2022 Women’s Basketball Schedule Preview: How will Ralph handle a whole new cast of characters?

The Commodores thought they were returning four of their five starters for the 2022-23 campaign, but after the injury bug hit, the squad looks much different than expected.

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Geena Han

Demi Washington competes for a rebound in Vanderbilt’s win over Alabama State on December 28, 2021. (Hustler Multimedia/Geena Han)

Sam Curtis, Sports Copy Editor

The rain on West End signals that a new Nashville winter is looming. With the change in seasons comes a change in venue for Commodore fans: from FirstBank Stadium to Memorial Gymnasium. 

While much attention has been given to Jerry Stackhouse and his exciting troupe of young freshman and intriguing transfers, head coach Shea Ralph has also reloaded her roster with new seasoned veterans and a base of top-100 recruits. Ralph’s program exemplifies what a difference good leadership can make for an organization. Just a year and a half ago, the women’s basketball team had to suspend their season after a 4-4 start due to injuries and COVID-19 complications. The very next campaign, Ralph had led her squad to a WNIT appearance and multiple tournament wins against Murray State and Liberty.

Truly impressive. And let’s not forget Ralph is a first time head coach—one can only imagine what she’ll be able to do with a few years under her belt.

With all that said, we must mention the glaring injuries that will damper expectations for fans. On the back of Brinae Alexander’s transfer from Vanderbilt, Jordyn Cambridge, Iyana Moore and Kaylon Smith all went down with injuries that will sideline them for the season. Those four players were the top four in minutes played, four of the top five in points, four of the top five in assists, four of the top five in rebounds, four of the… well you get the idea. They were all crucial to last year’s success. This level of turnover was unexpected and means Vanderbilt will once again have to contend with a short bench.

Don’t be dismayed quite yet, Commodore fans. A pair of transfers and three promising first-years will get an opportunity to shine in place of their fallen teammates. First, look for Saint Louis transfer Ciaja Harbison to make up for lost scoring after averaging 17.5 points per game on 40% shooting from the field last season. Then, expect Boston College transfer Marnelle Garraud to make up for the loss of Alexander’s defensive presence after earning 2.1 steals per game en route to an ACC All-Defensive Team selection. Finally, watch top-100 recruits Ryanne Allen (a 6’1” guard ranked 82nd in the nation by ESPN) and Amauri Williams (a 6’4” center ranked 93rd in the nation by ESPN) provide the size that Vanderbilt so desperately lacked last season while All-State floor general Jada Brown looks to slide into Cambridge’s playmaking role.

With all this turbulence, how will Ralph & Co. fair? With an easier nonconference schedule and a grueling SEC itinerary, it might be a tale of two halves this year. But, with any luck, we’ll see breakout performances from the new faces in the program and hopefully be watching this Commodore squad in the big dance rather than the WNIT.

Nonconference slate

The Commodores open on Nov. 7 at 6:30 p.m. CST against Western Kentucky. They have their home opener against Samford three days later followed by matchups with Columbia and Tarleton State. They round out their first six matchups with Austin Peay and Saint Joseph’s. Of these opponents, Columbia is the only game that could provide a significant challenge to the Commodores. Finishing at No. 104 in last year’s NCAA’s net rankings, the Lions will host Vanderbilt and hope to shock Ralph’s developing roster.

After these initial six, competition gets stiff at the Women’s Cancun Challenge. First, the team will face off against NC State, who lost to UConn in the Elite Eight of last season’s NCAA Tournament and is entering the year ranked No. 10 in the AP polls. A day later, the Commodores play Northern Iowa, who sat at No. 54 in the NCAA’s rankings to finish 2021-22. This second matchup is extremely important as a litmus test for the rest of the 2022-23 campaign. If Vanderbilt wants to make the top 64 come March, this is the perfect game to make a statement against a comparable opponent.

After this trip to Mexico, the Commodore schedule gets much easier until SEC play. The squad takes on USC Upstate followed by ETSU, UT Martin, LA Tech, Lipscomb and, finally, Alabama A&M. 

If the Commodores can emerge from this schedule with two or even three losses, you would have to consider it a successful start, but truly, a one or zero loss nonconference slate is within reach and would put the women in a perfect spot to receive an NCAA Tournament bid.

Conference lineup

After the Alabama A&M game on Dec. 21, the Commodores will take a break for Christmas, but once they return, their schedule picks up—and quickly. On Dec. 29, Vanderbilt has a relatively winnable game against Mississippi State, who finished the 2021-22 regular season 15-14 with a 6-10 conference record. Then, the Commodores take on No. 16 LSU, Ole Miss (who just missed the AP’s top 25 after receiving multiple votes for a spot in the ranking) and No. 5 Tennessee. Though this final matchup is at home, Vanderbilt will be in enemy territory against LSU and Ole Miss, two of its toughest opponents all year.

Vanderbilt will face Arkansas after this tough stretch, and afterwards, they’ll receive a real breather when they play… South Carolina, the reigning national championships and current No. 1 in the AP polls. In all seriousness, the Commodores will have to keep their wits about them as they go through this difficult start to the SEC season. They’ll likely have had success in nonconference play and shouldn’t panic if they start slow playing some of the best the conference—and nation—has to offer.

Their schedule becomes more manageable for the next five games against middle-tier conferences opponents Florida, Texas A&M, Missouri, Georgia and Arkansas (for the second time). With luck, they’ll pick up much-needed momentum headed into their rematch—this time in Knoxville—with Tennessee.

Their last four include games against weaker opponents, Alabama and Auburn, that sandwich two more formidable foes in Kentucky and LSU (again). This setup of easier away games surrounding more difficult matchups that are both at home could spell out a winning formula for the Commodores if they take advantage of their home court. Picking up a few wins right at this point in the season would be massive for a SEC Tournament and postseason push. 

Though a NCAA Tournament—or even WNIT— appearance is far from guaranteed, there is a path, and a very doable one at that, for Ralph’s squad to make a splash in college basketball this season. After all, there are many unknowns with this program considering the amount of turnover that has taken place. No one truly knows what to expect from Ralph’s second year, but ultimately, seeing what this first-time head coach has accomplished already, I wouldn’t bet against her and her team.

Vanderbilt will open against Western Kentucky on Nov. 7 at 6:30 p.m. CST and will play its home opener against Samford on Nov. 10 at 6:30 p.m. CST.

Let the Memorial Magic commence.