Thanksgiving Mailbag: Basketball in Las Vegas

The Vanderbilt Hustler Sports Staff answers your questions ahead of the Vegas Showdown and the South Point Shootout.
Vanderbilt Women’s Basketball celebrates a victory over Fairfield alongside the cheerleaders and dance team, as photographed on Nov. 12, 2023 and Vanderbilt Mens Basketball team celebrates after victory, as photographed on Nov. 17, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Vince Lin)
Vanderbilt Women’s Basketball celebrates a victory over Fairfield alongside the cheerleaders and dance team, as photographed on Nov. 12, 2023 and Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball team celebrates after victory, as photographed on Nov. 17, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Vince Lin)
Vince Lin

Nearly three weeks into college basketball, Jerry Stackhouse’s squad (3-1) and Shea Ralph’s squad (5-0) will travel to Las Vegas to play in Thanksgiving tournaments this week. 

The men’s team will compete in the Las Vegas Showdown with a first-round matchup against N.C. State. Depending on the result of the game, Vanderbilt will either play BYU or Arizona State. The Commodores had a bumpy start to their 2023-24 campaign when they dropped their season opener to the 277th-ranked Presbyterian College by six points. Vanderbilt has since won three consecutive games and has outscored its opponents 223-208 in that span. The Commodores will look to extend their winning streak this weekend.

The women’s team has started in excellent fashion, winning all of their matchups to this point. Thanks to a healthy roster, Vanderbilt has a lot more depth than it did last season. Sacha Washington leads the team with 18.8 points per game and will be a massive factor for Vanderbilt in its matchup against Iowa State and Northern Iowa in the South Point Shootout. 

MBB: What have you learned about this team through four games?

Anish Mago, Deputy Sports Editor: Though they have promising pieces, the Commodores need to get back on track, quickly. At best, Vanderbilt has been very shaky through the first four games of the season. Aside from their opening loss to Presbyterian, the Commodores have won their three games over mid-major opponents by a combined 15 points.

Despite the rough start, Vanderbilt has had a few bright spots to start the season. Ezra Manjon, for one, has been a star. In the absence of backcourt partner Tyrin Lawrence, Manjon is tied for third in the SEC in points per game to start the season (18.8) while also contributing 4.5 assists and 4 rebounds per game. In his second year with the Commodores, Manjon appears to have taken a leap that will squarely put him and Lawrence in the conversation for the best backcourt in the SEC. Filling the void left by nearly all of Vanderbilt’s 2022-23 backcourt, sophomore Colin Smith has not only doubled his scoring output from last year at 9.5 points per game but also has averaged nearly 10 rebounds crashing the paint. Transfers Evan Taylor and Tasos Kamateros have shown flashes of their own along with Stackhouse’s freshman class, but, ultimately, this team does not have much more time to figure it out.

November’s games were supposed to be about padding their resume for Selection Sunday, not figuring out ways to skate by subpar competition. The Commodores do have the ceiling to be competitive when that fateful day comes, but they will need to turn this ship around quickly if they hope to do so. 

Aiden Rutman, Deputy Sports Editor: More than anything else, we know that they love to keep fans on the edges of their seats for a full 40 minutes. The Commodores are averaging a margin of victory of just five points in their three wins, and all three have been competitive until the final buzzer. It’s nice to see Vanderbilt pull out late-game wins despite sloppiness during each of these matchups. Still, it’d be a lot more assuring to see Stackhouse & Co. blow some of these teams out of the water, especially considering the lofty expectations that the team had in the preseason.

I think the biggest takeaway is just how much the Commodores are missing Lawrence, Ven-Allen Lubin and Lee Dort. Stackhouse highlighted that all three injured players are not just key pieces, but starters, after the win over USC Upstate. The hope is that all three will continue to get healthy as the season chugs along, and Vanderbilt will have its full roster ready come conference play in the new year. Until then, all the Commodores can do is rely on the brilliant play of Manjon, Smith and Kamateros while looking to some of its younger pieces for contributions as well. 

Brandon Karp, Lead Sports Analyst: Despite an awful first loss of the season, the Commodores will be alright. Even without Lawrence, the offense has found a rhythm, averaging 74.3 points per game since that dreadful loss to Presbyterian. Manjon looks more comfortable than ever, upping his points per game to 18.8 after 10.5 last season and shooting a career-high 40% from three. Smith broke out of a slow start to the year with consecutive double-doubles against UNC-Greensboro and Central Arkansas. In addition to Lawrence’s absence, the team’s improved offensive production comes without two of its top interior threats in Dort and Lubin.

