Vanderbilt Basketball Mailbag: Impactful freshmen, win-loss records and more

With both the Vanderbilt men’s and women’s basketball teams set to begin competition this week, sports editor Justin Hershey and deputy sports editor Bryce Smith answered all your questions about this coming season.

Shane+Dezonie+and+Jordyn+Cambridge

Emery Little

Vanderbilt basketball players Shane Dezonie and Jordyn Cambridge photographed during the preseason. (Hustler Multimedia/Emery Little)

Justin Hershey and Bryce Smith

Basketball season has finally arrived here on West End as newly-minted head coach Shea Ralph and the lady Commodores will get their season underway on Tuesday against Gardner-Webb before Jerry Stackhouse and the men’s squad kick things off on Wednesday.

There are storylines galore on both sides. From Ralph’s first season at Vanderbilt to Scotty Pippen Jr. ‘s return and high hopes for Stackhouse in year three, there is much to be excited about inside of Memorial Gymnasium.

There are also plenty of questions. And that’s why we are here. The Hustler answered all your Twitter questions about the upcoming season in this year’s fourth Hustler Mailbag.

Q: What is your win/loss ceiling and floor for nonconference games given injuries to Rodney Chatman and Liam Robbins?

Justin Hershey: Obviously a good starting place here. On the men’s side, injuries have already been the topic of conversation inside Memorial, which really, when you think about it, is uncanny considering the past couple of seasons. Stackhouse brought in Liam Robbins and Rodney Chatman, his two top transfer additions, to be forces on defense. The weakness of Stack’s teams thus far has been defense. In his first season, the Commodores finished with the 226th-rated defense in the country per KenPom and his second season wasn’t much better (136th). Robbins and Chatman would have—and will—change that once they get back on the court. But until they get back, you have to think this is a squad that is not much improved on defense from last season—if not worse without Dylan Disu as well. 

For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that Robbins is back by the final week of November—which is totally hypothetical—and let’s assume Chatman’s first game back is against Loyola Chicago on Dec. 10. What’s your ceiling and floor, Bryce?

Bryce Smith: Good question! Like you said—it is all going to come down to staying healthy. Assuming Robbins and Chatman progress well enough over the next couple of weeks to come back at full form, I like Vanderbilt to have a solid showing in the nonconference. It’s not a slate that’s overly difficult, but there’s still some good tests in there that will reveal a good bit about the trajectory of this team. I’ll split it up into a couple of buckets. Vanderbilt should go 5-0 against Alabama State, Texas State, Mississippi Valley State, Austin Peay and Hawaii. Anything less than that represents the floor. Then there’s a couple of winnable games against teams around or outside the top 100 in KenPom: VCU (No. 98), Winthrop (No. 155), at Pittsburgh (No. 145) and Temple (No. 106). With Chatman and Robbins, you feel pretty comfortable against each of these teams, but they will both likely be out for all of these contests. That said, if Vanderbilt can go 3-1 or 4-0 against this crop of teams you start to feel really good about the postseason outlook. 1-3 or 2-2 would be closer to the floor. Then there’s the two hardest contests: at SMU and home vs. Loyola Chicago. Split those and you feel great—I’m thinking 0-2 is the likely case if no Robbins or Chatman, though. Lastly, there’s the second and third legs of the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii. BYU is probably a loss, South Florida probably a win so we’ll say 1-1 there. So, in sum—ceiling is 11-2, floor is 7-6. Thoughts? 

JH: I’m with you. To put it straight: 11-2 is my absolute ceiling regardless of the health of Chatman and Robbins. If you have them for any chunk of the nonconference slate, it’s more realistic. If you don’t, it’s probably completely unrealistic. Without those two, 10-3 is my ceiling. I don’t see them being able to go better than 3-3 against Loyola Chicago, SMU, Pittsburgh, Temple, VCU and hypothetically, BYU. In fact, 3-3 would be a very solid showing out of those contests. Figure they underperform and go 2-4 over those and still win their seven games against teams outside of the KenPom 150, you are looking at 9-4. There’s basically my floor. Five losses in the nonconference would be a bit concerning. Even if those seven easier games become tight, you have to think Vanderbilt boasts the best player on the court in Pippen Jr.—they should take care of business in those games.

