Memorial Minutes: Lots to Learn
Vanderbilt’s non-conference schedule was a jumbled mess that left us with more questions than answers before SEC play.
January 3, 2023
About three weeks ago, we began our last Memorial Minutes pondering how so little was known about Vanderbilt’s 2022-23 Men’s Basketball squad, despite being already over a third of the way through the season. Three games later, that riddle has yet to solve itself; in fact, Vanderbilt’s season has continued to provide more questions than answers.
The Commodores appeared to temporarily quell concerns about their performance with an emphatic victory over Southeastern Louisiana, 93-55, on Dec. 30. It was an intriguing win that finally saw Vanderbilt separate from an inferior opponent from start to finish. But perhaps more interesting was the puzzling nature in which Jerry Stackhouse’s Commodores embarked on their opening two months prior to Friday night.
Vanderbilt finished all but two games within 12 points of their opponent; six of its games were decided within five points. At no point in the first two months of the season did the team win or lose more than two games in a row. The squad’s best win of the season so far (a 75-74 victory over Pittsburgh) was followed two days later by its worst loss of the season so far (a 64-62 loss to Grambling State.).
Five different players led the Commodores in scoring in a game—three of whom didn’t consistently start for the team. The team’s leader in minutes per game (Ezra Manjon) was not one of the aforementioned five leading scorers in any non-conference game. Twelve of the team’s 13 scholarship players averaged at least eight minutes a night with the lone exception (Lee Dort), despite being the highest rated high school recruit in the Stackhouse era, per 247Sports.
All of this is to say: If there is anything we can glean from this Vanderbilt squad so far, it is to expect the unexpected. And that we still don’t really know much about this team at all.
The glass half-full approach will reckon that the Commodores played a sneakily tough non-conference slate and were competitive with every single opponent on their schedule. Despite losing leader and best all-around player Jordan Wright for multiple games, the team still pushed its way out to a 7-6 record.
The glass half-empty approach will counter that the Commodores played to the level of their opponent to a fault, never emerging with an independent identity. The team achieved exactly one marquee non-conference victory and dipped far below preseason expectations as it trudged to a barely-above-.500, 7-6 record.
The truth is likely somewhere between those two and certainly still left to be figured out. For now, let’s attempt to unpack what the first 13 games on Vanderbilt’s schedule have taught us.
Of all the confounding and mystifying trends in the Commodores’ first two months, perhaps none is more emblematic of the team’s general disarray than the lineup inconsistencies. Through 13 games, Vanderbilt has yet to establish any sort of pecking order among a rotation of 13 players, nine of whom have started at least one game. Just one Commodore (Myles Stute) started each contest that Vanderbilt has played thus far. Of the 13-deep rotation, let’s start with the positives.
Tyrin Lawrence has made the biggest developmental jump of anyone on the roster, bumping his averages in scoring, assists, rebound and steals per game. The junior is third on the team with 10.4 points per game so far and lifted Vanderbilt in wins over both Wofford and Pittsburgh with last-second free throws. The Georgia native is also taking and making the three-ball at a higher clip than ever before (29% on 2.4 attempts this year compared to 20% on 1.4 attempts last year).
Elsewhere, Stute has built upon an impressive sophomore campaign from behind the arc, checking in 13th nationally in three-point percentage (47.1%) as of this morning. Senior center Liam Robbins has looked healthier as well, leading the team with 11.9 points and 2.8 blocks per game (4th nationally).
That’s about the end of our positive programming.
Vanderbilt’s presumed senior leader and highest returning scorer Jordan Wright has battled nagging hip and back injuries,e limiting his effectiveness since the Pittsburgh win. That game was the only one in which Wright has played more than 25 minutes since Thanksgiving. Last season, he averaged 30 minutes a night, and, as a sophomore, he averaged 24.
Fellow senior Ezra Manjon faced a steeper-than-expected learning curve in his transition to the SEC from UC Davis, culminating in a 0-point, four-turnover effort that led to his benching against Grambling State. Evidently, it was a disappointing start for Manjon who was brought in to replace Scotty Pippen Jr. in the offseason. To his credit, he seems to have highly improved, averaging 11.3 points in the Commodores’ three games since that loss.
