Stackhouse talks schedule, COVID-19, early practice developments

The Vanderbilt Commodores took the floor Wednesday for their first official day of practice and Coach Stackhouse had much to say regarding his second season on West End.

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Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball head coach Jerry Stackhouse is entering his second season at the helm (Hustler Multimedia/Hunter Long).

Justin Hershey, Lead Sports Analyst

It feels like just yesterday that Vanderbilt wrapped up its 2019-2020 season by losing in the SEC Tournament to Arkansas on Mar. 11. And finally, on Wednesday, second-year head coach Jerry Stackhouse began his second season on West End as practice officially began.

The Commodores concluded Stackhouse’s first season with an improved 11-21 (3-15 in the SEC) record and an intriguing pool of returning talent. Stackhouse was a guest with Joe Fisher on the Commodore Hour Monday and, for the first time since the spring, met with the media Thursday following his team’s second day of practice. Throughout the week, he had plenty to offer on the state of the program, rounding out the non-conference schedule and early practice developments.

Despite losing Aaron Nesmith and Saben Lee to the NBA Draft, Stackhouse and the Commodores return three players who started over 30 games last season in sophomores Scotty Pippen Jr. and Dylan Disu, and senior Maxwell Evans. Fifth-year senior Clevon Brown also returns to bolster the frontcourt with 107 games under his belt. 

And Stackhouse has already been impressed with the leadership of his experienced players.

“Scotty, Dylan, Jordan Wright, those guys played a ton of minutes last year so they come back with more of a swag,” Stackhouse told Fisher on the Commodore Hour Monday night. “Clevon and Max, I think they have just been great leaders in the frontcourt. Max really sets the tone on the defensive end and just does a lot of things right for us. He’s a senior so I know he is looking forward to having a big year.”

Stackhouse put big expectations on his returning sophomores especially, who combined for nearly 35% of the Commodores’ total scoring load last season.  

“We are expecting a lot from that group [sophomores]. Our starting point guard from day one was a freshman, and I feel like maybe our most talented player offensively and defensively is Dylan Disu,” Stackhouse told the media Thursday. “It would not surprise me for him to possibly be our leading scorer and possibly even our leading rebounder this year.”

But in addition to his returnees, the second-year head coach has two notable transfers and four freshmen that figure to see significant minutes in the Commodore rotation. 

First, DJ Harvey, a transfer from Notre Dame, is a former five-star recruit who Stackhouse won over last summer. Harvey has a polished offensive skill set, and per Stackhouse’s comments seems to be the focal point of the Commodore offense.

“We are counting on him to kind of fill that role somewhat that Aaron filled for us, a guy that can come off of screens and shoot,” Stackhouse said of Harvey. “But I think he just has maybe a little bit better ball-handling and playmaking ability that we want to take advantage of.”

While Nesmith was mostly relied upon to be a perimeter threat, Stackhouse continually expressed his excitement to get creative with Harvey, who appears to have, potentially, the most varied and complete offensive skill set that Commodore fans have seen in quite some time. Stackhouse expressed a desire to use Harvey in post-ups, coming off of screens, and even bringing the ball up in order to play Pippen Jr. off the ball.

He indicated Thursday that Harvey went through a minor foot issue before practices began, but according to the head coach, he is more than ready to go. And after a year to get acclimated to Vanderbilt’s system, Harvey feels prepared to step into a lead role. 

“Coach Stackhouse’s system is not easy to learn, but being able to work on that and implement it in practice everyday was huge,” Harvey said at Thursday’s media availability. “I think we have a lot more weapons than we did last year.”

Stackhouse’s offense frequently runs through the pick-and-roll, and after he lost his primary ball-handler, Saben Lee, to the draft, Harvey expects to burden a significant portion of pick-and-roll reps this season.

“They have me watching my stuff in practice and also some Jayson Tatum stuff, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, also Devin Booker. Players that I find myself wanting to play like,” Harvey said.

“He [Stackhouse] has been putting me in pick-and-roll situations since we started basketball practices. Obviously, my thing is scoring the ball. So I need to work on my playmaking and getting others involved.”

Vanderbilt’s second eligible transfer, Quinton Millora-Brown, comes to West End after starting 27 games at Rice University as a freshman. Millora-Brown is a 6’10” center who will add significant depth to the Commodores’ relatively small front line.

“Q is a hardworking big. He is probably going to be one of our big defensive anchors,” his teammate Harvey said. “He is also very unselfish. He plays hard on both ends and is really more skilled than some might think. I think he is going to have a great year this year and surprise a lot of people as well.”

