Vanderbilt hosts Memphis in intrastate opening night battle

Jerry Stackhouse, fresh off of a new contract extension, will look to secure the first win of the season against fellow former NBA all-star Penny Hardaway.

Myles+Stute+energizing+the+Commodore+fans+after+defeating+Dayton+last+season+%28Vanderbilt+Athletics%29.

Vanderbilt Athletics

Myles Stute energizing the Commodore fans after defeating Dayton last season (Vanderbilt Athletics).

Noah Roslin, Staff Writer

229 days after falling to Xavier in the quarterfinals of the NIT tournament, the Vanderbilt Commodores men’s basketball team is back in action Monday at 7 P.M. CST as they host the Memphis Tigers. 

These are two teams that look vastly different than they did last year. The ‘Dores sport a freshman class seven players deep and brought in two transfers after losing star guard Scotty Pippen Jr. to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Tigers, on the other hand, lost 7 of their 9 leading scorers from last year.

Memphis will come into Memorial Gymnasium favored by 2.5 points, and KenPom gives the 66th-ranked Commodores a 47% chance to upset the 34th-ranked Tigers, projecting a 72-71 loss. Last year, the Commodores finished the season ranked  no. 64on Kenpom, with the 40th-best adjusted defensive efficiency in the nation. The Tigers were ranked 24th in the nation, and were one of only 14 teams with a top 40 offense and defense in terms of adjusted efficiency.

This is the first coaching matchup between the newly-extended Jerry Stackhouse and Tigers’ coach Penny Hardaway. The two coaches were both high-flying NBA guards back in their heyday, combining for six all star appearances.. Hardaway, since getting hired in 2018, and Stackhouse, since getting hired in 2019, have both done wonders to bolster the recruiting classes to these schools, and have built legitimate momentum towards reaching the tops of their respective conferences. 

That has held true in recent days, as it was just announced that Hardaway landed commitments from four star guard Mikey Williams and four star forward JJ Taylor for the 2023-24 season. However, the recruits Hardaway has brought in have a nasty habit of not living up to expectations, including notable recent transfer Emoni Bates. 

Stackhouse has also started building legitimate recruiting classes, and the incoming freshman class,spearheaded by three four star recruits (Lee Dort, Noah Shelby, and Colin Smith),is ranked 24th nationally.

On the court, the main matchup to watch will be a battle of two transfer point guards in Vanderbilt’s Ezra Manjon and Memphis’ Kendric Davis. 

Manjon, a transfer from the University of California-Davis, is expected to be given the keys to the offense in his first game in the Black and Gold. The senior averaged 15 points a game last year for UC-Davis, which was enough to earn him a first team All-Big West nod. Coach Stackhouse has praised his speed and explosive ability to put pressure on opposing backcourts on both sides of the ball. 

He will go toe to toe with the defending American Athletic Conference player of the year in Davis, who transferred to Memphis after a year where he averaged 19 points a game for the SMU Mustangs. At 6’0, he is not physically imposing, but he is very agile and can score in bunches, something he showcased when his 21 points helped the Mustangs take down the Commodores last December. Yet, Stackhouse has made it very clear that, though Davis is a big piece of what Memphis will try to do, the Commodores are preparing to play a team, not just a specific player. 

“We are gonna prepare for the Memphis Tigers, not just one player,” Stackhouse said “I’m pretty sure that we will pay some special attention to his special talents but it’s Vandy against Memphis.”

The Commodore offense is likely to run through star wing Jordan Wright. The senior enjoyed a breakout campaign last year playing alongside Scotty Pippen Jr. and exploded for 27 points on 12 shots against Kentucky in the SEC tournament quarterfinals, nearly leading the upset despite an uncharacteristically off day from Pippen. Wright is a capable shooter from mid range and from behind the arc. 

Wright may have to play some point guard when Manjon takes a breather with freshman guard Paul Lewis in concussion protocol. On defense, he’ll have his hands full with Memphis guard and UTEP transfer Keonte Kennedy. Kennedy was originally committed to transfer to Vanderbilt in the offseason, but due to undisclosed reasons, he never so much as stepped foot in the locker room before recommitting to Memphis. 

Kennedy is one of 11 Tigers that are either seniors or older, which could spell trouble for this young Commodores team that is likely to give major minutes to their freshmen. Colin Smith is set to play significant minutes off the bench, and though the forward won’t be overmatched physically, the experience gap could be tough to overcome in the youngster’s first collegiate game. 

Similarly, point guard Noah Shelby could see minutes backing up Manjon. The 6’3 guard will get the nod over fellow freshman the ailing Paul Lewis.Down low, Lee Dort and Malik Dia are going to have some more trouble finding the lineup behind steady seniors Liam Robbins and Quentin Millora-Brown.

The Commodores will be more than happy to have Robbins back for this season after the center missed 21 games last year with a foot injury. The two-timetransfer could be a key in the matchup against the Tigers, who do not have a player above 6 ’10 to compete with the 7′ 0 giant. Robbins will likely match up against UT-Arlington transfer Kao A-Ehiogu. A-Ehiogu had the third most blocks in UTA history with 134 through only 47 games, so it could be interesting to see how he defends the 250 lb. Robbins. Stackhouse would be well served to spread out the floor with his array of sharpshooters, including long-range sniper Myles Stute, to relieve the inside presence of A-Ehiogu.

A-Ehiogu is one of many transfers on a team only returning five players from last year’s team that nearly upset Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The main returning player for the Tigers is forward DeAndre Williams who earned All-AAC Second team honors and was the second leading scorer for the Tigers a year ago. He also played well in the postseason, averaging 14 points and 6 rebounds in the NCAA tournament last year. He is likely to be matched up against the aforementioned Stute, who had the highest 3-point percentage in the SEC last year (.432) and will be a key contributor from the outside.

Both of these teams are building cultures. Both of these teams have a lot of new faces. What Vanderbilt lacks in age and tenure, they make up for in relation to Memphis’ inexperience playing with each other. For a team with so many transfers that were all top options on their prior teams, it could be a challenge for coach Hardaway to manage all of these different skill sets and egos early in the season. With that being said, these guys are still grizzled veterans at this point, a far cry from the multiple freshmen that will be seeing their first ever college action on Monday. We’ll  soon see if Stackhouse has groomed his guys to take down these Tigers, or if the starpower in Memphis will be too much, even for Vanderbilts extensive depth.