I’m less confident about this team’s outlook on the defensive end. The Commodores are allowing opponents to shoot 53% from three on the season. While some of that comes down to bad luck, it’s clear that Vanderbilt can be doing more to make opponent shots more difficult on the perimeter. Likewise, transition defense has been weak and the unit is far too susceptible to big scoring runs, as seen against Presbyterian and Central Arkansas. Until this group can find a consistent defensive identity, it remains difficult to see it as a tournament-caliber team. 

Jayce Pollard, Assistant Sports Specialist: Vanderbilt is an NIT-caliber team for the third time in Stackhouse’s tenure, but I’m not sure that counts as something learned if it was called before the season started. The team’s biggest concern is the half-court offense, the same problem that plagued last year’s team. It seems like, in every game, there are multiple stretches where the Commodores struggle to score for minutes on end. Maybe that’s just college basketball, but good teams with offensive struggles at least have a defensive identity. This team doesn’t particularly have one. If Central Arkansas of the Atlantic Sun conference is able to drop 71 points on the Commodores, just imagine what teams like Alabama and Tennessee will do — and Lawrence coming back doesn’t help that. 

WBB: Who is a player that you have been most impressed with?

Andrew Wilf, Sports Editor: Iyana Moore has impressed me thus far. Through five games, the junior has averaged 12.4 points per game and picked up right where she left off in the 2021-22 season. Before the 2022-23 season, Moore suffered an ACL injury, which ultimately sidelined her for her sophomore season. In her freshman season, Moore averaged 12.7 points per game and 32.5 minutes per game. Now, her workload is similar to two seasons ago, and she has improved as a playmaker. Moore, Jordyn Cambridge and Washington are Ralph’s “big three” and will look to secure an NCAA Tournament birth for Vanderbilt for the first time since 2014.   

Mago: Though she might not be as known as some of her veteran counterparts, I think freshman Aga Makurat has easily been Vanderbilt’s most impressive player thus far. In her first season with the Commodores, Makurat has fit in seamlessly, providing Ralph with a strong rotation option who can stretch the floor. The Poland native has done an excellent job of matching volume and efficiency, converting from behind the arc at 52.4% despite taking the second-most attempts on the team. Her scoring has not come in small doses, either; take Makurat’s team-leading 18 points that pushed Vanderbilt past Western Kentucky for an example. Though a bit unexpected, Makurat has hit the ground running with the Commodores, and I’m excited to see her get more minutes as she continues to get acclimated with Ralph’s system. 

Rutman: It might be a cop-out, but I am continuously impressed with Cambridge in her return from the ACL tear that she suffered in August of 2022. The Nashville native is now in her sixth and final year at Vanderbilt and has been nothing short of a leader for the Commodores. Despite multiple season-ending injuries, she has led the SEC in total steals twice. She’s shown her resilience more than ever this season as a do-it-all player for Ralph averaging 12.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists. Her all-around contributions have been essential in Vanderbilt’s hot 5-0 start. Oh, and of course, she’s maintained her typical tenacity on the defensive end, leading the SEC with 4.4 steals per game.

Karp: Washington continues to get better as she has taken on a larger role with this team each season. The junior forward is averaging a team-high 18.8 points per game to lead the team, a significant step up from the 11.1 PPG she averaged last season. Washington also leads the team in rebounds (10) and blocks (1.4) per game, dominating in the paint on both offense and defense. Against Western Kentucky, Washington’s outstanding performance played a huge role in helping the Commodores secure their best win of the season. If Washington can continue to anchor the Commodores on both sides of the ball, it could be a long time before Vanderbilt loses a game this year. 

MBB: How much will the Commodores’ improve with Lawrence, Lubin and Dort returning from injury?

Wilf: Nearly an hour before Vanderbilt kicked off its season against Presbyterian, Vanderbilt Athletics announced that Lawrence would be inactive for the game. The star shooting guard was spotted on Vanderbilt’s campus with a walking boot on his right foot that morning. Lawrence has yet to see the court and remains sidelined. After the Commodores’ win over UNC Greensboro, Stackhouse told the media that he expects Lawrence to be back for the Las Vegas Showdown. Vanderbilt needs Lawrence to return to the backcourt for the offense to generate more flow. The senior averaged 13.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 29 minutes in the 2022-23 season. Two of Lawrence’s teammates, Dort and Lubin, have also been sidelined this season. Lubin — a transfer from Notre Dame — has yet to play for the Commodores and will look to make an immediate impact in the paint when he returns to action. The power forward shot 58% from the field last season and will help the Commodores even more in the rebounding category. Finally, Dort is set to return soon and that would be crucial for Vanderbilt as the former four-star recruit will look to share time with Kamateros and Lang at the center position. Hindsight is always 20/20, but Vanderbilt may have beaten Presbyterian if it had Lawrence, Lubin and Dort at its disposal.

