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.

Film Room: This is March

How Vanderbilt turned their season around for a shot at March Madness.
Anseley Philippe
Myles Stute and Quentin Millora-Brown compete against Mississippi State on March 4, 2023 (Hustler Multimedia/Anseley Philippe).

Vanderbilt’s season was supposed to be over on January 31st. The Commodores had just extended their SEC losing streak to three games in a row, culminating in a historic 57-point loss to Alabama. Critics slammed head coach Jerry Stackhouse for using a conference game to send a message to his players. But whatever that message was, it clearly resonated with somebody. 

Nine games and eight wins later, Vanderbilt controls its own destiny in the month of March. An early exit from the SEC Tournament will hardcap the Commodores postseason aspirations to the NIT tournament. If the Commodores can pick up two or three wins at Nashville’s own  Bridgestone Arena, it will be hard for the selection committee to keep Vanderbilt out of the Big Dance. 

To quote Jon Rothstein; this is March. 

How does a team that was 10-12 on February 1st find themselves on the cusp of March Madness? Just a few months ago, even the most faithful Vanderbilt fans would laugh at the thought of this team playing meaningful basketball in March. Against all odds, Vanderbilt figured out a formula for winning basketball at the exact right time. Liam Robbins cemented himself as one of the best players in the SEC, averaging 19.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 4 blocks in eight games before going down with a season-ending leg injury. The 7-foot senior ended his season on a bittersweet note, earning overdue national recognition as the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and 2nd team All-SEC.

Fortunately, the team’s growth extends beyond Robbins’ dominant senior sendoff. Tyrin Lawrence and Ezra Manjon have figured out how to coexist, using their unique athleticism to score around the rim and create better looks for their teammate. Quentin Millora-Brown continues to do all the little things well and should serve as a reliable option in Robbins’ stead. With everything starting to click at the right time, it’s now or never for this group to make their tournament push. 

Mr. Wright Now 

No storyline has better captured Vanderblit’s late-season turnaround than the resurgence of senior Jordan Wright. Wright is averaging 21 points per game on scorching 59/78/90 shooting splits in the month of March, punctuated by a heroic 23-point performance to sink Kentucky. Heating up in March isn’t new for the veteran small forward, who averaged 20 points and 8.5 rebounds during last year’s SEC Tournament run. The Commodores will need their de facto leader to continue to step up if they hope to keep their season alive. 

After starting the season as the team’s presumptive first option on offense, Wright fell out of the starting lineup in November after injuries and inconsistency limited his play. Where some seniors might check out mentally or seek the transfer portal, Wright embraced the opportunity and made himself indispensable off the bench. His fingerprints have been all over key victories against Arkansas, Tennessee and, of course, Kentucky. 

Wright’s rediscovery of his three-point shot has fueled his confidence as a scorer. Against Kentucky and Mississippi State, he looked equally comfortable stepping into deeper threes as well as finding his spots in the paint to drill mid range jumpers. The ability to depend on Wright to convert open 3’s and create some offense for himself significantly raises Vanderbilt’s ceiling.

Quentin Millora-Brown: The Art of the Seal

Liam Robbins was the best and most consistent player for Vanderbilt this season, but Vanderbilt has proven it can win without him. Even without the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year (and the team’s leading scorer), the Commodores managed recent compelling victories against Mississippi State and Kentucky, and also defeated Georgia earlier in the season. The primary reason for Vanderblit’s adaptability without their star big man has been “Mr. Reliable”, Quentin Millora-Brown.

QMB’s per game averages of 3.5 points and 3.8 rebounds aren’t exactly eye-popping, but watch him play for five minutes and it’s not hard to see how he creates value. QMB has mastered the ability to use his size and guile to create opportunities for his teammates. His specialty of late has been the seal, a move in which he positions himself in front of opposing defenders to create wide-open lanes for driving teammates. These openings force defenders to overcommit, opening up the floor and creating occasional pick-and-pop opportunities like his buzzer-beating three to close the first half against Kentucky. 