Q: How big a role do you think the freshmen on both squads will play this season?

BS: Starting on the women’s side—huge. We’ve been over it ad nauseam, but after the loss of the team’s three leading scorers from last season there are points and minutes to be had. Shea Ralph will welcome five freshmen into the fold this year, including a pair of ESPN top 100 recruits in Sacha Washington and De’Mauri Flourney. I expect each to play a big role. On the men’s side—again I think it comes down to injuries. Shane Dezonie and Peyton Daniels will get more minutes in Chatman’s absence. Can Gabe Dorsey be a consistent enough shooter to find minutes too? 

JH: I’ll get to Dorsey in a second. But first, to put it bluntly, all five freshmen on the women squad will play. I firmly believe that. This is a team that has just 14 players rostered. Whether it be foul trouble or an injury, one way or another, these freshmen are going to find a lot of time. Heck, I wouldn’t even rule out one of them starting considering the lack of experience that this group has. I’m certainly not ready to declare a starting lineup on the women’s side just because we haven’t seen them enough, but don’t be surprised if a freshman is in there.

On the men’s side, I largely agree with you—this depends on injuries. Daniels is the one guy I am not sure will get a ton of chances early. As far as I understand, he has a bit of grooming to do in terms of running the point and being disciplined. Dorsey is a guy who could potentially be a plug and play force. He is one of the better 3-point shooters on the team and if he can tap into his physicality on defense, he has a chance to play a role similar to Myles Stute from last year. Dezonie is the one wildcard. He may be in a starting role while Chatman is out or just as easily could be buried on the bench—I’m just not sure because he doesn’t have a defined skill set yet. His body is ready for SEC ball, but what exactly will he bring each and every game? I’m not totally sure.

BS: That’s the question, I think. It feels like we know what skills Dorsey can bring to the table—and if he’s able to contribute early on in his freshman year that’s a big plus. Daniels, who was also nursing a small injury during camp, seems like he has a bit of time to go before he finds himself seeing consistent minutes. But those guard minutes are up for grabs as long as Chatman is out, and Dezonie is a prime candidate to take them. His path to playing time, in my opinion, is to be an effort guy who defends and rebounds and gives you a bucket here and there. Vanderbilt could use another “junkyard dog” similar to Jordan Wright—and by all accounts Chatman was expected to be that guy. If Dezonie can be a glue guy in the starting lineup for the first couple of weeks of the season that’d certainly be a very promising development. We’ll see how he and the rest of the freshmen look in their first action this week. 

Q: What will be each team’s biggest strength?

JH: As I talked a bit about before, defense would have been my choice for the men’s squad this year had Chatman and Robbins been healthy for a full season. With that not being the case, I will turn to guard play. Obviously, Pippen Jr. will be one of the top-10 point guards in the country. I fully expect him to average around 20 points per game and do it at a more efficient clip this year with more help around him. But the other guards on this roster are more than worthy of taking a jump. Chatman is a guy who will alleviate a lot of Pippen Jr.’s on-ball responsibilities. He can bring it up the court, facilitate offense and penetrate into the paint as a secondary ball-handler—something Vanderiblt severely lacked last season. But I’m also keeping my eye on Tyrin Lawrence and Shane Dezonie. Lawrence played just seven games last season but plays above the rim unlike anyone else on this roster. Dezonie is a guy who simply looks the part of an SEC athlete. While his skills are raw, he is going to be a really good player as Stackhouse helps him develop.

