Five on Five: Basketball Mailbag Preview

With tip-off just a few days away, our writers dove into the biggest questions facing both the men’s and women’s basketball teams.

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Alexa White

The Hustler sports staff answers your biggest questions ahead of basketball season. (Hustler Multimedia/Alexa White)

Basketball season has finally arrived here on West End as both the men and women will tip off their seasons on Monday night. Jerry Stackhouse’s squad will play host for the Memphis Tigers at Memorial Gymnasium while Shea Ralph and company will travel up to Western Kentucky for their opener. 

Both programs broke postseason droughts last season, advancing deep into the NIT. While the trajectory of both the men’s and women’s team is pointed firmly up, there are still lots of questions to be answered. That’s why we’re here. We answer all of your Twitter questions in The Hustler’s second mailbag of the year ahead of Monday’s basketball tipoff on West End. 

MBB: How deep will the rotation go early in the season?

Bryce Smith, Sports Editor: This is, without a doubt, the deepest roster that Jerry Stackhouse has had to work with during his time on West End. Gone are the days of trotting six scholarship players and a couple walk-ons for conference games (we still love you though, Drew Weikert) as Stackhouse has revamped this roster for 2022-23. 

As with most hoops teams in the transfer portal era, there was a lot of movement for Vanderbilt this offseason. Gone is single-season scoring record holder Scotty Pippen Jr. (736 points in 21-22) and all of last year’s freshman class. In is the No. 24 recruiting class in the country (247Sports) and transfers Ezra Manjon (UC Davis) and Emmanuel Ansong (Green Bay). 

All that change means a roster that is going to need a lot of figuring out, especially early in the season. The starting lineup seems pretty set: Manjon-Tyrin Lawrence-Jordan Wright-Myles Stute-and one of Quentin Millora-Brown or Liam Robbins. Whichever of those big men doesn’t start will be first off the bench. Then you’ve got freshmen Colin Smith and Malik Dia, sharpshooter Trey Thomas and whoever emerges at backup point guard between Noah Shelby and Paul Lewis. I didn’t even mention Lee Dort, Vanderbilt’s highest rated incoming recruit. 

So 10? 11? I don’t know. This is going to take some figuring out. 

Sam Curtis, Sports Copy Editor: Bryce hit the nail on the head. This year’s squad should truly reveal how legit a coach Stackhouse is (though there isn’t much wiggle room for Vanderbilt after they tendered him a shiny new contract extension). There’s enough guard combinations and size down low with a 6’10” Dort, a 6’10” QMB and a 7-footer in Robbins to make any coach’s mouth water. It’s truly a squad built to withstand the injuries that have plagued Commodore teams of years past. 

Looking specifically at who is likely to get the most time off the bench, I’d expect Shelby and Smith to quickly capture significant minutes. This is not only because of their high outlooks but also because of the team they’d be working into. Manjon is listed at 6’0”, so if he is to stay on the court, bringing Thomas who is also listed at 6’0” might not be plausible. This is where Shelby could fit. And though I’d love to see Dort get some early time, I expect Robbins and QMB to have a solid monopoly on the center position for the year, barring injury. With both of those team dynamics in mind, we can look towards the highly-touted Smith to get a chance at the first forward off the bench. He’ll compete with veteran Ansong early in the season, but with a four-inch height and a 20-pound weight difference in favor of Smith, we could see much more of the freshman once physical SEC play begins. 

At the end of the day, only people in the building have a good idea of what the rotation will look like. Maybe Stackhouse will only use veterans until midseason. Maybe the young recruiting class takes over the lineup. There’s a lot of possibilities but, with that, comes pressure. So, buckle up for a fun winter on West End.

WBB: Without Iyana Moore, who steps up in her absence?

Anish Mago, Deputy Sports Editor: Despite all of the optimism that surrounds Shea Ralph’s squad after an exciting debut season, the loss of Moore is major. The blow not only represents the loss of the Commodores’ second-leading scorer from last season, but Moore also ranked second on the team in total assists (2.9 per game) and was the Commodores best 3-point shooter, converting at a 38.2% clip from range. Coupled with the departure of Brinae Alexander, Moore was primed to assume a larger role this season and be the centerpiece of Ralph’s offense. Consider that plan scrapped. 

Luckily for Ralph, Vanderbilt was able to land a fantastic replacement for Moore from the transfer portal: former Saint Louis guard Ciaja Harbison. For a Vanderbilt squad that needs scoring from their backcourt, Harbison is a perfect fit for Ralph’s roster. The graduate senior averaged 17.5 points per game last year for Saint Louis and shot a respectable 30.7% from behind the arc. Four years into her college career, the Louisville native has not averaged less than 14 points per game in any season. Harbison profiles as a smaller, shiftier guard who uses a tight handle to find space in the mid-range and get to the rim. Though she might face some growing pains transitioning to a much more physical conference, I have no doubts that Harbison will be running the show offensively for the Commodores this season. 

