With 5:48 remaining in the first half of Vanderbilt’s 21st game of the 2021-22 basketball season, head coach Jerry Stackhouse’s expected preseason starting five took the court together for the first time.
The SEC’s Preseason Player of the Year Scotty Pippen Jr., a savvy transfer guard from Dayton Rodney Chatman, second and third-year forwards Myles Stute and Jordan Wright and one of the most highly coveted big men in last year’s transfer portal, Liam Robbins, finally graced the court together against No. 5 Kentucky.
Robbins made his Vanderbilt debut after missing all 20 of the Commodores’ previous games and with Chatman sidelined for 13 of those, Stackhouse’s squad was more than shorthanded for most of this season. But finally, the Commodores are whole.
With all 13 of their scholarship players available, Vanderbilt had more tools to work with against the Wildcats and though the result, a 77-70 loss, wasn’t what Vanderbilt was looking for, it was more than a respectable effort against a national-title contender.
“I just think it’s a confidence booster for our guys, lets them know that we can play with anybody,” Stackhouse said after the loss. “When we share the ball and we defend the way that we’re capable of, then we can come in and not just win, but we can do some really good things. A lot of positives. Not the main positive that we want, but there’s a lot of good takeaways from tonight.”
Nine games plus one guaranteed SEC Tournament game remain in Stackhouse’s third year on West End. At this time in 2020, the head coach had already lost Aaron Nesmith to injury. At this time in 2021, he would soon lose Dylan Disu to a similar fate. This year, barring any unforeseen injuries, he is adding pieces late in the year. With a full roster at their disposal and a chance at the program’s first winning record since 2017 on the line, the Commodores’ stretch run is something to be excited about.
Robbins to the Rescue?
It has been a long road back to action for Robbins, the Big Ten’s leader in blocked shots last season, but step one was taking the floor in real competition. Check that off the list.
“Liam, obviously, he’s getting his feet under him. A lot of emotions in his first game back and coming back in this type of environment,” Stackhouse said. “Give credit to him. He wanted to get in, wanted to get back and felt like he was ready to contribute a few minutes. So we were really excited to have him and we know that we’ll continue to get better as he gets a better feel of what we want to get accomplished on both ends of the floor.”
His welcome back gift? Oscar Tshiebwe, one of the best big men college basketball has seen in years, and a trip to Rupp Arena. Yikes.
But credit to both him and Quentin Millora-Brown, who together held Tshiebwe to just 2-of-5 shooting and helped the Commodores outrebound Kentucky 37-30.
Robbins tallied 13 minutes in his Vanderbilt debut and while he failed to score any points, his presence on the floor was obvious. He very much looked like a big man who hadn’t played a basketball game in nearly 365 days, but that shouldn’t be used against him in evaluating his first game back.
The former Minnesota center was a bit slow up and down the court, found himself out of position at times and played just three-minute spurts throughout the game due to fatigue. But he was spelled throughout the contest by Millora-Brown, who continued adding to his team-high plus-minus that currently stands at plus-105.
The Commodores’ most important “glue guy” battled Tshiebwe (and the referees, but we won’t get into that) for 23 minutes, finishing the game a plus-13 in the box score thanks to his seven points and seven rebounds.
The Virginia native helped Vanderbilt control the flow of the evening’s affairs by setting a physical tone early. For much of the ballgame, Vanderbilt went shot-for-shot with its talented opposition, constantly burying silencing jump shots and forcing tough looks for the Wildcats at the other end. Vanderbilt dictated much of what Kentucky did on offense and kept themselves at arms length by sticking to a game plan that revolved around rebounding.
As good as Millora-Brown is, Robbins, once acclimated, will give the Commodores something they haven’t had: a big who can stretch the floor and score down low. And with his presence in the rotation, Vanderbilt will now have a 6’10”-plus player on the court at all times. Before Robbins’ return, when Millora-Brown stepped off the floor it was Jamaine Mann—who is 6’6”—manning the middle. Those days are over for the Commodores, and much of the reason that they were able to outscore Kentucky in the paint was because of the constant presence of a true center.
I’ve said all year that while the return of Robbins and to a large extent, Chatman too, would be incredibly valuable. But let’s not kid ourselves, the Commodores have just 10 guaranteed games left on their schedule. Basketball is a game of chemistry and the best big man-point guard tandems are those that run dozens of pick-and-rolls together all offseason and in practice to learn each others’ tendencies.
