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.

Vanderbilt looks to boost NCAA Tournament resume with win against Kentucky

As the NCAA Tournament bubble crystalizes, an SEC quarterfinals victory has become all but necessary for the Commodores.
Nikita Rohila
Ezra Manjon goes for a layup against LSU at the SEC Tournament, as photographed on March 9, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Nikita Rohila)

There’s no getting around it: The Vanderbilt fanbase is dead set on making the NCAA Tournament, and anything short of that would be considered a disappointment to them. It’s easy to see why. The Commodores have won 9 of their last 10 games. Jerry Stackhouse was named SEC Co-Coach of the Year. Liam Robbins won SEC Defensive Player of the Year. This is, in a vacuum, a Tournament team.

The problem is that basketball isn’t played in a vacuum. While Vanderbilt has been building its resume, so have 357 other teams. Say what one will about the NET being broken, the strength of the non-conference schedule being underrated or Joe Lunardi making the wrong projections, the reality is that most bracket experts put Vanderbilt on the wrong side of the bubble.

At this point, the Commodores can’t rely on the teams ahead of them taking bad losses and moving down. Vanderbilt is going to have to win and move up. That begins with No. 23 Kentucky.

This matchup should feel familiar — the teams played at Kentucky’s Rupp Arena just nine days ago. Despite the loss of Robbins just four minutes into the contest, the Commodores still found a way to win 68-66. How can they repeat that success?

The first step is to mitigate the loss on the boards. Vanderbilt is inevitably going to get out-rebounded in this game. The question is whether the margin is closer to 10 or 20. 

Reigning National Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe had 20 rebounds on his own in the previous matchup. While it’s proven possible to win in spite of that kind of performance, Stackhouse and Co. know they shouldn’t tempt fate and will scheme to diminish Tshiebwe’s down-low impact. That begins — and, because of limited depth, may end — with Quentin Millora-Brown.

The next step is to generate more offensive spacing. In its second-round win against LSU, Vanderbilt got away with shooting 6-for-22 beyond the arc. That performance simply not going to cut it this time around.

The Wildcats are a more physically-imposing team than the Tigers. As sweet as Ezra Manjon’s layups can be, the paint is going to be a lot more clogged with Tshiebwe and Jacob Toppin’s presence. The Commodores may also struggle to get to the line as much as they did against LSU — 30 times — given Kentucky’s veteran and disciplined frontcourt.

To get around this obstacle, Myles Stute and Trey Thomas need to demonstrate drastic improvement; the pair went a combined 1-for-15 shooting last game. Some of Stute’s shots felt forced from way beyond the three-point line. Many of them were open opportunities that barely missed their target. Regardless of how it gets cleaned up, more shots need to go in from behind the arc if the Commodores want to beat any team better than LSU.

One of the biggest surprises of the LSU matchup was the stellar performance of Vanderbilt’s freshmen. Despite averaging a combined 9.3 points per game, Paul Lewis, Lee Dort and Colin Smith joined forces to drop a collective 20 points on only 12 shots.

That level of scoring consistency is going to be difficult for the freshmen to maintain as they now face a team that plays six seniors. It’s lopsided to think that Vanderbilt’s success against Kentucky could hinge upon how its freshmen handle veteran opposition, but that’s the backward nature of the SEC this year. 

Without Robbins, this game is going to be an uphill battle. The return of Kentucky’s freshman guard and future NBA draft pick Cason Wallace will make it even more difficult. Rebounding is going to be an issue. The three-point shooting wasn’t there last night. The freshmen will likely regress to the mean.

But none of this is to say that the task is impossible. Vanderbilt quite literally just did it last week.

The Commodores will tip off against Kentucky tonight in Bridgestone Arena at approximately 8:30 p.m. CST.

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About the Contributors
Jayce Pollard
Jayce Pollard, Non-revenue Sports Specialist
Jayce Pollard (‘25) is a student in the College of Arts and Science majoring in public policy and economics and minoring in data science and Spanish. Outside of writing for The Hustler, you can catch Jayce trying to learn the rules of soccer, hating on the Arkansas Razorbacks and being chronically on Twitter. He can be reached at [email protected]
Nikita Rohila
Nikita Rohila, Senior Staff Photographer
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. She previously served as Deputy Social Media Director. 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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