The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

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

Bubble watch? Wright, Commodores stun Kentucky to keep NCAA hopes alive

Vanderbilt continued its improbable run with another dramatic finish, this one at Rupp Arena over Kentucky.
Vanderbilt Athletics
Jordan Wright nails a game-winner over Kentucky at Rupp Arena on March 1, 2023 (Vanderbilt Athletics).

For the first time since 2007, Vanderbilt entered Rupp Arena to face off against the Kentucky Wildcats and left victorious, emerging with a 68-66 win on Wednesday night. As has become the norm for the team, the Commodores did so in dramatic fashion, hitting their third game-winner in as many weeks.

“Our guys just battled,” head coach Jerry Stackhouse said after the victory. “I’m proud of how we battled. We didn’t play our best game, but we played a tough game.”

First, it was Tyrin Lawrence with a corner three against Tennessee.

Then, it was Ezra Manjon on a flying drive to the rim against Auburn.

Wednesday, it was Jordan Wright on a spin-off fadeaway jumper against Kentucky.

All three will live in Vanderbilt lore for years to come and — after a wacky, topsy-turvy season — this team may well, too.

Following a seemingly crushing loss at LSU last week, Stackhouse has his bunch right back in the mix as they try to eek out some more late-season magic. On Wednesday, the Commodores earned perhaps their most impressive win of the season by beating a Kentucky team that had seemingly come into its own after winning four in a row, and on the road, nonetheless.

“Just happy about tonight, coming in and having something to play for this time of the year, beating the king at his house, it’s pretty special,” Stackhouse added. “This is a big feat for us, not just to come in and beat them, but [to beat them while they’re] probably playing as good of basketball as anybody.”

Vanderbilt needed this win to keep its slim NCAA Tournament hopes alive and it was that hair-on-fire effort that carried the Commodores over the edge against Kentucky. On the first day of March, Vanderbilt showed that it wants to do everything it can to be apart of the madness — and that it might just have some magic left up its sleeve.

Getting Wright

Simply put, Vanderbilt’s monumental win over Kentucky could not have happened without Wright. After playing just five minutes against Florida on Saturday, the senior turned in a career performance against the Wildcats on Wednesday. With Manjon limited to just 22 minutes due to foul trouble and Liam Robbins going down with an injury after just four minutes, Wright’s veteran savvy was desperately needed and the Baton Rouge native responded to the call in the biggest way.

Wright finished with a season-high 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting, including a perfect 4-0f-4 from three. No points were bigger than his final two on a spinning, step-back jumper with 2.6 seconds to go.

“We kind of had a fake timeout, wanted to get [Manjon] downhill, catch them off guard,” Wright told the media afterward. “But they were ready for it, and I just told [Manjon], ‘Give me the ball.’ Coach trusts me in that moment, I just got to my spot and made the shot.”

The senior added four rebounds, two assists and a steal to his stat ledger, proving to be the most valuable player on the floor despite a herculean effort from Kentucky center Oscar Tshwiebe in the loss (21 points, 20 rebounds).

Jordan Wright talks with reporters after hitting a game-winner over Kentucky on March 1, 2023 (Vanderbilt Athletics).
Jordan Wright talks with reporters after hitting a game-winner over Kentucky on March 1, 2023 (Vanderbilt Athletics). (Vanderbilt Athletics)

A teary-eyed Jerry Stackhouse described the emotional moment postgame.

“We started this thing together. He’s my very first recruit. He’s the first guy that I signed to Vanderbilt,” Stackhouse remarked. “I get a little bit emotional with this one right here. This is what it’s about. This is a great moment for us, a great moment for our program. I’m glad to have this win tonight.”

Wright also guided the Commodores defensively: Vanderbilt surrendered just 66 points to Kentucky, the Wildcats’ third-lowest output in SEC play. After allowing 38 points to the trio of Cason Wallace, Jacob Toppin and Antonio Reeves in the first meeting on Jan. 24, Vanderbilt contained the Wildcat wings to 27 points on 7-of-31 shooting.

