Commodores head to VCU in need of a bounce back

Vanderbilt will be searching for their second top-100 road win when they travel to VCU on Wednesday night


Arianna Santiago

Commodore Ezra Manjon guards Mark Freeman, as photographed at Memorial Gym on Nov. 18, 2022 (Hustler Multimedia/Arianna Santiago).

Bryce Smith, Sports Editor

Jerry Stackhouse and Vanderbilt men’s basketball will head to Richmond, Virginia, on Wednesday night for a pivotal showdown with the VCU Rams. The Commodores, fresh off a Thanksgiving trip to California, head into the contest at an even 3-3 on the season, while the Rams sport a 4-2 record and are ranked within the top-100 on KenPom (No. 95). 

Jordan Wright lay up against VCU
Jordan Wright goes in for a layup against VCU on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021. (Vanderbilt Athletics) (Vanderbilt Athletics)

Vanderbilt will look to avenge last year’s 48-37 stinger at home against the Rams in this game. The 37-point effort wound up as the lowest offensive output of the season for the Commodores last year. 

The Rams carry a similarly stifling defense into this one despite some new faces in the starting lineup: VCU will be without their two leading scorers from their last matchup against Vanderbilt, Vince Williams Jr. (NBA Draft) and Ace Baldwin Jr. (broken wrist). Alongside sophomore returners Jayden Nunn and Jamir Watkins, a pair of Great Lake state transfers in Zeb Jackson (Michigan) and Brandon Johns (Michigan State) have pitched in to steady the ship for the Rams. As has become customary of VCU basketball, the Rams’ best trait is their ability to create havoc, ranking No. 13 in the nation in turnover percentage thus far. 

“They’re a really good defensive team. That’s who they’ve been,” Stackhouse told the media on Tuesday. “They put a lot of pressure on you from the standpoint of having full court pressure, running at you and doing those different things. So it’s just a matter of us taking care of the ball.”

The loss of both Williams Jr. and Baldwin Jr. has resulted in an even more drastic offensive imbalance on this year’s Rams squad, however. Despite ranking within the top 30 nationally in defensive efficiency, VCU has struggled since Baldwin Jr.—a preseason 1st team all-Atlantic 10 selection—went down on Nov. 17 against Arizona State. The Rams are just 2-2 over their last four with narrow wins over Pitt (ranked No. 88 on KenPom) and Kennesaw State (No. 217). VCU dropped a road contest at Memphis, Vanderbilt’s opening night opponent, 62-47, last Sunday, Nov. 20. 

As for the Commodores, Stackhouse’s crew is fresh off a lackluster Thanksgiving tournament performance at the John Wooden Legacy Tournament in Anaheim, California. Vanderbilt went just 1-1 over the holiday, dropping a contest against Saint Mary’s (No. 25) on Wednesday night, 75-65, before edging past Fresno State (No. 136), 67-59, on Thanksgiving Day. 

The emergence of senior Liam Robbins has been a major storyline for the Commodores as the big man earned all-tournament honors at the Wooden Legacy. Across two games, Robbins averaged 16.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game and notched 8 blocks against Fresno State, the most in a single game in the nation this year. 

“I’ve been a little bit more aggressive,” Robbins told the media on Tuesday about his recent surge. “I’m just getting to the basket and a lot of that is my teammates have gotten me good looks. A lot of the baskets I’ve gotten were drop off dunks or I caught it really deep in the post. It was easy for me to get to my spots I wanted to get to make my shots”

Vanderbilt will continue to look for another consistent threat to step up alongside Robbins offensively against the Rams. Wings Jordan Wright (22 points against Saint Mary’s) and Tyrin Lawrence (19 points) have shown flashes of being capable of having an increased role, but both have struggled with consistency. Myles Stute—who averaged 14 points per game in Anaheim on 44% shooting from deep—has been by far the Commodores best threat from three, but the team is converting at just a 34% clip as a whole (No. 157 in the nation). Stackhouse mentioned to the media on Tuesday that the team could see sharpshooter Trey Thomas available against VCU for the first time in over two weeks. 

In what figures to be another low-scoring tussle between the Commodores and the Rams, shooting will be at a premium in this one. The Rams have been one of the worst shooting teams in the country thus far both from 2-point (No. 303) and 3-point range (No. 262). However, they have bested the Commodores in one key metric so far this season: free-throw percentage (No.195). Vanderbilt is knocking down just 59% of its shots at the charity stripe, good enough for second-worst amongst high-major teams nationally. As the Commodores travel for their second top-100 road battle of the year, they will need to improve on the 4-of-11 effort from the free throw line that kept No. 98 Temple hanging around, forcing overtime. 

While the Commodores are catching VCU at an opportune time without Baldwin Jr., the ramifications of this game are no less significant than if he was in the lineup for the Rams. At 3-3 on the season, Vanderbilt has limited room for error through the rest of its non-conference schedule, and notching another top-100 road win would be a big boost for the Commodores’ postseason hopes. The trip to Richmond will also be Vanderbilt’s last chance at a road win in the non-conference, with just a neutral site matchup in Chicago against NC State scheduled away from Memorial Gymnasium until SEC play. 

“It’s going to be a tough game in a hostile environment, and that’s what we want to get those tests early on for,” Stackhouse said of the matchup. 

Vanderbilt and VCU will tip things off at 6 p.m. CST on Wednesday, Nov. 30.