2022 Men’s Basketball Schedule Preview: Who will fill the void?

With Scotty Pippen Jr.’s departure to the Los Angeles Lakers, there’s a big question mark on the Commodores roster. It’s up to a combination of new and familiar faces to answer that question.

Vanderbilt+mens+basketball+will+open+up+their+season+on+Nov.+7%2C+taking+on+Memphis.+%28Vanderbilt+Athletics%29

Vanderbilt men’s basketball will open up their season on Nov. 7, taking on Memphis. (Vanderbilt Athletics)

Aiden Rutman, Sports Podcast Producer

It’s time. 

In less than a week, Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball will return to the court, hoping to emulate the same success they found not long ago. After ending the regular season 19-17—including 9 conference wins, Vanderbilt earned themselves a bid to the NIT. The No. 4-seeded Commodores reached the quarterfinals of the tournament, defeating Belmont and No. 1 overall seed Dayton behind raucous home-court crowds. The team ultimately fell short on the road at Xavier, ending their season and, with it, Scotty Pippen Jr.’s Vanderbilt career. 

Thus, presenting a nagging question: Who will step up and fill Pippen Jr.’s shoes?

Perhaps it will be one of the returners, with Jordan Wright being the first player to come to mind. The reigning SEC scholar-athlete of the year put forth some clutch performances down the stretch last year, including a 24-point outburst against Belmont. Coach Jerry Stackhouse also returns key contributors in Liam Robbins, Quentin Millora-Brown, Myles Stute and more. 

Other than Pippen Jr., the Commodores lost a starter in Rodney Chatman to graduation. They also lost a few bench contributors to the transfer portal, including Shane Dezonie (Temple) and Jemaine Mann (Georgia State). Incoming, however, is Vanderbilt’s best batch of recruits since 2017. At the top of the class are four-stars Lee Dort, Colin Smith and Noah Shelby. All three should make an immediate impact. Joining them are three-stars Paul Lewis and Malik Dia, intriguing prospects in their own right. Perhaps the most fascinating, however, is Ezra Manjon, a transfer from UC Davis. Manjon, an electric athlete, averaged 15 points and 3.5 assists per game in his senior season. He figures to step into the facilitator role that Pippen Jr. played. 

Vanderbilt will look to recreate some Memorial Magic after their deep postseason run last season. Let’s take a look at how they stack up against some of their opponents. 

The nonconference

Vanderbilt faces a much more capable set of nonconference foes this season after a relatively light slate in last season. They’ll face five top-100 teams, according to KenPom’s preseason rankings. While they ultimately went 8-4 during their non-SEC stretch last season, the Commodores must do better than that if they want to prove their legitimacy  in hopes of making the NCAA Tournament this year. 

Memphis, Nov. 7, 7 p.m. CST

Vanderbilt’s season opener will come against their toughest nonconference opponent in Memphis. Fresh off an NCAA tournament appearance and a win over Boise State in the Round of 64, the Tigers are the No. 34 team in the nation, according to KenPom. Memphis lost a few key players this offseason—including Jalen Duren, who was selected in the first round of the 2022 NBA Draft by the Detroit Pistons—but the roster is still loaded with talent. Senior forward DeAndre Williams, who has averaged 12.6 points in his career with Memphis, should step into a sizable role this season. Kendric Davis, a transfer from SMU, figures to become a key offensive contributor after averaging 19 points per game last season. Regardless of the outcome, this game should provide key insight into what the Commodores are made of. A win here would give fans some hope that this season could be another magical one. 

At VCU, Nov. 30, 6 p.m. CST

After suffering a horrifying loss in Memorial against VCU last season, Vanderbilt will have a chance at revenge on the Rams’ home court. Fortunately for the Commodores, it will be hard to recreate the exceptionally poor performance from a season ago, which saw them shoot just 2-for-25 from 3-point range. Unfortunately for the Commodores, they’ll see a lot of familiar jersey numbers in this one. While VCU’s leading scorer Vince Williams Jr. was drafted in the second-round of the 2022 NBA Draft, the majority of the 2021-22 roster has returned for another season under head coach Mike Rhoades. This lineup includes Ace Baldwin Jr. and Jayden Nunn, who were selected to the Atlantic 10 Preseason All-Conference first and third teams, respectively. Baldwin Jr. averaged 11.4 points, 5.5 assists and 2.5 steals per game, and he’ll step into an even bigger role in William’s absence. I expect the Commodores to take this one, despite being on the road. Last year’s 37-point dud was an outlier, and Vanderbilt is simply the more talented team. 

