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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.

Shorthanded Vanderbilt looks to defend home court against nemesis Kentucky on Tuesday

Kentucky has a star big man. Vanderbilt is missing theirs. Is there a recipe for the Commodores to end their drought against the Wildcats on Tuesday?
Miguel Beristain
Ezra Manjon surveys the floor against the Alabama Crimson Tide on Tuesday January, 17 at Memorial Gymnasium (Miguel Beristain/Hustler Multimedia).

Vanderbilt and Kentucky will meet for the 201st time on Tuesday evening at Memorial Gymnasium. The Wildcats have won each of the last 13 contests against the Commodores, but that’s not to say this rivalry hasn’t been close lately. Despite the lopsided recent series record, Vanderbilt has only lost by an average margin of 7.8 points to the perennial powerhouse Kentucky Wildcats. 

That streak includes last season’s heartbreak in the SEC Tournament against Kentucky, a 77-71 defeat that featured a controversial missed call at the end of the game to spare Jacob Toppin and the Wildcats. 

This year’s Kentucky squad consists of the same general nucleus but with some added in drama. After a record-setting year, SEC Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe elected to return to Lexington — a rarity for such a prolific player in today’s college basketball era. He’s joined by returnees Jacob Toppin, Sahvir Wheeler and CJ Frederick, who missed last season with injury. Per usual, Coach John Calipari brought in a host of talent from both the high school and transfer portal ranks to fill out the rest of his squad. 

Headlining the group of newcomers is the No. 10 overall recruit in the Class of 2022, Cason Wallace. Fellow five-star Chris Livingston and Illinois State transfer Antonio Reeves round out Kentucky’s backcourt. 

The 2022-23 rendition of the Wildcats has dealt with some on-and-off the court drama this season. Big Blue limped out to a 1-3 record in SEC play, the team’s worst start since the 1986-87 season. As Kentucky battled its way to a 10-6 start, Calipari battled rumors linking him to the vacant job in Austin with the Texas Longhorns. 

The Wildcats have come around to form as of late, as has come to be expected from a Calipari team that experiences an early swoon. Since the 1-3 league start, Kentucky has won three in a row — including over No. 4 Tennessee and Georgia, who Vanderbilt defeated on Saturday. 

Now sitting at 13-6 overall on the season, Calipari’s crew will make a pit-stop in Nashville to face the Commodores before a prime time matchup against Kansas in the Big 12-SEC challenge. Can Vanderbilt build on its momentum from the past week and catch Kentucky slipping? 

Next (Big) Man Up  

Down star center Liam Robbins and now backup five Lee Dort, Vanderbilt has gotten awfully thin down low awfully quickly. There’s certainly never an opportune time to lose your top two centers, but Vanderbilt probably wishes it could bring in alumni and NBA champion big man Festus Ezeli right about now. 

See, Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe isn’t just a dominant big man — he’s one of the most dominant big men in college basketball in the last 20 years. While Tshiewbe’s numbers are a tick down from his award-winning junior campaign, the senior still leads the nation in rebounds per game at 14.0. That’s an entire rebound better than the nation’s next best — Purdue big man Zach Edey, who is 7’4”. To go along with his astronomical rebounding figures, Tshiebwe is averaging 14.4 points per game and shooting 58.1% from the field. 

Vanderbilt center Liam Robbins lines up for free throws against Kentucky on Feb. 2, 2022.
Vanderbilt center Liam Robbins lines up for free throws against Kentucky on Feb. 2, 2022. (Vanderbilt Athletics) (Vanderbilt Athletics)

Compare those statistics to Vanderbilt’s situation in the post — something that was once considered a strength of the roster before the Robbins and Dort injuries — and you’re looking at a major mismatch inside for the Commodores. Left to fight for Vanderbilt is fifth-year senior Quentin Millora-Brown, freshman Malik Dia and whichever small-ball fives Jerry Stackhouse is able to cobble together. 

Stackhouse has consistently sung Millora-Brown’s praises despite a step back from his impressive junior campaign, and the veteran rewarded that faith by playing one of his better games when desperately needed on Saturday against Georgia (7 points, 11 rebounds, 2 assists).

“When Liam wasn’t available, Q [Quentin Millora-Brown] was our guy. We just need him to step up as well,” Stackhouse said before the Georgia win. “He hasn’t had his best week or two, but we’re still very confident that he’s capable of picking it up.”

In addition to Millora-Brown, Vanderbilt will lean on the freshman Dia, who has played spot minutes up until this point in the season. Against the Bulldogs, the Nashville native had two blocks and a rebound in just six minutes of action but impressed his head coach along the way. 

“Malik was great for us tonight,” Stackhouse said after the win. “Came in the second half and really set some screens. His ability to pop [for threes] is going to cause some issues for other teams. We need paint points.” 

Whether or not those two are up to the task of stopping Tshiewbe is out of the question — Vanderbilt will need more help no matter what, which speaks more to the Kentucky center’s talent than it does the Commodores’ deficiencies down low. As such, potential strategies for Vanderbilt to mitigate Tshiwebe’s impact are twofold. 

