost—if Vanderbilt is able to get that night in, night out from him they become a much better team. As much as anyone on this squad, I’d label him a rhythm, streaky type player, so I’m excited to see what he can do after finding some confidence in the last game out. Trey Thomas is a similar candidate in this mold to watch. 

JH: I like the Stute pick because I think in order for this team to win close to double-digit SEC games, he is going to have to be really solid. Much was made about his offseason work to his body and he put that on display in that BYU game—not sure I’ve ever seen him throw down a dunk off of two feet like that putback in the second half. I’ll throw one other name out there for fun because I think he could become more of a factor than we think: Gabe Dorsey. I know a lot of Commodore fans questioned why he started a couple games in December and based on his shooting numbers, I understand why. But I believe, if not this year, that next year, he will be Vanderbilt’s best dead-eye, spot-up shooter off the bench. From all accounts, including Stackhouse’s and Pippen Jr.’s, Dorsey has lit it up from beyond the arc in practice. I’m just waiting for him to find that rhythm in games because he already goes all out on defense.

What have you seen in the nonconference schedule that excites you about this team heading into SEC? Or that concerns you?

BS: Good question, because I think I’ve seen things in the nonconference that have both excited and concerned me. First off, as I talked about in my latest Memorial Minutes column, the defense has been a huge surprise and has emerged as the hallmark of this team. According to KenPom, Vanderbilt is rated 59th in the country in defensive efficiency after finishing 136th (2021) and 221st (2020) in Stackhouse’s first two campaigns. Quentin Millora-Brown and transfers like Rodney Chatman, Jamaine Mann and Terren Frank have been very beneficial in this regard. On the other end of the floor, the offense has taken a step back, which I wasn’t necessarily expecting. Most concerning: the shooting woes. The Commodores have yet to find consistent shooting from deep, rating 303rd in the country in 3-point percentage. On the flip side, Vanderbilt has shot the ball better as of late and Scotty Pippen Jr. has dominated during the team’s three game winning streak. And Stackhouse—who has always shown he can draw up X’s and O’s—is still getting open looks out of his sets. You’d like to think that the Commodores will continue to regress to the mean in this area. 

JH: I’ll go a bit more broad with this one but I’ll point to the team’s improvement. Stackhouse’s teams have always shown an ability to improve over time. During year one it happened around the LSU game in early February. During year two, it happened in late January with a pair of wins over South Carolina and Mississippi State. Now, it seems as though it started happening in the nonconference. This team has so much momentum right now: Chatman back in the fold, a championship trophy from a preseason tournament and hopefully the return of Liam Robbins in the next few weeks (more on that later). In 2020 Vanderbilt entered SEC play after one of the ugliest losses I can remember against SMU in overtime. In 2021 they did so following a 20-point loss on the road to Davidson and a victory over Alcorn State—one of the worst teams in Division 1. I love the momentum they are coming into conference play with. On the other hand, my biggest concern is also offense, but that concern revolves around Jordan Wright. We have seen how good he can be: he was averaging almost 20 points per game after his first four games. But lately, he has been in a rut, and that can’t continue if Vanderbilt is going to be successful in SEC play. As long as Robbins remains out, Wright is option number two for the Commodores, and they need him to play like it. He did that in the second half against BYU thanks to some good coaching from Stackhouse. They got him in the post and got him out in transition. I want to see a lot more of that from Wright as conference play heats up.

BS: Wright’s development over the course of the SEC schedule is going to be huge, I agree. The junior has always shown a knack for bullying his way to the rim and getting buckets, but for Vanderbilt to reach their offensive potential they will need him to tap into his full arsenal on that end of the floor. Wright is a good shooter from deep, but has struggled in that area since the beginning of the year. The biggest thing for me is the stroke and noticeably improved fluidity of his jumper—that lends itself to the thinking that his numbers (he’s shooting just over 30 percent from 3 right now) will indeed get better. And, like you mentioned, getting him going is just as much an effort from Stackhouse. Wright is going to continue to need good sets to get him the ball in advantageous positions against weaker defenders, because he is this team’s second-best scorer. The issues lately for him haven’t been anything concerning talent or opportunity, I’d liken it more to a pitcher getting the yips—it has been blown layups and jumpers going in and out of the rim that have plagued Wright. His evolution, from exciting in the beginning of nonconference to a bit concerning as time went on, will be a major storyline as we hit league play. 

The biggest question of all: any Liam Robbins updates?

BS: Here’s what we know unofficially—Stackhouse discussed a 4-6 week timeline back on Dec. 9 and it is now Jan. 3. Further, Robbins was noticeably not in his walking boot at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii, at least according to photos from the team’s Twitter account. By all accounts that means he is progressing, but Stackhouse didn’t sound all too positive on Monday.

JH: No he certainly did not. When meeting with the media, Stackhouse indicated that Robbins is now pain-free in his foot. He also explained that the big man had gone through another MRI on Dec. 30 that showed improvement. That will have been his second or third MRI this fall. While it’s good to see that the boot is off and improvement is happening, Stackhouse seemed as negative as he has all year on Monday about the big man’s chances of playing anytime soon. That 4-6 week timeline he labeled back in December would run out during the third week of January. There’s no way I can see him back in 2-3 weeks. Stackhouse concluded the Robbins question on Monday with a very eerie quote: “Obviously, that would be a great boost, a great kick if he is able to get back in the mix sooner rather than later, but my mindset is it will be later if at all.”

BS: Welp. Make it four years in a row that Vanderbilt’s top or second-best player has missed extended time in the SEC schedule. That’s now Darius Garland in 2019, Aaron Nesmith in 2020, Dylan Disu in 2021 and Liam Robbins in 2022. I don’t even know what to say at this point—just brutal luck and obviously a big blow if he is unable to suit up at any point this season. I suppose that means we can hold off on our hypothetical lineup configurations once Robbins returns to play for now (*tears form*). If there is one way to spin this positively, it is that Vanderbilt has shown the capacity to beat good teams without Robbins and QMB has been the revelation of the season so far at the 5. But this is certainly not an ideal update from Stackhouse this morning. 

JH: I’m at the point where I don’t expect to see Robbins this season. No inside knowledge here, but I don’t see any positive signs in this situation. Keep in mind he does have one more year left. If he is able to get over this stress injury, will he come back next year? Only time will tell, I guess.

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About the Contributors
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]    
Bryce Smith, Former Sports Editor
Bryce Smith ('23) is majoring in human and organizational development in Peabody College with a minor in business. Bryce previously wrote for SBNation before joining The Hustler. Hailing from Chicago, Bryce is a die-hard Bears and Cubs fan who is also hoping that the Bulls and Blackhawks may one day rekindle their dominance. He can be reached at [email protected].    
Josh Rehders, Deputy Photography Director
Josh Rehders ('24) is from Houston and is studying computer science in the School of Engineering. When he is not shooting for The Hustler, Vanderbilt Athletics or freelancing, he enjoys finding new music and good food. He can be reached at [email protected].
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