Lawrence, Stute, Robbins, Wright and Manjon account for Vanderbilt’s leading five players in minutes thus far. After them, things get wonky attempting to figure out the Commodores’ minutes distribution.
After playing just 32 minutes combined in Vanderbilt’s first six games, Trey Thomas has effectively served as a starter since the end of November, clocking in at 26.5 minutes per game. Of players with more than 30 shots, only Malik Dia—who has played double-digit minutes once since mid-November—is shooting a lower percentage from the field than Thomas (34%).
Speaking of the freshmen, Colin Smith has started each of the last two games but has played slightly less average minutes as a starter (14.5) than he did off the bench (15.1, including his DNP (did not play) against Temple). His usage has been more straightforward than that of Dia or Texas duo Noah Shelby and Lee Dort, though. Shelby has played more minutes (24) in the last two games than he did in the entire season before then. Dia and Dort have each played at least 13 minutes in one game and none in three others.
Sorting the shuffle of Vanderbilt’s rotation will be a key development in SEC play. While some of the main characters are known, much of the secondary and bench roles have been left unsettled. A year after losing minutes savant Pippen Jr., that rotational uncertainty has not benefited the Commodores.
Assessing the resume
We’ve gone over individual roles, now it’s time to look at how Vanderbilt’s resume stacks up after the non-conference portion of their schedule. By all accounts, the Commodores’ non-conference play was disappointing. Vanderbilt barely achieved a .500 record, finishing 7-6 in the opening part of their schedule. Their KenPom (no. 66 to no. 96) and NET (no. 62 to no. 116) rankings fell off a cliff. They lost three times at home, including to Southern Miss and Grambling State.
All in all, Vanderbilt managed to keep its resume somewhat clean, relative to what its 7-6 record might suggest. According to the NCAA’s NET rankings, used to rank a team’s resume for the NCAA Tournament, Stackhouse’s crew isn’t in as bad of a position as it may seem. The Commodores’ worst loss—to Grambling State—has a real chance to bump to a Quadrant 3 (Q3) loss rather than the Q4 loss it is right now, assuming the Tigers continue on their positive trajectory in 2023. That would move Vanderbilt’s Q4 record to 5-0. Their losses to Southern Miss and Saint Mary’s don’t look nearly as bad as they did at the time, registering as a Q2 and Q1 loss, respectively.
The flip side is that Vanderbilt went just 1-5 in its Q1 and Q2 games, a record that will have to improve in SEC play if the team has any postseason aspirations. The squad’s best win over Pittsburgh is likely to stay a Q2 win unless Pitt climbs into the top 30 of the NET rankings because it was a home game. At present, the Commodores’ resume is not reflective of an NCAA Tournament or even an NIT caliber team, meaning they will have some patching up to do in conference play.
Opening league slate
Luckily—or not, depending on your outlook—Vanderbilt will get just the chance to improve its resume with a host of marquee matchups early in its SEC schedule.
It starts at home against South Carolina, the only conference foe ranked lower than Vanderbilt in both KenPom and NET. The Gamecocks sport an identical 7-6 record coming into the contest but struggled against a far easier non-conference schedule than that of the Commodores. South Carolina leans heavily on freshman GG Jackson, the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2023 who reclassified and skipped his final year of high school to join the Gamecocks this season. Despite Jackson, the game is a “must-win” for Vanderbilt, which boasts a more experienced, talented and deeper squad.
The soft landing opening matchup against the Gamecocks will give way to an instantly difficult league slate thereafter: Following South Carolina, Vanderbilt is scheduled to play four straight opponents currently ranked in the AP Top 25. The stretch represents what will likely be the Commodores’ toughest two weeks in league play and simultaneously four chances (at Missouri, at Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama) at Q1 victories that would boost their feeble resume.
If Vanderbilt can manage to win one of those games and take care of business against South Carolina, a 2-3 start in the SEC would be nothing at which to scoff. Sorting out the rotation, continuing to see improvement from Lawrence and Manjon and building upon the momentum of the win over Southeastern Louisiana will be paramount in helping them get there.
Vanderbilt will take on South Carolina at Memorial Gymnasium tonight at 6 p.m. CST.