As a team, Kentucky was limited to just 19-for-59 from the field (32.2%) and 3-of-19 from deep (15.8%). Without centers Lee Dort, Liam Robbins and Quentin Millora-Brown — who also battled foul trouble — Vanderbilt’s defensive effort was a major catalyst in earning it a victory. In addition to Wright’s effort, Tyrin Lawrence, Colin Smith and Myles Stute all battled and frustrated Kentucky’s plethora of lengthy offensive options all night.

The Commodores have held four opponents under 65 points in their last eight games and will need to continue getting it done on that end of the floor should their run continue well into March. Speaking of…

A run through March

Stackhouse’s group — winners of seven of their last eight — has officially carried their improbable run into March as the calendar turned on Wednesday. Vanderbilt and Jordan Wright kicked off the month of madness by garnering national headlines with the game-winner that gave the Commodores just their third win in Rupp Arena — ever.

Wright, the lone true senior on the squad, understood the magnitude of the moment.

“This is a game we knew that we had to win to keep our hopes alive for March Madness,” Wright said postgame. “We let one get away at LSU, so we knew we had to come down here and get this one. I’m not going to say this was just another game because this was a huge game for us. It was a win that we needed.”

The win was not as favorable in the eyes of the computer rankings, however, which seems to be Vanderbilt’s biggest hill left to climb to earn an NCAA Tournament bid. Despite ranking as a quadrant 1a win (road win over a top-40 opponent), the Commodores jumped just one spot in the NET, to No. 84, after beating Kentucky.

The win gave Vanderbilt its fourth quad 1 win of the season and moved the Black and Gold to 8-10 in quads 1 and 2 combined. Similarly, KenPom moved the Commodores up only one spot, to No. 83, following the victory.

Vanderbilt's NET team sheet as of March 2, 2023 (
Vanderbilt’s NET team sheet as of March 2, 2023 (

While the results-based metrics continue to favor Vanderbilt, the Commodores will need their NET to continue to ascend in order to earn an at-large bid to the Big Dance. Rutgers’ 2022 squad, which finished the regular season with a NET rank of No. 77, is the lowest rated team to ever achieve an at-large bid.

As such, Vanderbilt still has work to do. A win at home against Mississippi State — another team squarely on the bubble at the moment — would help. Then, the Commodores, slated as the No. 6 seed at the moment, would likely need to make a weekend appearance at the SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena to get themselves back into the conversation.

If it does so, Vanderbilt will have ripped off 10 of 11 wins — 8 of 9 to end the regular season and two in their opening matchups of the SEC Tournament. A team with that profile would be difficult to exclude from the March Madness festivities, though the fallout of other bubble teams is something worth considering as well.

The Commodores would need some additional help from other bubble candidates, but as Deputy Sports Editor Aiden Rutman keenly observed on our podcast on Tuesday, that assistance could come from Mississippi State and Auburn.

With a win on Saturday, Vanderbilt will have beaten both of those SEC foes who, unlike the Commodores, are faltering heading into the final stretch of the season. If the season ended today, the Bulldogs and Tigers would match up in the opening round of the SEC Tournament as well.

The NCAA Selection Committee has awarded the SEC with at least six bids in every tournament since 2017, meaning at least one of Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Auburn is fairly likely to gain an at-large bid. While the Commodores have a bit to go to bump their NET ratings to the requisite ranking needed for a tournament bid, it could potentially take advantage of Auburn and Mississippi State’s potential late-season misfortune — and have a tie-breaker over both.

Needless to say, there is a multitude of scenarios left to unfold over the final week of the regular season. But thanks to Jordan Wright and the Commodores’ heroics against Kentucky, Vanderbilt is very much still in the NCAA Tournament discussion.

Welcome to March.

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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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