Frankie Sheehy, Deputy Sports Editor: Substantially. With those three players sidelined, Vanderbilt is simply far too reliant on Manjon and Smith to play out of their minds. Lawrence is the heart of this team. He’s probably going to need to be the leading scorer and best shooter for Vanderbilt to make it to the NCAA Tournament, and losing him for much longer would be devastating. With Lawrence, Lubin and Dort, opponents will have to deal with several more scoring threats at the same time. Carter Lang has been okay in the paint for a freshman, but Vanderbilt has simply been much worse on defense when he’s the five. Dort and Lubin will bring that size and help the Commodores on the post and the glass.

Jonah Barbin, Assistant Sports Specialist: Not only is the return of these players essential, but it’s coming at just the right time. Since squaring off against Presbyterian on opening night, Vanderbilt has faced USC Upstate (KenPom No. 290), UNC Greensboro (KenPom No. 99) and Central Arkansas (KenPom No. 321). In the next calendar month, a team with an already slim margin for error if it wants a chance at a bid to the NCAA Tournament will take on the likes of NC State (KenPom No. 52), Boston College (KenPom No. 105), San Francisco (KenPom No. 82), Texas Tech (KenPom No. 46), Western Carolina (KenPom No. 132) and Memphis (KenPom No. 32). For reference, the Commodores currently sit at KenPom No. 138. The hope is that adding the size, speed and versatility that this trio boasts will aid Vanderbilt in creeping their way up in these rankings.

Sam Curtis, Sports Copy Editor: Basketball is a game of stars. Look no further than the NBA for proof, but the same is true with college ball — there are only five players on the floor and one ball in play at a time, so the best guys matter a great deal. Lawrence missing time forces Stackhouse to play inexperienced guards like Isaiah West, Paul Lewis and Jason Rivera-Torres more than he’d probably like. Having a veteran backcourt with years of experience is a key to winning close games, but that all goes away when you’re missing your best player who also happens to be the most familiar with the team’s system. Dort and Lubin’s return also cannot be understated. Dort was touted as a blue-chip recruit but saw limited time due to center depth last season, so now is his moment to step up. He’s a matchup nightmare that will add scoring down low to complement Lawrence’s driving abilities. Furthermore, the sophomore has seen more SEC action and more of Stackhouse’s tendencies than either of the other options at center. Lubin brings a defensive presence to the court unlike any other player in this group and should be a substitution candidate late in games when the Commodores need a few stops. All three bring a missing piece to Stackhouse’s vision, which leads me to believe we’re yet to see Vanderbilt’s best basketball.

WBB: What has Shea Ralph and this team shown you that you’ve been impressed with?

Sheehy: I love the energy on defense, especially as we saw it in the first halves against Kennesaw State and Alabama State. The Commodores’ half-court traps must have forced a dozen turnovers so far. While Vanderbilt is not going to be the biggest team in the SEC, the Commodores sure are athletic and quick. Moore and Cambridge aren’t just scoring and driving on offense, they’re putting in as much hustle on defense as anybody else. Now at times, that energy hasn’t persisted to the second half as much as Ralph would like. However, the hustle and energy Vanderbilt is showing on defense is an encouraging sign and could be tough for some SEC teams to handle.

Curtis: Vanderbilt has gone 12 deep in its bench in three of the five games it’s played. In the other two games, the Commodores went 9 and 10 deep. Not only does this excite me for the rest of the season, it also shows a level of growth and investment in the future of this program by Ralph. From my very first press conference with the coach, I could tell she had a clearly communicated vision that she was ready to embody.

I still don’t expect this squad to finish top or even high up in the SEC standings, but implementing a winning culture and seeing improved results is all Ralph has done since arriving on West End, and that performance is hard not to be impressed by. Yes, the margins of victory have been slim, but the outcomes read the same in the win column — the team is 5-0. 

