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Rebuilding Vanderbilt is looking for progress this season

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Previewing the #14 team in the SEC, the Vanderbilt Commodores

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

When Vanderbilt fired the cantankerous but successful Kevin Stallings, it sought out a quick rebound in Bryce Drew. While Drew upgraded the Commodores’ recruiting, the on-court results never lived up to the promise. When the school brought in a new athletic director, Drew was turned out and Jerry Stackhouse, who had thrived as an NBA assistant coach and G League head coach, was handed the keys.

So far, it’s been rough going for Stackhouse, but the Commodores eked out three wins in SEC play last season after a winless run in 2019. Modest as those results seem, it counts as progress after Aaron Nesmith went down in the conference opener. The record might not reflect it, but Vanderbilt at least showed resiliency. The challenge for Stackhouse and the program, though, is to make progress in a league that’s vastly improved since the days when Stallings took them to five NCAA tournaments in six seasons.

What sort of expectations for the rebuild can a fan base have?


#14 Vanderbilt Commodores

Last Season: 11-21 (3-15 in conference) No. 169 KenPom

My Prediction: 8-18 (3-15, 14th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 14th in conference

KenPom Projection: 5-15 (4-14 in conference) No. 125

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: Jerry Stackhouse | Second Season, 11-22

Stackhouse had to know the situation he was taking over in Nashville. The Commodores roster was almost void of obvious contributors. The rebuild was clear — and it would be a slow one.

Even if that was clear from the outset, you have to wonder if Stackhouse will have the patience to see it through. His stock was well-valued among front offices, and it was one of the reasons I liked Vanderbilt’s choice to bet on him. But will it be able to see Stackhouse’s star shine? I’m optimistic for it.

The product is already better than it was under Bryce Drew, even if the recruiting is more steady than spectacular. Things don’t look good for this season, but the foundational pieces look good enough to make a move soon.

Seat Temp: COLD

vanderbilt 10 year chart 2020

Since squeaking into the 2017 NCAA tournament, Vanderbilt has gone 32-64 and just 9-45 in conference play. Under Stallings, Vandy capitalized during a down period for the SEC, and the program itself has an up-and-down history. Still, the bottom has never quite fallen out like it has the last three seasons.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Aaron Nesmith professional 14 38.83% 14.03% 15.35% 10.22%
Saben Lee professional 32 81.63% 25.88% 27.61% 24.38%
Trace Arbuckle* graduation 1 0.08% 0.13% 0.17% 0.04%
Matthew Moyer transfer 25 23.64% 2.14% 1.61% 2.87%
Oton Jankovic transfer 21 10.08% 0.70% 0.27% 1.21%
Jon Jossell* graduation 12 4.19% 0.00% 0.03% 0.11%
31.69% 42.88% 45.04% 38.83%

To make matters worse, Vanderbilt has been dealt horrific injury luck . Last season, it was Nesmith. Had he remained healthy, the feelings around the program would be decidedly more optimistic. With the sophomore on the floor, the Commodores operated efficiently, aided by his 50-percent shooting from long range and a 125 offensive rating. Now, Vandy wouldn’t have contended for an SEC title, but the program would have been decidedly better off with him healthy.

As for Saben Lee, he made the jump to the professional ranks. He was rounding into shape as a lead guard and developing a good rapport with Scotty Pippen, Jr. Lee also provided explosiveness on the perimeter. Aside from Lee and Nesmith, the roster didn’t suffer any more crucial departures. Matthew Moyer contributed some solid production, but he was never a focal point on offense.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Scotty Pippen Jr SO CG 32 73,08% 16.73% 53.60% 15.12%
Clevon Brown SR POST 9 19.22% 3.53% 62.50% 4.65%
Maxwell Evans SR CG 32 69.38% 11.50% 51.70% 11.35%
Dylan Disu SO CF 32 67.05% 10.37% 48.10% 10.38%
Jordan Wright SO WING 31 39.69% 7.71% 47.70% 6.29%
Ejike Obinna SR POST 31 43.72% 5.14% 57.60% 6.13%
Braelee Albert SO WING 20 22.17% 1.57% 43.80% 0.54%
Drew Weikert* JR PG 4 0.78% 0.17% 66.70% 0.20%
Isaiah Rice* SR PG 15 5.74% 0.39% 33.50% 0.30%
D.J. Harvey R-JR WING TRANSFER
53.55% 57.11% 54.96%
NCAA Basketball: Southern Methodist at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Scotty Pippen, Jr | SOPHOMORE | COMBO GUARD

The biggest hope for a jump forward largely lies in the hands of the offspring of an NBA great. Pippen, Jr. spent his freshman season slowly becoming a fixture within Stackhouse’s scheme. He's quick with a solid handle, and a solid complement to Lee’s slashing and attacking style. If Pippen improves his efficiency, Stackhouse will have the lead guard he needs to drive Vandy’s offense.

Inside, Clevon Brown and Ejike Obinna are steady enough. They rebound well and are effective enough with the ball around the basket to get minutes. Unspectacular as that duo might be, reliability is a good starting point. Maxwell Evans is a good four-year role player. And while he’s not going to blow anyone away, he’s someone you can rely upon if other positions don’t pan out.

I’ll be interested to watch Jordan Wright and Braelee Albert and whether either takes a step forward. Vanderbilt needs contributors one the wing, and while it will lean on Notre Dame transfer D.J. Harvey, depth is open question. Can Wright or Albert meet that need?