Tyrin in Transition

Tyrin Lawrence is without doubt Vanderbilt’s most improved player this season. Even before his legendary buzzerbeater to defeat No. 6 Tennessee, Lawrence was consistently performing at a high level. He’s looked unrecognizable from the indecisive backup who averaged 3.8 points per game last season, transforming his game to maximize his hyper-athleticism. Across Vanderbilt’s last nine games, the junior guard is averaging 14.4 points per game (1st on team) on torrid 54/48/68 shooting splits. 

Lawrence’s transition scoring in particular has been huge for Vanderbilt this season. On the break, Lawrence can fly from coast to coast and make acrobatic scoring plays against difficult defense. His ability to handle the ball and beat defenders before soaring above the rim for a contested score is slightly reminiscent of Ja Morant or De’Aaron Fox. When Stackhouse referred to Lawrence as “different” from the other Commodores in terms of talent and ability, that’s what he was talking about. Lawrence’s ability to convert turnovers into easy baskets provides the Commodores with instant offense on the fastbreak.

Manjon Madness

For the first half of the season, the defining question for Vanderbilt was who would fill the role of Scotty Pippen Jr. as the lead facilitator on offense. In February, that question was finally answered. It took a few months for Ezra Manjon to adapt to the level of competition in the SEC, but he has been as vital as anybody in righting the ship for Vanderbilt. During his time at UC Davis, the diminutive point guard developed a bit of a reputation for empty scoring on inefficient shooting. Manjon has made major strides in scoring efficiency this year, upping his field goal percentage to an impressive 46% with an array of tough finishes and floaters. But where he’s really thrived is as a distributor, leading the Commodores with 5.8 assists per game across the last nine games. 

Manjon’s chemistry with his backcourt partner Lawrence has continued to flourish since the two connected for Vanderbilt’s game-winning three against Tennessee. Having two guards who understand each other’s game will be huge for Vanderbilt in the raucous environment of the SEC Tournament. Stackhouse may not be able to communicate as well with his players, but Manjon — as the lead ball handler — will need to step up as “coach on the floor” and take the initiative to make the right play. 

In search of better threes 

Vanderbilt ranks third in the SEC in 3-point percentage, collectively converting 34% of its looks from beyond the arc. That mark is a huge improvement from where the team stood just a few months ago (a dreadful 3-for-30 showing against Alabama didn’t help). It’s unclear if that improvement stems from more creative offensive sets from Stackhouse or improved performance from the players, but either way, something is working. In a few of its biggest wins of the season, Vanderbilt shot 48% from three against Mississippi St., 38.9% against Auburn and 40% against Tennessee. The mantra remains as true today as it did when Vanderbilt had a losing record— when the Commodores are hitting threes, they’re a hard basketball team to beat. 

Early in the season, Vanderbilt’s ability to space the floor was predicated on Myles Stute launching a ton of threes and converting at an outrageous rate. Eventually, Stute came down to Earth and the Commodores found themselves without a consistent source of offense beyond the arc. Over the last few weeks, however, there has been a coherent effort to create open looks through screen and motion based sets. The looks are simply better, and Vanderbilt is hitting more triples now than ever before. 

Vanderbilt will take on LSU in the opening round of the SEC tournament, a fitting opportunity to avenge its only loss in the last nine games. Doing so will require the Commodores to maintain their formula success without Robbins, playing cleanly alongside each other and knocking down open threes. This team has climbed back from the depths of irrelevance for one last chance to prove they belong in the NCAA Tournament. Now, the only thing left to do is play basketball. 

Vanderbilt will play LSU at Bridgestone Arena on Thursday at 8:30 PM CST.

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About the Contributors
Brandon Karp
Brandon Karp, Senior Staff Writer
Brandon Karp ('25) is from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and is studying human and organizational development and political science in Peabody College. You can reach him at [email protected].
Anseley Philippe
Anseley Philippe, Staff Writer and Photographer
Anseley Philippe ('25) is a potential biomedical engineering and Spanish double-major who aspires to be an immunologist. Outside of The Hustler, he can be found queuing up at 2301, wandering around campus during his evening promenades or trying to keep up with his Spanish. He can be reached at [email protected].
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