Memorial Minutes: Midterm deficiency

The Commodores are in freefall heading into their last nonconference stretch.
Tyrin Lawrence getting introduced before Vanderbilts game against San Francisco on Dec. 6, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Ophelia Lu)
Tyrin Lawrence getting introduced before Vanderbilt’s game against San Francisco on Dec. 6, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Ophelia Lu)
Ophelia Lu

It’s finals week at Vanderbilt for us students, a stressful time when grades are made or broken. We’re spending hours on end reviewing notes, lingering around office hours and saving our most precise mathematical skills for calculating what grade we need on RogerHub. It’s a tremendously important part of the semester.

But not the only important part.

While the final stretch matters, the majority of the grade in most of our classes is already set ― a product of all the 10-point problem sets and midterms from months prior. December is the time of year when grades on the bubble are decided, but it’s also the time of year to atone for how we got to the point of needing to put up a 98% on the final to save our GPAs.

Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball is still months away from its own “finals week” in March, but the Commodores have bombed their first exam so badly that an “A” ― a spot in the NCAA Tournament ― may already be off the table.

Just nine games into the 2023-24 season, the Commodores are just 4-5 against what was supposed to be the easiest stretch of their schedule. They’ve lost three home games already, none of which were against teams that made the 2023 NCAA Tournament or are expected to do so this year. The Commodores rank 208th in Division I per KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin, last place by far in the SEC. KenPom currently projects that Vanderbilt will go just 3-15 in the SEC, which would be a disaster compared to last year’s 11-7 conference record. After such a dreadful start to the season, let’s take a look at how the Commodores got to this point, what will need to improve and whether it’s already too late.

Dreadful defense

The Commodores have held just one of their opponents under 65 points and allowed three teams to score 80 points. Vanderbilt’s opponents are shooting 45.2% from the field and 39.5% from behind the arc, both the highest marks allowed among SEC teams. Vanderbilt’s adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom is 108.7, making the Commodores just the 277th best defense in the country and the worst in the conference.

Vanderbilt isn’t just struggling to play defense against the upper-level offenses like NC State and Boston College. The Commodores are giving up 70 points per night to some very weak teams and giving up big numbers at home: UNC Greensboro, Central Arkansas, etc. Having the defense be this much of a liability is making it impossible for Vanderbilt to put games away.

It’s unfortunately easy to see why the Commodores are struggling. Their fundamentals are bad. Vanderbilt’s not closing down 3-point shooters: 39.5% doesn’t just happen. The Commodores are getting burned by routine back cuts. They’re not blocking shots: just 5%, well below the 9.4% DI average. They’re not creating turnovers.

The most concerning part is that the struggles on defense may not be due to the early-season injury problems. Vanderbilt had its full roster (other than Lee Dort) available against San Francisco, but its defense was arguably even worse with the starters on the floor. Ven-Allen Lubin had a good scoring night but only had two rebounds in over 30 minutes. Colin Smith, who didn’t start but played 27 minutes, posted a -16 plus/minus. Tyrin Lawrence, who also was -16 on the floor, made so many mistakes on both ends that Stackhouse pulled him from the game just three minutes in.

Unless Vanderbilt is planning on scoring 80 points per game against SEC teams, the Commodores will need to clamp down on defense to avoid being blown out of games when the schedule gets tougher.

Shake it up

As we saw in the San Francisco game, Jerry Stackhouse seems to have a group that we could roughly call the starting five: Lawrence, Ezra Manjon, Evan Taylor, Lubin and Smith. Those five have been playing the majority of games when they were available. However, Stackhouse has admitted that that lineup is far from set in stone.

“I honestly don’t know what our best lineup is right now,” Stackhouse said on Dec. 2 after the Alabama A&M game. “We got a few more games before we have to figure it out [in conference play].”

Two names may need to get more minutes for Vanderbilt to be successful: Jason Rivera-Torres and Tasos Kamateros. Rivera-Torres is 40% from behind the arc and averages 3.2 rebounds in 15.1 minutes per game. 

Kamateros has understandably had his minutes cut with Smith and Lubin back, but he should probably be in the mix more often, at least while Vanderbilt is struggling. He leads the team shooting 51.4% from the field and 45.2% behind the arc, an astounding number for a 6’8” big man. Stackhouse is probably more concerned about his overall impact and defense, but those are at least somewhat serviceable: Kamateros posted a positive rating in the losses against San Francisco and Arizona State.

So why not shake up the lineup? With all the turbulence around who has and has not been available, it may be understandable to try to improve through more stability in the lineup. But for now, it’s just not working. Different guys will have to get in the mix for Vanderbilt to have a chance, and for Stackhouse to finally figure out who his best five are.

Is it too late already?

Unfortunately, it’s a reasonable question. Despite the 2022-23 Commodores’ 11-7 conference record and run to the semifinals of the SEC Tournament, the selection committee controversially kept Vanderbilt out due to its poor nonconference run and analytics used by the NET. Early losses to Southern Miss, Grambling State and VCU were part of the problem.

This year, the Commodores have already lost to one bottom-tier team in Presbyterian, they’ve done worse in their “B-level” games against Boston College and Arizona State than they did last year and they failed to run up a scoring margin in most of their other “buy games.” It’s fair to wonder whether even the sort of sudden turnaround like we saw in February would be enough at this point to get them in the NCAA Tournament.

In a similar way, it’s fair to wonder whether a Vanderbilt student who bombed their first test even has a chance to make it up throughout the rest of the semester.

However, the Commodores don’t have a “drop” button. This season is going on the transcript whether Vanderbilt ― including Stackhouse himself ― wants it to or not. What any sort of committee or outside observer thinks four months from now is out of the Commodores’ control. The past is in the past.

What is in their control is where they go from here.

Will we see new faces in the starting lineup? Will the offense become dynamic again? Will Vanderbilt’s star players put in the kind of energy on defense that got them to the cusp of March Madness last year? Those are the questions the Commodores have to answer now to turn their season around with four nonconference games left before the new year.

They’ll begin to answer those questions against Texas Tech on Saturday, Dec. 16 at 6:30 p.m. CST in Fort Worth, Texas.

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About the Contributors
Frankie Sheehy
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].
Ophelia Lu
Ophelia Lu, Deputy Photography Editor
Ophelia Lu (’26) is from Los Angeles and is double majoring in biomedical and electrical engineering in the School of Engineering. She previously served as a staff photographer. When not covering events and sports games for The Hustler, you can find her listening to a lot of music, studying at Starbucks or lying on Alumni lawn. She can be reached at [email protected].
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