The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Commodores travel to Chicago in search of marquee win over NC State

Vanderbilt will head up to the Windy City to face off against the Wolfpack on Saturday night with a chance for a significant non-conference victory.
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Josh Rehders
Vanderbilt walking off the court versus Pittsburgh on Dec. 7, 2022. (Hustler Multimedia/Josh Rehders)

A nine-day finals break has given Vanderbilt (5-5) plenty of time to reflect on their stunning home loss to Grambling State last Friday night. The Commodores will head up to Chicago on Saturday night for the Legends of Basketball Showcase to face off against the North Carolina State Wolfpack (9-3). These two programs have a history: Vanderbilt overcame an 11-point deficit to knock NC State out of the NCAA Tournament to advance to the Sweet Sixteen in 2004. 

This season, the matchup offers head coach Jerry Stackhouse’s squad a chance to avenge their prior mistakes and earn a marquee win in the non-conference portion of their schedule. The Wolfpack are the second-best team (no. 53 on KenPom) Vanderbilt has faced in their early fixtures. 

Pack Preview

The Wolfpack are led by sixth-year head coach Kevin Keatts and also come into the contest at an interesting juncture in their early season schedule. After jolting out to a 7-1 start—with a lone loss to the no. 8 ranked Kansas Jayhawks (AP Top 25)—Keatts’ group has lost two of their last four games, including an 0-2 start in ACC play. Most notably for Vanderbilt’s purposes, one of those losses was at home against Pittsburgh, 68-60, on Dec. 2. Vanderbilt defeated Pittsburgh 75-74 just five days later at Memorial Gymnasium. 

The matchup in the Windy City will be the NC State’s last before they enter their ACC schedule. Last season, the Wolfpack similarly jumped out to a 7-2 start, but finished the campaign just 11-21. 

Keatts hit the transfer portal hard to fill his 2022-23 team, bringing in five players from the portal over the off-season. Terquavion Smith, a sophomore point guard from Greenville, NC, returns as the team’s only major contributor from last season’s squad.. Smith is averaging 18.3 points, 5.5 assists and 3.8 rebounds a night and is a projected 2023 NBA draft pick. 

Four transfers round out the rest of the Wolfpack lineup: guard Jarkel Joiner (Ole Miss), forwards Casey Morsell (Virginia) and Jack Clark (La Salle) and center D.J. Burns Jr (Winthrop). Alongside Smith, Joiner (17 points per game) and Burns Jr. (8.1 PPG) have done most of the heavy lifting for NC State. 

As a group, the Wolfpack have been more effective on the offensive end but succeed because they are a solid all around team rather than one that specializes in a single area. KenPom rates NC State at no. 45 in adjusted offensive efficiency and no. 66 in adjusted defensive efficiency. While their ability to limit teams within the arc has struggled (no. 156 in 2-point % allowed), the Wolfpack rate as a top 15 team in steal percentage. 

Getting Wright 

Vanderbilt’s capacity to learn from its mistakes against VCU and Grambling State—two losses in which they turned the ball over 19 times a piece—will be crucial in determining their success this coming weekend. To that end, the availability of backup point guard Paul Lewis will be something to monitor. The freshman ball-handler has been sidelined with illness and concussion issues since the team’s 89-87 win over Temple on Nov. 15, when he tallied three assists off the bench in just 14 minutes of game action. Stackhouse added that he was hopeful that Lewis and Jordan Wright would be available against NC State after missing the Grambling State game. 

“We’re going to get them the treatments and all the maintenance with the trainers they need,” Stackhouse said after the loss. “We’re going to try to continue to ramp Paul up a bit more and hopefully those guys will be available.” 

Lewis’ absence has caused fatigue amongst the already-struggling duo of Ezra Manjon (0 points, -13 against Grambling) and Trey Thomas, who is playing out of position with the freshman down. Coupled with the lack of playing time for four-star freshman Noah Shelby, the Commodores desperately need some juice at the point guard spot in the post-Scotty Pippen Jr. era, especially against a guard as prolific as Smith and a pesky Wolfpack defense that will be hunting for steals. 

Jordan Wright helped up by a slew of teammates versus Pittsburgh on Dec. 7, 2022. (Hustler Multimedia/Josh Rehders)
Jordan Wright helped up by a slew of teammates versus Pittsburgh on Dec. 7, 2022. (Hustler Multimedia/Josh Rehders) (Josh Rehders)

Elsewhere, forward Jordan Wright’s presumed return will be a welcome sight for the Commodores. The senior’s spirit and grittiness to play through injury emotionally propelled Vanderbilt over the Pitt Panthers and his presence was missed in a lifeless effort against Grambling. 