From all accounts, Robbins has hardly participated in 5-on-5 in practice and it was evident on Wednesday that he has a long way to go before being properly integrated into the flow of Vanderbilt’s offense. Is 10 games enough time for Stackhouse to achieve what he envisioned when he signed Robbins? Only time will tell.
Turnovers Turning the Tide
While giveaways hurt the Commodores all night long against Kentucky, one stretch of five minutes in particular killed Vanderbilt’s chances of pulling the colossal upset.
After a 9-0 Commodore run concluded at the 10:20 mark of the first half, Vanderbilt led the Wildcats 18-15. But from 10:20 to 4:50, Vanderbilt committed five of their 18 turnovers, went 0-of-3 from the field and surrendered a 10-2 run that gave all of the momentum right back to the home squad. Against a team as talented as Kentucky, even a small five-minute stretch can be what dooms you, and that’s what happened to Vanderbilt.
From the 10:20 mark until the end of the first half, the Commodores were outscored 26-13. After holding the Wildcats to just 5-of-16 shooting early in the opening frame, Kentucky finished the half hitting nine of their 12 shots and entered the locker room up 10—a deficit that was slightly too large for the Commodores to overcome.
“We got too deep a few times and had some turnovers. I think that was the difference in the game,” Stackhouse said of his team’s ball security. “In the first half, we had 11 turnovers [that Kentucky turned into] 10 points and we were down 10. We actually won the second half, so that’s a positive we can take for that.”
Vanderbilt not only won the second half 39-36, but they won the field goal-percentage battle, and the aforementioned rebounding and points in the paint battles for the game. But Kentucky’s eight fewer turnovers and a few other key discrepancies paved the way for a defeat.
Kentucky did an excellent job of limiting the Commodores from getting to their bread and butter: the 3-point shot. It’s not often it takes me 1,300-plus words in Memorial Minutes before mentioning Vanderbilt’s 3-point shooting, but the Wildcats made the longball a nonfactor by chasing Commodore shooters off the line.
Vanderbilt was held to just 16 3-point attempts, their fewest in a game all season. Vanderbilt’s stars, Pippen Jr. and Wright, creatively found their way into the paint all night en route to 33 and 14 points, respectively, but Vanderbilt’s other three starters combined for just seven points. Stute, Vanderbilt’s third-leading scorer, didn’t even attempt a shot and Chatman gave the Commodores zero points on 0-of-3 from the field.
On the other end, Kentucky got just 14 points from two of their stars, Tshiebwe and Sahvir Wheeler, but role players Keion Brooks Jr. and Davion Mintz combined for a whopping 41 points on 13-of-26 from the field. The Wildcats boasted a few too many contributors for Vanderbilt to compete with.
Mintz, a career 36% 3-point shooter, has now hit a ridiculous 13 of 26 3s against Vanderbilt in four career matchups. His career-high 21 points on Wednesday made him the sixth different Wildcat to score 20-plus at some point this season and left Commodore fans hoping he can’t find a way back to Lexington for a seventh year of eligibility next season.
Getting One for Shan
A seven-point loss to the nation’s No. 5 team is not cause for concern. I would argue the performance actually should provide some incredible momentum heading into a contest with a vulnerable No. 25 LSU team this Saturday.
Last Saturday, the Commodores handled the Georgia Bulldogs in front of one of the better crowds of the year. This Saturday, Vanderbilt will honor one of its all-time great players Shan Foster. So expect a good crowd this weekend too.
Vanderbilt is “getting whole”, as Stackhouse puts it, for the first time all season. Robbins will continue improving as he gets more minutes and Chatman is coming off of a season-high 29 minutes and while he wasn’t excellent offensively, he was the primary reason behind Wheeler’s 0-of-8 shooting game at the other end.
Besides health, the last three games have proven favorable to the Commodores in the box score, and LSU will come to Nashville wounded. The Commodores have shot 26-of-56 from beyond the 3-point arc over their last three games and LSU will likely be down starting point guard Xavier Pinson due to a knee injury.
The Tigers are coming off an ugly home loss to Ole Miss and with plenty of energy expected at Memorial Gymnasium on Saturday, the Commodores should have all the tools needed to take them down. On Feb. 5, 2020, Vanderbilt upset then-No. 18 LSU to snap a 26-game SEC losing streak. Exactly two years to the day from that ever important victory, the Commodores will look to upset the Tigers once again.