Pollard: After being plagued by injuries and suspensions, there were times last season when the Commodores were fielding only seven scholarship players against full SEC rosters. Ralph hasn’t been shy about playing the entire bench during Vanderbilt’s 5-0 start: experience that will be incredibly valuable for the program both this season and beyond. These also aren’t typical Vanderbilt bench players: they’ve got length and strength, are defensively versatile and can shoot. Makurat is a supremely intriguing bench piece that can space the floor and switch one-through-four on defense, perhaps even one-through-five if she gets a bit stronger. Aiyana Mitchell and Khamil Pierre have similar defensive potential but currently lack the shooting touch; Jada Brown remains a knock-down shooter in her limited role; and Ryanne Allen has to win the award for the biggest “plays with that dog in her” factor. All five of those players are freshmen or sophomores, meaning they have a long developmental path ahead of them. If anybody’s going to resurrect Memorial Magic in the coming years, it’s going to be this squad.

Barbin: The notion of bringing Ralph in, from the beginning, heavily centered around the championship culture she would instill in this program, and we are seeing it on full display to start this year. No longer hampered by the injuries of Cambridge and Moore and bolstered by both transfer and freshman talent, this team is firing on all cylinders. Vanderbilt’s most recent win, which was a 88-42 smashing of Alabama St. on Nov. 20, saw the Commodores shoot a season-best 59.3% from the field, Washington drop a team-best 24 (her second 20+ point performance of the season) and Tennessee transfer Justine Pissott add 16. Ralph has been masterful at collecting early wins in her tenure as of late, as she is now 17-3 in her last 20 nonconference affairs. The Commodores started 5-0 in back-to-back seasons for the first time in 17 years. Led by the veteran trio of Washington, Cambridge and Moore and aided by newcomers like Pissott, Makurat and Duke transfer Jordyn Oliver, we will continue to see Ralph move towards her goal of making this team a perennial contender.

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About the Contributors
Andrew Wilf, Sports Editor
Andrew Wilf (’24) is Sports Editor for The Vanderbilt Hustler. He is from Livingston, N.J., and is majoring in history and minoring in business. He joined the sports staff his freshman year, previously serving as a Staff Writer, Assistant Sports Editor and Deputy Sports Editor. Beyond writing for The Hustler, he is also the host of Anchor Analysis, Commodore Clash and Live From West End. In his free time, Andrew enjoys watching the NFL and playing golf. He can be reached at [email protected].
Frankie Sheehy, Former Deputy Sports Editor
Frankie Sheehy ('24) wrote for The Hustler Sports section and graduated from the College of Arts and Science with majors in economics and law, history and society. He was also the president of the Vanderbilt Chess Club and a superfan of the Chicago White Sox. You can reach him at [email protected].
Anish Mago, Deputy Sports Editor
Anish Mago ('24) is from West Windsor, N.J., and is studying economics and political science in the College of Arts and Science. He previously served as a staff writer for the Sports section. When not writing for The Hustler, Anish enjoys playing basketball and rooting for all Philly sports. He can be reached at .
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].
Sam Curtis, Deputy Sports Editor
Sam Curtis (’24) is from Wallingford, Conn., majoring in human and organizational development and French and minoring in data science in Peabody College. He was previously Assistant Sports Editor and Sports Copy Editor. When not writing for The Hustler, he cheers on the Philadelphia Eagles, the 76ers and Leeds United. Outside of sports, he enjoys traveling and learning about history and philosophy. He can be reached at [email protected].    
Jayce Pollard, Assistant 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]
Jonah Barbin, Senior Staff Writer
Jonah Barbin (‘25) is majoring in human and organizational development and cinema and media studies. In addition to writing about sports, you can catch him acting, scouring the fantasy football waiver wire, playing golf and fantasizing about what Odell Beckham Jr.’s career would have been if the Giants never traded him. You can reach him at [email protected].
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].
Vince Lin, Staff Photographer and Graphics Staffer
Vince Lin (‘27) is from Zanesville, Ohio, and is majoring in computer science. Vince is a staff photographer and plans on covering sports and concerts. Outside of school, you can find him at the gym, rowing, lifting weights, playing games with friends or sleeping. You can reach him at [email protected].
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Mr. Terry Moore
3 months ago

Nice article

Will you all be covering VU club sports this year? I had written you team 3 months ago with no responsss.

R
Admin
3 months ago

Hi Mr. Moore, thanks for reaching out! I’m sorry about this lack of response from our team. Our Sports section does not cover club sports. Occasionally, The Hustler will cover accomplishments of club sports, coverage for which you can email me or News Editor Brina Ratangee ([email protected]) directly.