Jordan Wright celebrates with students after a 67-65 win over Auburn on Feb. 18, 2023 (Hustler Multimedia/Nikita Rohila).
Jordan Wright celebrates with students after a 67-65 win over Auburn on Feb. 18, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Nikita Rohila)
Nikita Rohila

Memorial Minutes: Hills and Valleys

Vanderbilt earned two quality wins during its path to the outskirts of the NCAA tournament bubble before a recent loss against LSU crushed its momentum.

“They had us buried,” head coach Jerry Stackhouse after his team’s win over Auburn said. “But we back alive.”

Those eight words lived in infamy from Saturday, Feb. 18 to Wednesday, Feb. 22. Quoted in stories, used as social media captions, reposted on Instagram stories across campus, Stackhouse’s postgame comments after the team defeated Auburn were seemingly everywhere. 

It was for good reason, too: The team had been metaphorically buried. A 101-44 loss to Alabama in Tuscaloosa highlighted a three-game losing streak as the Commodores fell to 3-6 in the SEC. With NCAA tournament hopes all but gone, something snapped within the Commodores as they rattled off five straight wins against Ole Miss, Tennessee, Florida, South Carolina and Auburn. Vanderbilt bolstered its NET rating, and with an 8-6 conference record, had even squeaked its way onto Joe Lunardi’s “considered” section of Bracketology. 

It was a topic of conversation throughout the country. Countless Twitter chains of both Vanderbilt supporters and college basketball fans alike prophesied a path to the dance for the Black and Gold. Whispers throughout Vanderbilt’s campus: “Can we do it? Can we make the tournament?” The excitement was, in a word, palpable. 

That was the hill. Now comes the valley. 

All of the hard work accumulated through the five-game winning streak came crashing down as Vanderbilt lost to LSU (13-15, 2-13) on Wednesday. The Commodores’ poor non-conference performance left them with a slim margin for error. They could realistically only afford one loss if they wanted a chance to earn an at-large bid to March Madness, and that was in Rupp Arena versus perennial blue-blood Kentucky on March 1, not against an LSU team that hadn’t won since Dec. 28, 2022.

It felt like a free win for the Commodores. Winners of five straight taking on the losers of 14 straight; how could they lose, with all of this bubbling energy and momentum? Those are the most dangerous games, though. A team with everything to play for against a team with a first-year head coach with absolutely nothing to lose. College isn’t like the pros — there aren’t any draft picks. Teams play for pride night in and night out, and in the wake of everything that happened with former head coach Will Wade, head coach Matt McMahon had his Tigers playing hard. Stackhouse did not. 

Let’s get into the nitty-gritty.

Magician’s Next Trick

Vanderbilt’s gritty win over Auburn had fans and analysts speculating that the defense was on a road to redemption after an exceptionally shaky start to the season. The LSU loss proved otherwise. In a game where it felt as though they were just one small, five-point run away from getting back in the game, the Commodores failed to get the stops they needed to close the gap. In turn, LSU scored its most points since a home victory over Winthrop in mid-December. 

Vanderbilt’s chance to impress the committee has come and gone, and it would be naive to think otherwise. That being said, there’s still one loophole (no, not the APR) that could send the Commodores dancing: Winning the SEC tournament and earning an automatic bid. It’s been the last hope for Vanderbilt fans for the past few seasons — but this year, it just feels different, as if there’s more than an optimistic, wistful “what if?” The Commodores rattled off one massive win streak, what’s to stop them from pulling another trick out of their sleeve? After all, with Memorial Magic comes a magician, and with a magician, there is always a trick. 

The Commodores will rely on Ezra Manjon and Liam Robbins (more on them later) to propel them down the stretch, just as they have done for the past few weeks. Beyond that, Vanderbilt will also lean on Tyrin Lawrence, Jordan Wright and Myles Stute — who are all averaging over nine points per game — to continue to provide intensity on both sides of the court. Whether that’s in the form of Lawrence using his length and athleticism to create opportunities around the hoop, Stute rediscovering his 3-point shot or Wright providing stout perimeter defense, Vanderbilt will need some help from its secondary playmakers. 

A Restoration of the Guard 

In what feels like a lifetime ago — but was actually just November — I previewed Vanderbilt’s schedule ahead of its season opener against Memphis. I outlined one question that, above all others, would define the Commodore’s season. 

“Who will step up and fill [Scotty] Pippen Jr.’s shoes?”