Vanderbilt began to see signs of a return to form for Wright—who was second on the team at 12.3 points per game a year ago—in a 22-point outburst against Saint Mary’s over the Thanksgiving holiday, but nagging back and hip injuries have limited his effectiveness thus far. After a 10-day rest, the Commodores will sorely need his veteran ability to right the ship in December. Wright’s return should also offer upperclassmen Liam Robbins, Myles Stute and Tyrin Lawrence more room to operate offensively as was true in the win over Pitt, but missed in the loss to Grambling. 

Bully Ball 

Liam Robbins hoists a shot against Pittsburgh on Dec. 7, 2022. (Hustler Multimedia/Miguel Beristain)
Liam Robbins hoists a shot against Pittsburgh on Dec. 7, 2022. (Hustler Multimedia/Miguel Beristain) (Miguel Beristain)

One glaring mismatch the Commodores’ should attempt to exploit in this matchup is the Wolfpack’s lack of size in their rotation: Burns Jr., NC State’s tallest starter, is just 6’9. Dusan Mahorcic (6’10), a transfer from Utah, represents the Wolfpack’s tallest contributor, but he’s missed each of the team’s last two games with a serious knee injury that will more than likely keep him out against Vanderbilt. Mahorcic’s injury dampens an already thin Wolfpack rotation that only goes about seven-deep. 

NC State’s deficiencies down low and down the bench present a major opportunity for Vanderbilt’s trio of bigs—Liam Robbins (7’0), Quentin Millora-Brown (6’11) and Lee Dort (6’10)—to get busy on the block. Look for Stackhouse to continue to experiment with his deep rotation of big forwards against NC State, including freshmen Malik Dia and Colin Smith, as well to expose the Wolfpack’s lack of size and depth. 

The Commodores’ victory over Pitt should serve as a blueprint for the Commodores if they want to come out of Chicago with a win over NC State. Against Pitt, Vanderbilt’s depth outlasted the Panthers as Stackhouse’s crew keyed in on protecting the basketball and finding success inside the arc through dump downs to Robbins and Millora-Brown. The focus on bully ball opened up driving lanes for Wright and Tyrin Lawrence to get to the rim as well as open looks for sharpshooter Myles Stute. In Pitt’s win over NC State, the Panthers executed this style to the tune of 59.4% shooting on 2-point shots. 

Finally (or hopefully, as Stackhouse put it) healthy and well-rested off a week-long break, Vanderbilt should have all the components available to pull off the upset—if they are able to limit turnovers, play with greater spirit and look towards their bigs in the paint. Ahead of two tune-ups before conference play, this will be the Commodores’ last chance at earning a quality non-conference win and salvaging their early season returns. 

Vanderbilt and NC State will tip-off at approximately 9:30 CST at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois on Saturday, Dec. 17.

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About the Contributors
Bryce Smith, Former Sports Editor
Bryce Smith ('23) is majoring in human and organizational development in Peabody College with a minor in business. Bryce previously wrote for SBNation before joining The Hustler. Hailing from Chicago, Bryce is a die-hard Bears and Cubs fan who is also hoping that the Bulls and Blackhawks may one day rekindle their dominance. He can be reached at [email protected].    
Ophelia Lu, Deputy Photography Director
Ophelia Lu (’26) is double majoring in biomedical and electrical engineering in the School of Engineering. She previously served as a staff photographer. When not covering events and sports games for The Hustler, you can find her listening to Spotify religiously, studying at Starbucks or attempting to make food out of the random things she bought. She can be reached at [email protected].
Miguel Beristain, Senior Staff Photographer
Miguel Beristain (’24) is a philosophy and cellular and molecular biology double major in the College of Arts and Science from Murfreesboro, Tennessee. When not shooting for The Hustler, he can usually be found playing Magic the Gathering, exploring new restaurants or practicing guitar. He can be reached at .
Josh Rehders, Photography Director
Josh Rehders ('24) is from Houston and is studying computer science in the School of Engineering. When he is not shooting for The Hustler, Vanderbilt Athletics or freelancing, he enjoys finding new music and good food. He can be reached at [email protected].
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