Film Room: Life after Scotty

Vanderbilt men’s basketball has trudged out to a disappointing 0-2 start. What can they do to turn things around?

Colin+Smith+is+helped+up+by+teammates+during+Vanderbilts+60-48+loss+to+Southern+Miss.

Josh Rehders

Colin Smith is helped up by teammates during Vanderbilt’s 60-48 loss to Southern Miss.

Brandon Karp, Lead Sports Analyst

It’s too early to press the panic button, but Vanderbilt basketball fans are well within their right to be concerned by the team’s performance thus far. The Commodores have trudged out to a disappointing 0-2 start after dropping home games to Memphis and Southern Mississippi.

Heading into the season, many speculated that Vanderbilt’s offense would struggle after the departure of star point guard Scotty Pippen Jr to the NBA. There’s plenty of time for the team to form a new offensive identity, but the early returns suggest the lack of a go-to playmaker may be a huge problem. Senior wing Jordan Wright leads Vanderbilt in points-per-game (ppg) with 9.5 so far, a stark decline from Pippen Jr.’s 20.4 ppg last season. 

In the season opener against Memphis, the starting five looked disengaged from the tip, allowing Memphis to race out to a 17-6 lead in the first 10 minutes of play. The team’s starting backcourt of Ezra Manjon and Tyrin Lawrence struggled to create any penetration, which limited drive-and-kick opportunities to wing scorers Wright and Myles Stute. However, the defense looked capable, forcing 13 turnovers and applying pressure on the 3-point line to prevent a true blowout loss. 

Frustrated with the lack of intensity from his starting five, head coach Jerry Stackhouse sent out a vastly different unit to open the game against Southern Miss. Myles Stute remained in the lineup but was joined by an entirely new supporting cast including freshmen Colin Smith and Paul Lewis. Unfortunately, the result wasn’t any different. The Commodores fell behind early thanks to poor ball control and a horrendous shooting effort. The team finished the game shooting a putrid 32.8% from the field and were only able to connect on 3-of-25 3-point attempts. 

Southern Miss entered Memorial Gymnasium with a Kenpom ranking of No. 321 out of 363 eligible teams. Vanderbilt, by comparison, was ranked No. 74. A double-digit loss to one of the projected worst teams in all of college basketball means Vanderbilt will need to make up considerable ground to have a chance at the NCAA tournament in March. To keep those dreams alive, they will need better performance from the leaders of this team, namely Jordan Wright and Ezra Manjon.

“We gotta have better performances from our older guys, and we didn’t have that tonight,” Stackhouse told the media after the game against Southern Miss. 

Where’s the offense?

Vanderbilt’s inability to generate any sustained offensive momentum was the defining theme of its first two losses. There is a glaring lack of a lead initiator on offense, as the team is averaging only 10 assists per game. Stackhouse’s sets created opportunities for Pippen Jr. to get in the paint last season, but the same looks haven’t translated for Manjon so far. The transfer point guard is averaging just 5.5 points and 2 assists in 29 minutes per game. 

Memphis’s length and athleticism allowed them to switch defensive assignments on pick-and-roll plays without creating a mismatch. For instance, the Tiger defender who switched might be a step slower than the guard he’s defending, but the size advantage allows them to stay in position. This defensive strategy was used by Memphis all game to great success, especially because Vanderbilt couldn’t find any mismatch to exploit offensively. 

On the first selected play, Quentin Millora-Brown sets a screen on Lawrence’s defender to allow the guard a chance to get the ball at the corner of the 3-point arc. However, Millora-Brown’s defender switches onto Lawrence and erases this look. Ultimately, the original defender recovers and Lawrence forces up a contested step-back three that rattles off the rim. 

On the third play, the first switch occurs when Liam Robbins’s defender picks up Manjon and eliminates a potential drive to the hoop. Robbins then sets a downhill screen for Lawrence, who is immediately picked up by another switching defender. Lawrence attempts to drive and kick out for a Trey Thomas 3-point look, but his pass is deflected by his much taller defender. 

While Vanderbilt’s offensive woes against Memphis could be attributed to a uniquely difficult defensive matchup, the performance against Southern Miss simply boils down to poor play. The combination of a directionless offense and abysmal shooting resulted in 15 turnovers and 33/12/38 team shooting splits (field goal/three point/free throw percentage). 

Once again, the lack of a clear No. 1 option on offense left the team looking downright confused. In addition to the lack of penetration by guards Manjon and Lawrence, Millora-Brown and Robbins showed no ability to establish a presence in the post and were routinely bodied by opposing defenders.

On the first play against Southern Miss, Millora-Brown sets a few decent screens to create looks for Lawrence and Manjon. However, the guards look hesitant and fail to make any confident moves towards the rim. The Commodores continue to pass the ball back and forth around the key, and, eventually, Lawrence settles for a deep 3-pointer as the shot clock winds down. Throughout the entire possession, the Commodores barely move the ball past the 3-point line and don’t come close to entering the paint. 

The last selected play is Vanderbilt’s final attempt to spur a comeback in the closing minute of the game. Confusingly, Wright attempts a contested floater despite the team trailing by six points. The Commodores recover the offensive rebound and manage two other attempts to score, each of which fall woefully short. More than anything, the inability to buy a basket is what cost Vanderbilt the game. As bad as the team’s offensive performance was, it’s unlikely we see such a dramatically bad shooting performance again this season. 

Pesky defense

If anything positive can be taken away from Vanderbilt’s first two games, it’s the team’s lockdown potential on defense. The Commodores forced 13 turnovers against Memphis and held Southern Miss to 35/21/79 shooting splits. Manjon looks like a significant improvement from Pippen Jr. as an on-ball defender, and returning stalwarts Millora-Brown and Wright continue to look sharp. 

On the first play, Manjon does an excellent job staying with his man until he is forced to make a dangerous cross-court pass. From there, Wright picks up his man and swipes away his dribble, leading to a Memphis turnover. On the next play, Manjon and Smith both fight through screens to stay with their matchups. Ultimately, the Tigers’ point guard gets the ball back, but Manjon contests his shot, leading to a Vanderbilt defensive rebound. On the final play against Memphis, Millora-Brown shows great anticipation by reading his defender’s screen and switching to pick up Lewis’s matchup. 

Vanderbilt’s defensive effort remained mostly solid against Southern Miss. The first featured play demonstrates the excellent length that freshman Smith adds to the wing, as he forces his defender to make a bad pass right into the hands of Stute. 

The final play is included to demonstrate the low intensity the Commodores showed periodically throughout the game. Vanderbilt’s unit jogs back on the fast break, letting the Golden Eagles  easily beat them across half court. The defense then leaves two players completely open on the 3-point arc, ultimately allowing a wide-open three while the team trailed by only two points. 

The disappointing start to Vanderbilt’s season may become a trend unless the veteran leaders of the team step up. Last season, Wright excelled as the second option behind Pippen Jr. This year, he’s going to need to learn how to score and facilitate more consistently without the same level of offensive support. If not him, Manjon or Lawrence must find a way to get into the paint and distribute with more regularity. Perhaps Stackhouse can help his guards find lanes to the basket by making his lineup even smaller and completely clearing out the paint.

There is too much talent on this team not to be optimistic about what the final product might eventually look like. For now, expect growing pains while Stackhouse’s squad figures out how to play together. 

Vanderbilt will play their first road game of the season at Temple on Tuesday, Nov. 15 at 6 p.m. CST.