Memorial Minutes: An Unfilled Void
16 games into the season, Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball is still searching for its identity.
January 12, 2023
Several months ago, I wrote an article before Vanderbilt’s season-opener previewing the team’s schedule. One of the biggest questions entering the season: “Who will replace Scotty Pippen Jr.?”
The heir apparent to Pippen Jr. seemed to be Ezra Manjon, given that the two play the same position, but the void left by the program’s all-time leader in single season points (736) goes deeper than that.
Pippen Jr. held a certain gravity within the Commodore’s offense — teams had to commit to slowing him down, and in doing so, opened up opportunities for other Vanderbilt players. Perhaps that’s why Jordan Wright and Myles Stute have struggled with consistency this season. It’s the first time that they’ve been the focus of an opposing team’s defense.
Still, the question of who will replace Pippen, despite a plethora of talented veterans and impressive freshmen, has gone largely unanswered.
That isn’t to say that there haven’t been flashes. Liam Robbins, for all of his struggles through the early parts of the non-conference schedule, averaged 20 points, 7 rebounds and 3.3 blocks through Vanderbilt’s first three conference games. Wright appears to be healthy again after dealing with a back injury earlier in the season. Manjon has stepped up recently, averaging 12.6 over his last six games, and playing with increasing confidence every week. Freshman Noah Shelby continues to play more and more off of the bench, shooting 34.8-percent from 3-point range.
Vanderbilt was able to start conference play with an overtime victory at home against South Carolina, behind the improved play of Robbins and Manjon. The duo scored 22 and 24 points, respectively, both season-highs. The Commodores followed that win with a close loss on the road to No. 20 Missouri. After hanging around all game, Vanderbilt was tied with three minutes remaining, but a missed goaltending call gave the Tigers the momentum they needed to put the Commodores away. The Commodores even played No. 5 Tennessee tight on the road, leading at halftime before the Volunteers came out hot in the second half and won with ease. All that is to say…
Getting over the hump
After three well played basketball games, Vanderbilt basketball sits at 8-8 overall and 1-2 in the SEC. Whether it was a heartbreaker in overtime or a 40-point blowout loss (looking at you, South Carolina), a loss is a loss — and all appears the same in the standings.
It’s certainly frustrating; Vanderbilt’s four quadrant one losses (Tennessee, Saint Mary’s, Missouri and N.C. State) have been by an average margin of just 6.5 points. The Commodores always manage to hang around, and there is something to be said about sticking with with some of the heavy hitters of the SEC.
“[Tennessee] has been blowing out everybody, so we can build something off of this.” said head coach Jerry Stackhouse after the loss in Knoxville.
Yet throughout his tenure, Stackhouse’s team has left more to be desired against the Vols, and he knows it.
“We’ve been in games for four years now. It’s time to start winning more of ‘em,” Stackhouse said.
It won’t be easy. Scotty Pippen Jr. was not just a gifted scorer, but a gifted closer. He was almost an extension of Jerry Stackhouse. When games were in their closing moments, Pippen Jr. was the go-to-guy.
Take, for instance, Pippen’s essential contribution to the team’s final 16 points against BYU in the Diamond Head Classic. A beautiful wraparound pass to Quentin Millora-Brown to take Dayton to overtime in the NIT. A fadeaway 3-pointer against Temple to take the Owls to overtime.
Pippen Jr. was, in a word, clutch.
Without him, Vanderbilt has let games like Missouri slip out of their hands in the final minutes and games like Tennessee get away from them in the second half. The Commodores might be able to find points to make up for the loss of Pippen Jr.’s scoring, but they have yet to find someone to win them games down the stretch.
With every close loss, it becomes more and more clear that the Commodores need some sort of formula when the game is on the line Whether that is allowing Robbins to take over inside the paint, running plays to get Stute a good look from beyond-the-arc, or allowing Wright to play isolation ball, the answer has yet to become apparent. Vanderbilt has found success using all three, but has struggled with consistency. If they want to get over the metaphorical hump, they’ll need to do so.
Even if this season doesn’t pan out, there is plenty of hope on the horizon, and that comes in the form of the Class of 2026. Shelby, Malik Dia, Paul Lewis, Lee Dort and Colin Smith have all had opportunities — albeit some of them more than others — in just their first few months as members of the team.
Dia and Lewis both enrolled as three-star recruits (247 Sports). Dia, a stretch big, played early on in the season and showed some serious prowess — and confidence — shooting the ball. Lewis played in the team’s first three games, and notably more than Shelby, before a wrist injury sidelined him for over a month.
Dort has been the team’s spark plug. Their energy drink. Their lightning in a bottle. While he has a long way to go, the former four-star is a force in the paint. We’ve seen multiple instances of Dort coming in, recording an electric block or a rim-rocking dunk, then checking back out. It wasn’t anticipated that he would be a major contributor this season, especially with Robbins and Millora-Brown on the team, but Dort has impressed nonetheless. He recorded a career-high 6 points to go with 2 rebounds and a block in just eight minutes against Tennessee. Dort looks to be the center of the future for the Commodores, and will likely step into a feature role by next season with Robbins and Millora-Brown in their final year of eligibility.
Smith plays the most out of all of the freshmen at 16.7 minutes per game. While his averages may be glossed over — 4.5 points and 3.4 rebounds per game — he’s another player that injects life into the Vanderbilt lineup. He consistently fights in the paint for offensive rebounds, and has shown brilliant flashes offensively. Against Southern Mississippi, he opened the game with the team’s first seven points. He boasts an offensive rating of 105.6, third on the team behind only Robbins and Millora-Brown. Smith has the size, athleticism, and motor to find success at this level, and he’ll only get better as the season progresses.
Shelby has seen increasing opportunities as the season has gone on. After only playing in three of the team’s first seven games, he has appeared in each of their last five. He’s averaging 7.2 points on 39.2-percent from downtown through those five games. With every game he appears to be more and more confident, firing up three pointers left and right. It’s rare to see that type of confidence in someone so young, but with his innate offensive ability and unfaltering assuredness, the sky’s the limit for Shelby.
Down the road
The Commodores are 0-4 in quadrant one and 1-5 in quadrant two. If they want any chance at salvaging their season and returning to the NIT, they’ll need to start stringing together some quality wins.
Fortunately for Vanderbilt, they’ll have three opportunities at marquee wins in the next week. The Commodores will face No. 15 Arkansas and No. 4 Alabama in Memorial Gymnasium before hitting the road against Georgia over the next nine days.
As Stackhouse said, it’s time for the Commodores to start winning the tight ones, and it starts this Saturday in a Stranger Things-themed blackout at 1 p.m. CST against the Razorbacks.