Among the freshmen standouts, Stackhouse cited Tyrin Lawerance, Myles Stute and surprisingly, late signee Trevon Thomas as potential impact players. Thomas, a two-star recruit from Canada, has shown off incredible shooting ability, and according to Stackhouse has emerged as the team’s backup point guard.

“I was a little bit worried about our backup point guard, and he [Trevon Thomas] has really shored up things right away,” Stackhouse said. “He just has a toughness about him and early results from just spot-shooting shots and workouts, he’s been our best shooter. He’s been really good, a pleasant surprise for us.”

Stackhouse and Harvey stressed that this year’s roster is much more complete than last year’s. With depth at nearly every position, Stackhouse hopes to play 11 or 12 players. And as Commodore fans saw last season, he is not afraid to test his walk-ons.

“It’s great to look around and see it is competitive at every spot that we have from our starters to our second group to feel like we could possibly have 11-12 guys that contribute for us and understand what we are doing,” Stackhouse said. “It’s not about scholarship players or walk-ons. If you can get it done, you know you can get on the floor with me.”

He also provided a minor update on the status of Kansas transfer Issac McBride on Thursday. According to the head coach, McBride has not received his waiver and the team is not banking on his eligibility this year.

“Some of the news that has come out about the voting for transfers going forward, hopefully that’s something that will be favorable for us,” Stackhouse said. “But we are preparing as if he is not going to be available, but if he is that would be a very pleasant surprise.”

In addition to his upgraded roster, Stackhouse has a shiny new practice gym as well. Despite the quarantine, Memorial Gymnasium was constantly buzzing over the summer with renovations to the men’s and women’s basketball facility. The much-needed upgrades include various new graphics and branded paint, a new hardwood court and–according to Stackhouse–a weight room as well.

“We are still putting some finishing touches on some things,” Stackhouse said. “ [We are] adding a weight room within the practice facility so we are more practicing right now on Memorial’s main court but we will be moving in there in probably another four or five days.”

And amidst the beginning of practice this week, the Commodores are still in the process of rounding out their non-conference schedule. The official SEC schedule has not been released, but it has now been confirmed that Stackhouse’s group will compete in the inaugural Legends Classic this year at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. 

Notre Dame withdrew from the four team field, but was quickly replaced by BYU, a notoriously strong basketball program. UConn and USC round out the group for the two-day event, Dec. 2-3.

Stackhouse credited Andy Fox, the team’s director of scouting and recruiting, for continuing to look for valuable preseason opportunities to challenge his squad. He also commented on the possibility of hosting a tournament at Memorial Gymnasium that would feature his Commodores and another Power Five program, in addition to two Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

“We are thinking about doing something possibly with some HBCUs, including a couple of those teams with another Power Five team, so some ideas like that have been thrown around but we left ourselves a little bit of room just in case we have any setbacks,” Stackhouse said.

And with the NBA Draft just around the corner, Stackhouse was greeted with multiple questions about his two former stars, Aaron Nesmith and Saben Lee. 

Their former head coach was supportive of both of their decisions to leave for the NBA Draft, citing Nesmith’s high chance of being selected in the first round as justification for his departure from Nashville.

“Once he decided he was going to leave, we were hearing that he was going to be a first round pick, and that is pretty much my criteria,” Stackhouse said. “It was pretty consistent throughout, all the general managers and people I talked to, that he would be a first round pick.”

Guard Saben Lee drives to the basket in Vanderbilt’s 83-65 win over SEMO last season (Hustler Multimedia/Hunter Long).

On the other hand, Saben Lee is largely thought to be a second round pick or, potentially, an undrafted free agent. As a former G-League coach of mostly second-round picks and undrafted free agents, Stackhouse offered an interesting perspective into Lee’s likely future.

“I think if you are not drafted to the right team late in the first round or second round, then it almost benefits you to not get drafted at all and be able to go and pick a situation,” Stackhouse said. “I just think if you are not a sure bet to be in that first round then why not come back to school and give yourself a chance to improve your stock, that’s just my stance with it.”

After much time off and a productive offseason, Stackhouse hinted at his excitement for his second year, but understands the sacrifices that need to be made to play a full season. According to the head coach, the team has not had any positive COVID-19 cases thus far and he is optimistic about the maturity his team has already shown.

“Our guys really understand what is at stake. They know that they want to play, they want to have a season and they don’t want to do anything to jeopardize that. I am glad we have that type of maturity with our group,” Stackhouse said.