Option A is to “let Oscar cook” focusing on taking away the rest of Kentucky’s weapons while acknowledging that Tshweibe is going to get his no matter what. Missouri and South Carolina played this strategy to a tee in wins over the Wildcats, as Tshweibe averaged 21 points and 15.5 rebounds per game in the two losses. In both games, only two other Wildcats scored above 10 points. In last year’s NCAA Tournament, St. Peter’s knocked off Calipari’s No. 2 seed by letting Tshwiebe get 30 points and 16 rebounds — and only allowing one other Wildcat into double figures.

Option B is to go at Tshweibe both offensively and defensively. Vanderbilt may not have the individual size to match up with Tshweibe one-on-one, but if the Commodores commit to throwing double teams at the big fella every time he touches the ball, they can take their chances in letting the No. 302 ranked team in three-point attempts per game beat them from deep. 

A crucial part of this strategy is making sure that the Commodores are just as relentless in focusing attention on Tshweibe on the offensive end as they are on the defensive end. Vanderbilt, which has predicated its new-look offense on driving towards the rim (more on that later), must look to get Tshweibe in foul trouble with dives and lanes to the basket. In five of Kentucky’s six losses this season, the big man has had three or more fouls, forcing him to sit for extended periods of time. 

Vanderbilt probably won’t be able to stop — or even slow down — Tshweibe one-on-one, but if they commit and stick to a strategy on him, there are proven ways to reduce his impact. Whether that be by focusing little attention or all attention to him, the shorthanded Commodores must have a plan of attack down low. 

Manjon in the Middle 

Now that we’ve gone over the looming X-factor defensively, let’s get into the juicy part: Vanderbilt’s suddenly electric offense. 

Think I’m kidding? In SEC play, the Commodores rate as the No. 3 team in adjusted offensive efficiency and have scored 80.3 points per game in their first six league contests. That performance comes after playing three of the top five teams in adjusted defensive efficiency including No. 1 (Tennessee) and No. 5 (Alabama).

As discussed after the Arkansas win, Vanderbilt has become a lethal offensive unit over the past couple of weeks. An increased emphasis on exclusively taking shots at the rim or from behind the arc has vaulted the Commodores into the top 50 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency (No. 43). 

That turnaround has been spurred by a trio of Commodores who have been prolific at finding lanes to get to the cup. Against Georgia, point guard Ezra Manjon led the way with an incredible performance that carried Vanderbilt on both ends of the floor, finishing with 19 points (8-of-11 shooting), 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and a block. Manjon is averaging 13.3 points per game since his 0-point low against Grambling State on Dec. 9. 

He was helped out by Tyrin Lawrence, who added 15 points in his return to his home state of Georgia on Saturday. Lawrence has developed a penchant for not only getting to the rim but also finishing through tough contact: He leads the team with 31 free throw attempts in his last three games. 

Tyrin Lawrence drives to the rim on January 14, 2023 against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Memorial Gymasium (Nikita Rohila/Hustler Multimedia).
Tyrin Lawrence drives to the rim on January 14, 2023 against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Memorial Gymasium (Nikita Rohila/Hustler Multimedia). (Nikita Rohila)

Then there’s Jordan Wright, the steady veteran whose return to health has anchored the Commodores. In SEC play, Wright is averaging 14 points per game after tallying just 35 points in the month of December as he battled injury. Without Robbins and Dort, look for Wright to see an increase in minutes after starting his first game in over a month in the win against Georgia. 

Manjon, Lawrence and Wright have catalyzed Vanderbilt’s attacking offensive style, which, in turn, has opened up the perimeter for players like Myles Stute, Trey Thomas, Noah Shelby and others. Against Georgia, Stute finally broke out of his shooting slump, hitting all four of his three-points attempts. Thomas, for his part, added 12 points and hit four clutch free throws late. 

Against Kentucky, Vanderbilt will need to continue its efficient attack and look to spread out the Wildcats bevy of forwards, attack the goal (and Tshwiebe) and create open threes for themselves. While Kentucky has talented perimeter defenders such as Cason Wallace, they are far from unbeatable on that end of the floor rating as the No. 69 defense in adjusted defensive efficiency. In conference play, they rank No. 10 in the league in that metric. 

Tuesday’s matchup will offer Vanderbilt a chance to start crafting a legitimate postseason resume, end a half-decade long drought, avenge recent close losses and make their way into the top 5 of the SEC standings. Without Robbins and Dort, it will certainly be an uphill battle, but if Stackhouse’s crew can come away with a victory, Vanderbilt’s momentum will be impossible to ignore. 

The Commodores and Wildcats will tip off at 8 p.m. CST at Memorial Gymnasium on Tuesday, Jan. 24. 

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About the Contributors
Bryce Smith
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].    
Miguel Beristain
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 .
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