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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.

Assessing Vanderbilt’s upcoming matchup with Auburn and postseason outlook

Vanderbilt has done well against some of the SEC’s best defenses this season. Can the team do it again against Auburn and win its fifth straight?
Trey+Thomas+surveys+the+floor+against+South+Carolina+on+February+13%2C+2023+%28Vanderbilt+Athletics%29.
Vanderbilt Athletics
Trey Thomas surveys the floor against South Carolina on February 13, 2023 (Vanderbilt Athletics).

Vanderbilt (14-12, 7-6) carries a four-game winning streak back with it to Memorial Gymnasium for its clash against the Auburn Tigers (18-8, 8-5) on Saturday night. The Commodores will look to extend that streak to five games after collecting a pair of road victories in the past week. 

Last Saturday, Jerry Stackhouse’s crew took down the Florida Gators, 88-80, picking up a quadrant 1 victory and the program’s first win in Gainesville since 2017. It was also the Commodores’ first win over the Gators of any kind since 2018. Liam Robbins posted a career day with 32 points, 10 rebounds and 4 blocks while being matched up with Florida’s Colin Castleton. Jordan Wright notched a double-double of his own (10 points, 10 rebounds), and Ezra Manjon added 11 points and 8 assists. 

The Black and Gold followed up that performance with a decisive victory in Columbia — a 75-64 win that was neither as close as the score indicated nor ever in doubt for the Commodores. Vanderbilt jumped out to a 15-2 lead against the Gamecocks and never looked back, led by 24 points and 8 rebounds from Robbins. Manjon continued his stellar form as well finishing with 15 points, 6 assists and 4 rebounds. As a team, Vanderbilt dominated on the boards, gaining a 48-34 rebounding edge over South Carolina in the victory. 

With that dust settled, Vanderbilt now sits in the top half of the league standings at No. 7 in the SEC. 

Auburn is perhaps the Commodores’ most important — and mightiest — foe since facing Tennessee. The Tigers represent both another quad 1 opportunity for Vanderbilt and a chance at a win over a top-4 team in the SEC standings. If Vanderbilt can pull out a victory, it would vault over Auburn in the table, potentially earning it a top-4 spot in the SEC and its first five-game winning streak since February 2015. Let’s break down what needs to happen for that dream to become reality. 

Deja AU? 

What does Auburn have to do with deja vu? 

Bruce Pearl’s Tigers profile is similar to a number of other SEC foes this season: His team is really stingy defensively but prone to offensive lulls. Much of the scoring weight rests on a singular player’s shoulders. 

Sounds like Tennessee, right? How about Arkansas? Florida, anyone? 

Like those three teams, Auburn (No.12 in defensive efficiency) grades out well on the defensive end of the floor thanks to a plethora of athletic wings and feisty guards who are interchangeable on the perimeter. Senior point guard Wendell Green Jr. — a transfer from Eastern Kentucky — is the straw that stirs the drink for Pearl’s Tigers, leading the team in points (13.9), assists (4.5) and steals (1.7). 

KD Johnson, Jaylin Williams and Johni Broom all average more than a steal per game as well for an Auburn squad ranked No. 33 nationally in steal percentage. Broom, who came to Auburn by way of Morehead State, also leads the team with 2.4 blocks per game and anchors the paint for the Tigers. The 6’10” sophomore has struggled with foul trouble of late, though, eclipsing four or more personals in four of Auburn’s last six, all losses. Robbins and Quentin Millora-Brown’s ability to tempt Broom into foul trouble will be key on Saturday. 

Vanderbilt has represented the inverse of the SEC’s defensive-minded programs in 2023 — it has predicated its success on the offensive end of the floor, torching some of the league’s best defensive units in the process. 

This season, Stackhouse’s Commodores have matched up very well with the league’s defense-oriented squads, notching a 3-1 record against the trio of Tennessee (No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency), Arkansas (No. 11) and Florida (No. 16). In fact, Vanderbilt’s two highest scoring outings in conference play have come against Arkansas (97 points) and Florida (88 points). 

A continuation of that success will be key to adding to Vanderbilt’s winning streak on Saturday. Vanderbilt will need Robbins to establish himself as a dominant force in the force and play through the trio of Manjon, Tyrin Lawrence and Jordan Wright. 

Manjon’s role on Saturday will be of the utmost importance, as the point guard will be tasked with locking up Green Jr. and protecting the ball for Vanderbilt. Despite the peskiness of the Tigers’ handsy defense, the Commodores are the best in the league at limiting turnovers in conference play thus far. Their 13.9% turnover rate is nearly two points higher than any other SEC team. 

A little bit of hot shooting from Myles Stute, Trey Thomas, Colin Smith or all three wouldn’t hurt either. 

Shooting on the other end of the floor will be a major point to watch as well. Auburn shooting percentages this season are putrid, rating at No. 342 in three-point (29.9%) and No. 228 free-throw (70%) as a team. The Commodores cannot allow another shooting anomaly inside Memorial Gym and must force the Tigers to test their luck against Robbins in the paint. 

NET Notes

After their recent hot stretch, the Commodores have earned their way back into the NCAA Tournament conversation, albeit as a very fringe bubble team currently. With that said, a win over Auburn on Saturday would be massive in helping Vanderbilt’s postseason outlook improve. 

Currently, the Commodores’ biggest hurdle is the lack of love they are receiving from the advanced computer metrics, which are used heavily in the NCAA Tournament selection process. As of print, Vanderbilt is ranked No. 91 in both KenPom and NET. If the Commodores want to play in the Big Dance, those rankings will need to creep toward the 60s — which can happen with two more good weeks. 

In sum, there is work to do. Auburn, though, represents another quad 1 opportunity for Vanderbilt and perhaps its last of the regular season depending on Kentucky’s progression. A win would move the Commodores 4-7 in Q1 and 3-0 in their last three chances, a sparkling figure that would certainly begin to catch the eye of bracketologists nationwide. 

The Auburn matchup is also perhaps the most difficult left on the ledger for Vanderbilt, save its matchup against Kentucky at Rupp Arena on March 1. Looking ahead, a trip to Baton Rouge to face the 12-14 (1-12) LSU Tigers and a Saturday home date against a Castleton-less Florida both seem winnable. Of course, Vanderbilt must take things one game at a time, but a win over Auburn could turn a five-game winning streak into seven in an instant. 

The Commodores will need each of those wins as much as the last as they continue their quest to get back on the NCAA Tournament bubble. For now, the focus is squarely on Auburn. 

Vanderbilt and Auburn will tip off at 7:30 p.m. CST on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023, at Memorial Gymnasium. 

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About the Contributor
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].    
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