Memorial Minutes: Building blocks and an impressive win

Looking at the future in the context of Vanderbilt’s first road win of the season.
The Vanderbilt Mens Basketball team gathers after their win against Missouri, as photographed on Feb. 3, 2024. (Hustler Multimedia/Lana English)
The Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball team gathers after their win against Missouri, as photographed on Feb. 3, 2024. (Hustler Multimedia/Lana English)
Lana English

Well that win felt meaningful, didn’t it?

Two weeks after its last SEC win, a thrilling buzzer-beating victory over Texas A&M, Vanderbilt earned its first road win of the season on Thursday night with an 85-82 victory over the Arkansas Razorbacks. With a formula that worked well down the stretch last year, Vanderbilt was able to stay just ahead for most of the game at Bud Walton Arena before relying on timely plays down the stretch to escape with the win.

While the Razorbacks certainly aren’t the same team of the last few years, ranking at No. 121 in KenPom and sporting a lowly 5-10 record in the SEC, Tuesday’s victory was impressive and meaningful for other reasons. Despite the coaching dialogue, X exchanges, injuries, suspensions and everything else that has culminated into a disastrous season for the Commodores, they looked like the better team for 40 minutes in a place that’s hard to win. 

And that means something. Not too much, considering it won’t magically vault them into the NCAA tournament or even guarantee them more than a one-night appearance at Bridgestone Arena in two weeks, but it means something for Vanderbilt’s future. In a season full of lifeless performances and runaway blowouts, nights like Tuesday give an insight into what needs to happen and who needs to stay in the coming seasons to avoid years like this. 

In the era of NIL, it’s impossible to say exactly what will happen this offseason and who will stay or go in an everchanging landscape. Yet, after such a stark contrast in performance following an exciting 2022-23 season, athletic director Candice Lee and whoever is Vanderbilt’s coach in 2024 should be sure to do their best to stop the bleeding of talent from Memorial Gymnasium. After losing 8 of their 13 scholarship players from a season ago, the results of such a turnover-fueled offseason were devastating. 

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the (hopeful) cornerstones for Vanderbilt moving forward. 

Leading Lubin

In a season filled with disappointment, it’s hard to overstate what a revelation Ven-Allen Lubin has been for Vanderbilt. The sophomore featured in a high-usage role once again for the Commodores against the Razorbacks on Tuesday night and delivered to the tune of 19 points, 12 rebounds and 2 blocks. The Notre Dame transfer was red-hot from the field, converting 9 of his 10 field goal attempts. It was another night filled with winning plays from the sophomore forward — none as important as his outstretched rebound and layup to put Vanderbilt up five with 21.8 seconds remaining.

After a short adjustment period during nonconference play, Lubin has continually increased his responsibilities as the season has gone on — and showed Stackhouse he deserves more. With the performance, Lubin is up to 11.5 points per game and 6.1 rebounds per game, and has scored in double figures in eight of his last nine games. Across his last five performances, Lubin’s averaged 15.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per game on 54.5% shooting from the field; another indicator of his improvement as he continues to get minutes in just his second collegiate season.

It’s also worth mentioning Lubin’s production in the context of his defensive responsibilities, which have been markedly different from what was expected of the Notre Dame transfer before the season. Due to the absence of Dort and the general lack of frontcourt depth elsewhere, Lubin has been responsible for containing some of the SEC’s most prolific big men, like Auburn’s Johni Broome and South Carolina’s BJ Mack. While the SEC matchups have not always gone in favor of Lubin, him stepping up and competing hard is a great indication of the character of one of Vanderbilt’s future pieces.

As already mentioned, it’s impossible to account for all of the factors that will make Lubin’s decision this offseason a tricky one. Despite already transferring once, it appears that, for now, Lubin will be able to transfer again without incurring the former penalty of sitting out for a year. Regardless of the circumstances, bringing Lubin back to West End should arguably be priority No. 1 for Vanderbilt this offseason.

Underclassmen rollercoasters 

Despite the poor results, there are a few underclassmen that Vanderbilt needs to retain aside from Lubin, and freshman Jason Rivera-Torres fits that bill. Coming in as a four-star recruit, Rivera-Torres has separated himself as Vanderbilt’s best freshman and profiles as a rangy scorer who can play in a variety of roles on the wing. After scoring in double-digits in Vanderbilt’s first four SEC games, “JRT” has curiously struggled to find steady minutes despite Stackhouse’s search for more consistent wing production.

While the inconsistency has undoubtedly hurt Rivera-Torres’s production, getting him to return and continue ascending as a playmaking wing is very important for Vanderbilt’s future. Though a year ahead of JRT, guard Paul Lewis seems to find himself in a similar situation.

Now in his second season, Lewis has struggled to find his role in a crowded backcourt for the Commodores over his two years. Recently, however, Stackhouse has elected to give the Virginia native more opportunities off the bench, and Lewis has made the most of them. After playing just three minutes in Vanderbilt’s 35-point loss to Tennessee, Lewis played 28 minutes against Georgia and poured in a career-high 18 points. After scoring just three points against Florida, Lewis played hard for 22 minutes and added 11 points off of the bench to help Vanderbilt pull off the upset.

In a nutshell, Vanderbilt’s past three games have defined Lewis’s capabilities and issues well — a microwave bench scorer when he’s on, and a ball-dominant, inefficient guard when he’s not. Either way, similar to JRT, Lewis has shown enough upside for Stackhouse’s Commodores to be sought after in the transfer portal.

NIL difficulties

For many reasons, Vanderbilt is a very different and unique school when compared with the other teams in its conference. Unfortunately for the Commodores, one of the things that sets them apart in the SEC in the new era of college basketball is their NIL capabilities — or lack thereof. 

While the coaching has been scrutinized, it’s also fair to acknowledge some hard truths about where Vanderbilt currently stands in the modern era of college basketball. For one, Vanderbilt cannot “keep up with the Joneses”; the alumni network and NIL donor base does not compare to most of Vanderbilt’s SEC counterparts. As has also been known, the Commodores have a particular issue with high academic standards that evades their conference opponents, specifically with transfers.

Though there are no excuses for one of Vanderbilt basketball’s worst-ever five-year stretches, the Commodores have to operate in a slightly different way than most. And what that results in when roster-building is keeping track and developing your young talent, like Lubin, JRT and Lewis. As money continues to reign supreme in college basketball, it will continue to be less and less likely that Dalton Knecht-like graduate transfers will choose NIL offers from a budget with the caliber of Vanderbilt’s.

In turn, that means that Vanderbilt must turn up the recruiting — both at the high school and college level. When upperclassman transfers become available, they need to be of the Liam Robbins or Ezra Manjon caliber, as opposed to Evan Taylor or Tasos Kamateros, who are solid players in their own right. When players show promise early on, they need to be nurtured and developed like Tyrin Lawrence and not shown the door like Jordan Wright.

Compared to the rest of the SEC, Vanderbilt will pay for its recruiting mistakes more and need to get more evaluations right. For better or worse, this is where Vanderbilt basketball stands in the modern era of college hoops. The sooner Vanderbilt adjusts to this fact, the sooner Vanderbilt can return to being a respectable program.

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About the Contributors
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 .
Lana English, Staff Photographer
Lana English (‘27) is from St. Louis and is majoring in neuroscience in the College of Arts and Science. Outside of The Hustler, you can find her drinking coffee, doing New York Times word games or getting nostalgic looking at old pictures. You can reach her at [email protected].
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