Aiden Rutman, Sports Podcast Producer: I agree with Anish here. Harbison is certainly the first player that comes to mind, but my vote has to go to returner Sacha Washington. While she is by no means a similar player to Moore, the sophomore forward averaged 7.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game last season. While those numbers aren’t particularly staggering, it was her late season performance that caught my attention. Washington averaged 14.5 points and 9.7 rebounds through the last seven games of the season. She stepped up when the team needed her to, and I expect her to do much of the same this season, especially with all of the injuries that have beset the team thus far. 

MBB: Which freshmen will emerge early on? 

Andrew Wilf, Deputy Sports Editor: In the 2021-22 season, Scotty Pippen Jr. commanded the Vanderbilt backcourt and led the Commodores to a noteworthy NIT quarterfinals appearance. Pippen Jr. was an integral piece of the Vanderbilt offense but is no longer a part of Jerry Stackhouse’s squad because he now plays for the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers. Pippen–who averaged 33 minutes per game and 20.4 points per game–is an irreplaceable player but the Commodores will have a menacing backcourt this season that will keep defenders constantly on their feet. The trio of guards includes juniors Ezra Manjon and Tyrin Lawrence, along with freshman Noah Shelby.

Although many critics believe Manjon is set to be the starting point guard and Lawrence will start at shooting guard, Shelby’s role as the first or second guard off the bench cannot be overlooked. I predict Shelby to have the largest impact out of the freshman class, especially if Manjon or Lawrence ever gets hurt or needs a breather. Shelby, the 6’3’’ shooting guard, could find himself in a starting position by the time conference play rolls around. The sharpshooter from Texas shoots well on and off the dribble and will cause defenses nightmares down the line this season. 

Aiden Rutman, Sports Podcast Producer: The 2022 recruiting class is composed of five players. Noah Shelby and Paul Lewis make up the guards. Lee Dort, Colin Smith, and Malik Dia round off the forwards. Of these five, I think Shelby and Smith will have chances to make an immediate impact. 

Shelby, a former four-star recruit, steps into a thin Commodore guard room that just lost starters Scotty Pippen Jr. and Rodney Chatman. While I don’t expect Shelby to be in the starting rotation to begin the season—those duties will likely go to Tyrin Lawrence and Ezra Manjon, he’ll be one of the first guys off the bench. The former McDonald’s All-American is a lights out shooter with seemingly infinite range, and should provide Vanderbilt with instant offense. 

Smith is another former four-star, and perhaps the most intriguing of the bunch. Smith is a 6’8”, 215-pound power forward. The word that comes to mind with Smith is unicorn. This guy can do it all. He has the athleticism and shooting ability to score at all three levels. He has the length and quickness to guard players bigger or smaller than him. He’ll have plenty of opportunity to play behind Jordan Wright and Myles Stute.

WBB: What constitutes progress for Shea Ralph in Year 2? 

Bryce Smith, Sports Editor: I think this assessment has become muddied during a turbulent preseason for Ralph’s Commodores. Prior to September, I would have said that making the NCAA Tournament was an excellent—and also feasible—goal for this team. Then Jordyn Cambridge, Iyana Moore and Kaylon Smith went down with injury. No matter how highly you think of Ralph and her staff (and I am in the camp of firm believer), it is really difficult to overcome the loss of three expected starters before the season even begins. With that understanding, I think monitoring the progress of youngsters such as Sacha Washington, Amauri Williams and Ryanne Allen will be a good barometer of the progress happening in Ralph’s program. 

Big picture, I still expect another postseason appearance. Yes, that’s a high bar in just year two of the Ralph era, but the former UConn assistant has proved her chops early on and has earned that kind of respect. Last year this coaching staff was quickly able to make something out of a more barren roster so I think reaching the NIT again would still constitute progress given the circumstances. What do we think? 

Anish Mago, Deputy Sports Editor: Despite the faith I have that Shea Ralph is the right coach for the job, I’m a bit less optimistic than Bryce is in regards to the Commodores’ ceiling for the 2022-23 season. The reason for that is quite simple: Ralph is a young coach who is going to be navigating a lot of change in just her second year. With the departure of Alexander and season-ending injuries to Moore and Cambridge, Ralph will enter the season without all three of her leading scorers from a year ago. By my count, nearly half of Ralph’s roster from last year has been replaced, with five new additions to Vanderbilt’s squad. If Ralph’s able to find success this year, it won’t be due to continuity. 

Even with the changes, that is not to say that Ralph does not have a talented roster to work with. In addition to Harbison, Vanderbilt also added former Boston College guard Marnelle Garraud from the transfer portal. Garraud is a great complement to the offensive prowess of Harbison, as the shooting guard averaged 2.1 steals per game last season en route to All ACC-Defensive Team honors. Ralph was equally successful in recruiting freshmen, where she added two players in ESPN’s top-100 in Ryanne Allen and Amauri Williams. 