On the women’s side, I’m going to echo your previous sentiment regarding youth. This roster only really has three proven starters in Jordyn Cambridge, Yaubryon Chambers and Brinae Alexander. But Ralph has already brought in a class of five freshmen—two of which, Washington and Flournoy, figure to play rather immediately. These freshmen are going to play a huge role early. As Ralph begins to adjust the culture and play style of this program, it will be crucial to watch how they fit into her vision. From what we have gathered, she really wants to employ a modern system. So, which of these freshmen will really fit into that?

BS: I’m with you. Robbins and Chatman (when they come back) seriously elevate the floor defensively, but I think this could be a pretty damn good offensive team. With Pippen Jr. as the lead, this year’s version of the Jerry Stackhouse ball screen offense figures to be one of the better attacks in the conference. The key here is another year of development from Pippen Jr. and Jordan Wright and shooters everywhere else. Trey Thomas, Gabe Dorsey, Myles Stute, Terren Frank, etc. Stackhouse has consistently demonstrated his ability to draw up quality plays on offense and now he’s got as much talent and depth as he’s ever had. I’m expecting good things. 

I’m going to cheat the question a bit for the women’s side. The biggest strength of this team is going to be Shea Ralph—I fully expect her to have a coaching advantage most nights and that’s saying something in the SEC. Coming from UConn, Ralph knows the ins and outs of managing a team on a nightly basis and I expect her to have this team playing above its talent level. That alone gives this team a leg up and it’s the “strength” I’m looking for without knowing who will emerge as the top players from this group. 

JH: I think we are on the same page here: the offense should be pretty good. If Wright demonstrates the growth that has been documented this season, Vanderbilt could very well have two or three 15-plus point scorers in Pippen Jr., Robbins and Wright. Stackhouse pointed this out the other day: he feels like he has three or four guys on this roster who could drop 25-plus points. That’s a huge luxury that I don’t think would have been realistic last season.

Ralph’s sheer presence, intelligence and experience is a really good point here. Even if the talent doesn’t single-handedly win them games this year, Ralph’s poise and pedigree is likely to give the Commodores a boost throughout the season. She has mentioned that she needs to prove to her players and this university that she is worthy of the position she has been given as much as her team needs to prove to her they deserve to get playing time. I think that is so spot on and demonstrates that she is looking to use the players she has in a system that works for them. She won’t be trying to implement a system that doesn’t fit the roster just because that’s how she wants to do things.

Q: What’re we hearing about Terren Frank thus far? Is he expected to start? Is his offensive game developed enough to justify starting him alongside another limited offensive big like QMB?

BS: Not a ton. Frank is someone I’ve been very intrigued by all offseason after his COVID-shortened freshman year at TCU. He’s got good size for a forward at 6’8, 240 lbs. and the touch to hit jumpers out to the 3-point line. That said, noise has been pretty mum on him—I wouldn’t expect him to start and frankly am not sure how big of a factor he’ll be. He’ll get some minutes early on with Robbins out so I’m curious to see what he does in game action. I’m fully in “wait and see” mode here. You? 

JH: I think “wait and see” mode is very fair here, but this guy is going to be a good player for Vanderbilt for years to come—and I believe even this year. Watching his movement in scrimmages and his comfort shooting the 3 from various spots has me excited to see what he can do. Stackhouse has made it clear this preseason that Stute is ahead of Frank in terms of the starting role—which he attributed to Stute’s familiarity with the program and schemes. But I think the main thing that is going to earn Frank minutes is his intensity and defense. Stackhouse talked about this earlier in the preseason, but he is really looking for Frank to ramp up his intensity when on the court, especially on the defensive end. My guess is that he and Stute will not differentiate themselves via their 3-point shooting numbers—those will be about the same. But if Frank uses his size to be a bigger force on defense and the glass, especially while Robbins is out, he will earn himself minutes. Another thing to watch with Frank: I personally think he is an underrated playmaker. He is mobile with the ball and can get into the paint off the wing even though he is going to primarily be a catch-and-shoot guy. Watch out for that as he becomes more comfortable in Vanderbilt’s system.