Memorial Minutes: From Bad to Worse
Two straight losses were bad enough for Vanderbilt, then Tuesday night against Alabama happened.
February 2, 2023
Things have gone quite sour for Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball since our last Memorial Minutes, but perhaps not as much so as the team’s pregame meal at a Tuscaloosa hibachi steakhouse prior to Tuesday night’s contest.
“Guess we won’t be going back to hibachi anytime soon,” head coach Jerry Stackhouse said following his team’s 101-44 loss to No. 4 Alabama.
I’d, uh, reckon not.
Coming off of a disappointing home loss to Kentucky and a blown lead against Texas A&M in the last week, Vanderbilt had a chance to earn a monumental quadrant 1 win — and with star center Liam Robbins back in the lineup — against a Crimson Tide squad at their lowest point of the season.
What followed was an affront to the sanctity of the Vanderbilt basketball program.
The largest margin of victory (57) in a power conference game in nine years. The biggest win in the history of Alabama’s basketball program in SEC play. The third-largest loss in Vanderbilt’s program history and the worst since Keith Bogans and Kentucky beat the Commodores 106-44 in 2003.
For Alabama, the “contest” can best be described as an NBA All-Star game in regard to the level of effort required, the number of dunks, alley-oops, wide-open threes taken and the care-free fun had.
For Vanderbilt, describing the game with words is not quite as easy.
101-44 is culture. And a seemingly rotting one at that. ”
Whether you choose all-time low, worst loss of the Stackhouse era, reckoning point or boiling point, an argument can be made in just about any way to describe the performance given on Tuesday night.
“We played a team tonight that came off a bad loss and got back home and were very, very confident,” was Stackhouse’s chosen description postgame. “We were just a step slow tonight.”
But to say that Alabama was desperate for a win, had a hot shooting night and is simply one of the best teams in all of college basketball this season underscores the nuance of the loss for a Vanderbilt team that lost to this same Crimson Tide squad by just nine points on Jan. 17.
No, 101-44 doesn’t happen as a result of any shooting percentages on either team or any home-court momentum.
101-44 is culture. And a seemingly rotting one at that.
On to this week’s Memorial Minutes.
Perhaps the most concerning aspect (if you can find one) of Tuesday night’s loss was the same recurring peculiarities that have existed throughout the Stackhouse era shining their brightest: rotational inconsistencies and puzzling timeout usage.
Take Tuesday’s starting lineup of Paul Lewis, Miles Keefe, Emmanuel Ansong, Myles Stute and Quentin Millora-Brown, for example.
This group of five players hadn’t shared the court together in a game on American soil this season before the Alabama game — though they may have developed a secret chemistry on the team’s preseason trip to Europe, unbeknownst to outsiders. It also consisted of a walk-on who has never started and two players who rank No. 10 (Lewis) and No. 12 (Ansong) on the team in minutes played. Against the No. 4 team in the country playing on their home floor, that lineup seems less than ideal, but, again, is from a simple outsider perspective.
To its credit, that group gave Vanderbilt its biggest and only lead: 5-0, with 18:04 left in the first half. The quintet stayed on the floor until the under-16, media-induced TV timeout following an 8-0 Alabama run that ignited a fervent home crowd.
Noticeably absent from the substitution unit that gave Vanderbilt’s starting five a breather after the timeout was Tyrin Lawrence, the team’s second-leading scorer. Lawrence had started 19 of Vanderbilt’s 21 matchups prior to the Alabama debacle.
Without Lawrence, the Commodores proceeded to let up a 35-10 run over the next 18-plus minutes of the half. During two separate Crimson Tide runs of 21-0 and 22-7, Vanderbilt elected not to use its “use or lose it timeout” that expires at the end of the first half. Instead, the Commodores held onto all four of their timeouts as the lead ballooned from 21-5 to 43-12. During the opening half drubbing, 12 Commodores played, though only Stute and Lewis tallied more than 10 minutes.
The second half fared no better as Vanderbilt surrendered a 17-0 run just over six minutes into the half to give Alabama a laughable 74-28 advantage. With his team down nearly 50, it became clear that Stackhouse’s non-usage of a single timeout was to prove a point to his own locker room, rather than aid those same players gasping for air against the high-rolling Crimson Tide. Wright (injury) and Shelby (undisclosed) played zero minutes in the second frame as walk-ons Graham Calton and Adrian Samuels got their first SEC action of the season. If you’re counting at home, that’s 14 (of 15 available including Lawrence) Commodores in the game rotation, all but one of whom played at least nine minutes. Maybe no timeouts are needed when the bench is that deep at the end of January.
Taking the long view
Now that we’ve discussed the in-game decisions, let’s take a step back and decipher what Vanderbilt’s three straight losses — and the latest gaffe against Alabama — mean in the context of the season and beyond.
For one thing, Vanderbilt has one, maybe two losses of margin left on their schedule if they want to be playing in the NCAA Tournament. After Tuesday night, it’s hard to believe that the Commodores will be able to achieve that feat — potentially keeping them out of the Big Dance for the sixth consecutive season, the longest streak since 1998-2003.
But, as aforementioned, the past three-game stretch points to a larger issue than that of making something of this now-likely-lost season. Losses like these, and especially against Alabama, don’t happen without a breakdown in the program’s culture.
“We’re going to play the guys who do the things right. I’ve been telling the same guys the same things for two or three years now, obviously that message isn’t resonating,” Stackhouse said after the Alabama loss. “We’re going to play the guys who do things the right way, and, if that’s sacrificing a few games, it’s the long view of where we need to go and who we need to be. It’s the message we are going to continue to send to our younger guys: Either we are going to get on board with it or we’re going to find some guys who will.”
Problem one: This is year four, not year one. Every single one of those “same guys” were brought in by Stackhouse and developed, at least in part, by Stackhouse.
Problem two: there are about 30 games in college basketball, not 82, like in the NBA regular season. For a Vanderbilt squad that now sports a 10-12 record, a subpar non-conference resume and a desperate need of a quad 1 win, there are not a lot of games left to “sacrifice.”
Those issues are apparent before you get into the between the lines of what Stackhouse is saying — and doing — to veterans like Tyrin Lawrence and Jordan Wright by effectively suspending them for halves and full games.
I’m not going to argue or act like I have insider knowledge about internal disciplinary matters. Certainly, in some form, they are valuable — and in the prior Bryce Drew regime, sorely lacking. Stackhouse, who played for the late, great Dean Smith at the University of North Carolina, probably knows about them better than the layperson.
But I will offer this, problem three, if you will: It’s 2023, not 1983.
Smith, as legendary as he was, never had to deal with the transfer portal and NIL era. Say what you may about this age’s generation or the nature of college basketball itself at present, but that fact is true and accepted by everyone else in the conference — and country.
Smith also probably had a bit more leeway for his brooding style given the, uh, 11 Final Four and two national championship appearances he compiled along the way.
As Athletic Director Candice Lee stated when she extended the fourth-year head coach in October, a championship-caliber program is the goal and the expectation at Vanderbilt. Stackhouse has quite the steep climb to get to that level, and he’ll need the help of veterans on his team, like Lawrence and Wright, if he ever plans to get there.
Taking the long view, as Stackhouse would say, it seems the Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball program is at a crux, both internally and in the public eye, after the third-worst loss in the history of the school.
“I really can’t put a finger on why we were a step slow tonight,” Stackhouse said after the 57-point defeat on Tuesday.
Maybe, that finger would be better suited pointed at himself rather than everyone else for a change.