I may have tried to come up with an answer, but just about everyone on West End knew that Pippen Jr.’s shoes were going to be nearly impossible to fill. How can you replace a guy that averaged 17.5 points and 4.3 assists throughout his career in Nashville? A two-time All-SEC first-team selection. The record-holder for points in a single season (736). He committed to Vanderbilt before Stackhouse’s tenure and helped serve as a building block for a program that was in disarray. He led the team, serving as an extension of Stackhouse on both offense and defense. He was the facilitator. He set the foundation. 

No. He was the foundation. How can you replace that? 

Halfway through the season, the answer seemed definitive: You can’t. The team seemed lost without him. They were a cumulative 1-9 in quadrants one and two and could not find their identity. A huge win over No. 15 Arkansas changed that, but the Pippen Jr. problem still remained. Ezra Manjon, the heir apparent to the now Los Angeles Laker, received a double technical before halftime and exited the game with just three points in 11 minutes played. It felt as though, without a shadow of a doubt, Manjon could not run the offense to the high level that Pippen Jr. did. 

Then, something snapped. 

Manjon’s ejection not only rallied his team to a win; it rallied him, too. 

Ezra Manjon shoots a floater during a 67-65 win over Auburn on Feb. 18, 2023 (Hustler Multimedia/Nikita Rohila).
Ezra Manjon shoots a floater during a 67-65 win over Auburn on Feb. 18, 2023 (Hustler Multimedia/Nikita Rohila)

Manjon averaged just 3.1 assists prior to Arkansas, yet has since averaged 4.8 dishes per game, including 6.3 dimes per contest through his last six. 

Manjon has only gotten better and better, and, with his improvement as a facilitator, has come the team’s overall success as well. 

Case in point: Manjon played just 27 minutes against LSU, his least since the unforgettable (as much as fans might like to forget) Alabama loss. His presence on the court was undeniably beneficial to the team, whether that’s because of the speed and efficiency through which he runs the offense or his deceptively good defense. 

Manjon’s high motor and world-class agility help him get over and under screens with the pace to stay with his matchup at all times. The best news for the Commodores? He has a year of eligibility left, and, should he choose to remain in Nashville for a graduate season, Manjon has the potential to do great things. 

A Tower of Terror 

Non-fans and casuals may know the tower of terror as a reference to an old TV show, the Twilight Zone. Others might know it as an attraction at Disney Land. Those on West End know it — or rather him — by one name. 

Liam Robbins.

Liam Robbins throws down a dunk during 23-point, 11-rebound, 9-block performance against LSU on Feb. 22, 2023 (Vanderbilt athletics).
Liam Robbins throws down a dunk during 23-point, 11-rebound, 9-block performance against LSU on Feb. 22, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics)

The fifth-year, seven-footer has been unstoppable as of late. Just like Manjon, Robbins has completely elevated his game in recent weeks. Averaging 22.6 points, 10.3 rebounds and 4.5 blocks per game in his last six outings, he has taken the SEC by storm. 

Even more impressive is that he’s done it all over the court. 

Dominating in the offensive paint? Check. Robbins has used his size and strength to dominate at the rack and force teams to send him to the free throw line, where he has thrived. He shot 17-of-20 from the line in Vanderbilt’s two-point win over Auburn. When it mattered most, Robbins was clutch from the line. 

He’s done it in the defensive paint as well. His 3.21 blocks per game on the season are the most among all players in power five conferences. He has a defensive rating percentage of 21.7 in conference play, which ranks sixth among all players in the SEC according to KenPom.

He’s also shown a rather sudden propensity (or perhaps he just found his confidence) to knock down shots from beyond the arc. After struggling mightily at the beginning of the season — including a month-long streak from December into January without making a triple — Robbins has found his rhythm. The big man is shooting a staggering 59% from downtown through his last six.

This shooting improvement has paired well with his skills in the paint to make him a threat from all over the court and has helped open up the offense for Vanderbilt. 

It won’t be easy for the Commodores, but the path to redemption starts this weekend. 

Vanderbilt (15-13, 8-7) will host Florida (14-14, 7-8) on Saturday, Feb. 25 as it looks to sweep the season series against the Gators. 

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About the Contributors
Aiden Rutman, Senior Staff Writer
Aiden Rutman (‘25) is a student in Peabody College majoring in human and organizational development and minoring in communication studies. He formerly produced The Hustler’s sports podcast, Live from West End. In addition to writing and podcasting, Aiden is an avid New York sports fan, and he loves playing sports, spending time outdoors and trying new foods. You can reach him at [email protected].
Nikita Rohila, Deputy Social Media Director
Nikita Rohila ('25) is from a small town in Arkansas and is majoring in psychology and medicine, health and society in the College of Arts and Science. During her free time, she enjoys roaming around the city and getting cinematic-style shots for her photography account! You can reach her at [email protected].
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