NC State, Dec. 17, 9:30 p.m. CST

This is the nonconference game that I am personally most excited about. The Commodores and the Wolfpack will face off under the bright lights of United Center in Chicago, Illinois, in the Legends of Basketball Showcase. NC State is coming off of a 2021-2022 campaign that saw them go 4-16 in the ACC. The Wolfpack were active in the transfer portal, nabbing Jarkel Joiner from Ole Miss and the reigning Big South player of the year in DJ Burns from ____. Terquavion Smith—who averaged 16.3 points per game for the Wolfpack last season—figures to take on a large chunk of responsibility in the team’s offense. There’s no doubt that this team has talent, as KenPom has them ranked at No. 81 in the nation. They should be much improved after a tumultuous season last year. That said, I think the stage will be set for Vanderbilt to wipe the floor with their opponents. They might be improved, but they still lack the depth to play 40 full minutes against Vanderbilt. I think this is the type of game that stays close through the first half but ultimately sees the Commodores pull away and leave the Windy City with a victory. 

The conference 

I was pretty optimistic about the Commodores nonconference schedule. Realistically, I think the Commodores can win 11 of their 13 games before their SEC slate begins. Once conference play begins, however, the season outlook will change completely. It will be easier to reevaluate once we’ve seen what they can do against some middle of the pack opponents, but the SEC is strong this year. Really strong. Like, three teams in the top 11 of the AP Poll strong. If that isn’t enough, Vanderbilt was projected to finish No. 12 in the conference by the media. That’s no statement on Vanderbilt’s weakness, but rather the conference’s top-to-bottom strength. No games are guaranteed for any team this season. Here are some crucial matchups for the Commodores from their 18-game conference schedule.

Alabama, Jan. 17, 7:30 p.m. CST

Of Vanderbilt’s first five SEC matchups, this one is the most intriguing. South Carolina and Missouri are winnable games, and at the risk of jinxing it, I expect them to start of SEC play 2-0. Then, they’ll face both Arkansas and Tennessee in the span of three days. Both of those will be challenges for the Commodores. But this Alabama game is circled on my schedule. The Crimson Tide enter the season at No. 20 in the AP poll, but Vanderbilt played them well last year. They suffered a heartbreaking loss during the regular season before securing a come-from-behind victory in the SEC tournament less than a month later. Make no mistake of it, however, the Crimson Tide are loaded. While they lost three of their top scorers to the NBA, they filled the holes nicely through the transfer portal and recruitment. Ohio transfer Mark Sears—who averaged 19 points and 4 assists per game last season—should lead the backcourt while Jahvon Quinerly recovers from an ACL injury that he suffered late last season. Quinerly will be back by the time they travel to Memorial Gymnasium, and the two will form an electric backcourt duo. This should be the game that offers clarity as to where Vanderbilt stands in the SEC, and call me crazy, but I’m feeling a little bit of Memorial Magic for this one. 

Mississippi State, Mar. 4 7:30 p.m. CST

If all has gone well up to this point in the season, Vanderbilt will be on the NCAA tournament bubble. Mississippi State will likely be there as well. Two teams on the brink, trying to claw their way into the big dance. Every win counts. Beyond just another number in the win column, this game is a momentum builder. It’s the final game of the regular season, and entering the SEC tournament with a full head of steam is essential. Everyone knows how much a deep run in the SEC postseason can build a team’s NCAA tournament resumé (unless you’re Texas A&M, sorry Aggie fans). 

The Bulldogs won their lone matchup against Vanderbilt last year. However, they lost key contributors in Iverson Molinar and Garrison Brooks. Molinar’s natural scoring ability will be missed, as he averaged 17.5 points per game last season. The onus will be on returners like Tolu Smith and D.J. Jeffries to step up in his absence. Vanderbilt and Mississippi State are about as similar as two teams can get. Both lost their leading scorers to the NBA. Both will look to returners and transfers to pick up where they left off. And most importantly, both will need to win this game. The media projects the Commodores to finish towards the bottom of the SEC, but I have higher hopes for this program. I think a tournament berth is well within reach, and I think this is another winnable game.