By all means, I would not be surprised to see the Commodores replicate their success from a year ago under the watch of Ralph. Considering all of the player movement she’s dealing with, however, I do think we should temper postseason expectations just a bit. In my eyes, progress this season would come in the form of 10 or 11 regular season wins. Given the circumstances, I think that’s a reasonable expectation. 

Record prediction for each squad?

Bryce Smith, Sports Editor: It is hard for me to separate my brain from my heart in what is my final year writing preseason predictions about my favorite sport, college basketball. But, alas I shall try. 

Objectively, both the men and the women are heading into this season on the “outside looking in” in terms of making the NCAA Tournament. They both figure to be squarely in the middle of the SEC standings. Without Scotty Pippen Jr. and Iyana Moore, there is no true star on either squad at the outset of the season. 

But, I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t the most talented pair of rosters I’ve seen during my time on West End. The men finally go a legitimate nine or 10 deep in their rotation. The women have a real coach roaming the endline and have extinguished the losing culture hanging around from the previous regime. 

Damn it, give me 19-12 for Stackhouse’s crew and 21-9 for Ralph’s team that will face a much easier non-conference schedule. Let’s make Selection Sunday interesting. 

Andrew Wilf, Deputy Sports Editor: Vanderbilt men’s basketball is coming off a 19-17 record last season, the best the school has done since the 2016-17 season. Although Vanderbilt is losing star guard Scotty Pippen Jr., I believe Jerry Stackhouse has put the right student-athletes in veteran roles to lead this team to another postseason birth. Hopefully this season, the Commodores will punch a ticket into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017. Other than Pippen Jr. and Rodney Chapman, Vanderbilt’s core from last season returns. In addition, Vanderbilt added a strong freshman class that is ranked No. 28 in the country. 

This team has a solid foundation that features a starting lineup with all upperclassmen and a bench that provides a lot of depth from Trey Thomas and Noah Shelby’s skill from beyond the arc to Malik Dia, Lee Dort and Colin Smith’s size in the frontcourt. I predict this team to be more poised in late-game situations and have a strong conference record. I see the Commodores going 21-10 and competing for a national championship in March.

As for the women’s team, I believe that Shea Ralph is building something special on West End. Although I believe in Ralph, I see Iyanna Moore’s season-ending injury really plaguing this team down the line. I believe the team will improve from last year and post a 20-15 record. Moore’s injury is devastating, but Ralph’s addition of former Saint Louis guard Ciaja Harbison is massive. Harbison averaged 17.5 points per game last year for Saint Louis.

Brandon Karp, Lead Sports Analyst: I’m a bit less optimistic about the post-Pippen Jr. era than Bryce and Andrew are. Last year, Pippen-Jr’s 34.6% usage rate ranked in the top-10 nationally, and he still maintained respectable shooting efficiency while leading the team in scoring and assists. Manjon’s reputation as a ball-dominant guard at UC Davis suggests he could play a comparable role for Vanderbilt, but his spotty shooting numbers last season (43% FG, 20% 3pt.) don’t offer a ton of confidence that he can carry a Pippen-level offensive load. Manjon’s likely backcourt partner, Tyrin Lawrence, also struggled with shooting efficiency (41% FG, 20% 3pt.) last season. If the backcourt cannot provide adequate spacing, Vanderbilt’s offense will likely struggle against SEC opponents. 

Vanderbilt women’s basketball is still poised for an excellent season this year despite the injury to Iyanna Moore. Shea Ralph is one of the best coaches in the country and last season’s recruiting class should provide an infusion of talent to fill in any key departures last year.

I’ll go with 16-14 for the men because I believe the overall talent and depth of this squad is superior to last year. For the women, I think 19-11 and a trip to the tournament should be well within reach.

Aiden Rutman, Sports Podcast Producer: There’s only so much optimism to go around for Vanderbilt basketball, and I’m on the opposite side of the spectrum from Brandon. It’ll be an uphill battle for both teams to make it to the big dance. The Commodores are projected to finish at the bottom of the pack in the SEC, with the men projected 12th and the women projected 14th. While I think that’s a pretty bleak outlook, both teams did suffer several key losses this offseason. 

I’m much more optimistic in terms of the men’s team. I think they have a blend of quality talent coming in and really solid veterans returning to the team. I see them going 20-11. For the women, the losses of Kaylon Smith, Iyana Moore and Jordyn Cambridge to season-ending injuries will be tough to overcome. I’ve got them going 11-19. 

Sam Curtis, Copy Sports Editor: After witnessing how the fans came out for a fun NIT run last season, I feel comfortable saying Vanderbilt’s home-court advantage will be the best it’s been for Stackhouse’s era. With that and a new injection of veterans and young talent, I have high (but tempered) expectations for this team. After going 19-17 last season, I have the men going 18-13.

As for the women, I’m putting my faith in Ralph. From the way she interacts with her players on the bench to her demeanor at press conferences, it was clear pretty quickly to me that she was the future of this program. Year two will provide a real test with the last-minute hiccups to her lineup, and it’s possible I’m being overambitious for such a small sample size, but I’m going to take a 20-10 record for this intriguing squad.