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Florida Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Dylan Disu | SOPHOMORE | COMBO FORWARD

Disu’s ceiling should inspire hope among Vanderbilt’s fans. When Disu had his full package of skills working, Vanderbilt was so much more dangerous. Disu’s a capable shooter, but didn’t exactly scorch the nets last year. He rebounds and defends well, which will keep him on the floor. Improving his shooting stroke will unlock his potential, and it will provide Stackhouse with a reliable secondary option.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr Tyrin Lawrence 6'4 190 ★★★ 180 CG
Fr Myles Stute 6'7 215 ★★★ 228 CF
Fr Akeem Odusipe 6'9 230 ★★★ 371 POST
Fr Trey Thomas 5'11 165 ★★ 506 PG
Fr Isaac McBride 6'1 190 Transfer - PG

There aren’t any blue chippers in this class, but Stackhouse made some smart long-term bets. Tyrin Lawrence is a smooth, 6-foot-4 lefty who arrives from Sunrise Christian Academy. Lawrence’s release is smooth and quick, and his athleticism is good enough to put him in the mix for early minutes at combo guard. Myles Stute’s body is college-ready, and he has a nice skill set for a forward. While he’s not super explosive, he’s sturdy and defends well vertically. Akeem Odusipe is a developmental prospect on the inside, and Trey Thomas is a late signee who has a reputation as a tough player. Yet Thomas may have a tough path to minutes on this roster, because I really like Isaac McBride. McBride, a former four-star talent out of Arkansas, committed to Kansas before leaving school last September. If he’s eligible right away, he’ll challenge for starting minutes at point guard.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Isaac McBride Tyrin Lawrence Trey Thomas
(2) Combo Guard Scotty Pippen Jr Maxwell Evans
(3) Wing DJ Harvey Jordan Wright Braelee Albert
(4) Combo Forward Dylan Disu Myles Stute
(5) Post Clevon Brown Ejike Obinna Akeem Odusipe

At this point I’ve no real reason to think McBride won’t be eligible, and if he is, I’d think he could get the nod in the backcourt with Pippen, Jr. Stackhouse could ease him in by deferring to Evans early on. Meanwhile, Harvey could have an early line on the starting spot on the wing. Disu and Stute will compete at combo forward. Down low, Brown and Obinna will anchor the post rotation, while Adusipe provides help in a pinch.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 8-18 | KenPom Projected Record: 5-15

NCAA Basketball: South Florida at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Dec 1 Neutral UConn 43 L
Dec 3 Neutral USC/BYU 48 / 89 L
Dec 8 Away SMU 58 L
Dec 12 Home Alabama State 351 W
Dec 13 Home Miss Valley St 357 W
Dec 16 Home Richmond 63 W
Dec 19 Home Radford 308 W
Dec 22 Away Davidson 81 L
avg 180.14 4-4

For Vandy having a roster they’re still rebuilding with, there’s a surprisingly difficult lineup for their non-conference. Normally coaches try to line up wins to get confidence up, but Stackhouse appears more interested in challenging his young team than racking up cheap wins. UConn and either BYU or USC will be a tough set to open the season. SMU should also be pretty good, and a road trip to Davidson is a game Vandy might be able to pull out, but still an even chance road game could be a nice win.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Dec 30 Home Florida 24 L
Jan 5 Away Kentucky 11 L
Jan 9 Home Mississippi State 78 W
Jan 12 Away Missouri 58 L
Jan 16 Away Tennessee 20 L
Jan 20 Home Texas A&M 68 W
Jan 23 Away Arkansas 54 L
Jan 27 Away Florida 24 L
Jan 30 Home South Carolina 60 L
Feb 3 Away Texas A&M 68 L
Feb 6 Away Georgia 92 L
Feb 9 Home Auburn 66 L
Feb 13 Away Mississippi State 78 L
Feb 17 Home Kentucky 11 L
Feb 20 Away Alabama 46 L
Feb 24 Home Tennessee 20 L
Feb 27 Home Ole Miss 42 W
Mar 2 Away LSU 37 L
avg 47.61 3-15

Nothing like being everyone’s pick to finish last in the conference and then getting three of the top four in the media’s projected finish with home-and-homes. Unfortunately for Vandy, its permanent rivals are Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida, making a .500 mark each season something of a win. Their home game against Mississippi State early in conference play is an important game for the Commodores, as is much of their home slate. Arkansas, Ole Miss, South Carolina and Auburn all are flawed enough that Stackhouse’s squad should be able to pick off a few wins.

OVERVIEW

vanderbilt synergy preview 2020

A year ago, the faint promise of Stackhouse’s first season dimmed when Nesmith broke his foot. Frustrating as that injury might have been, the Commodores improved as the season wore on. The question is whether that toughness becomes a trait they draw upon in a season that is, in a word, unconventional.

If there’s any team in the SEC that can take the mulligan this season offers and apply it towards hastening the rebuild, it’s Vandy. The roster has some quality pieces. And Pippen already looks like a cornerstone. Yes, the Commodores will lean on some players who might not quite be ready to deliver consistently. But if you spend this season developing and building, there’s a reasonable place where 2021-22 looks brighter.

With McBride and Harvey alongside Pippen, there’s a competitive backcourt. If Disu evolves offensively, you’re looking at a core quartet that can begin the hard work of climbing the SEC standings.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Is that likely to happen this year? Maybe not. But you can clearly see what Stackhouse wants to accomplish. That’s enough to offset a roster that’s not brimming with high-end talent at every position. It’s also a model that can endure when injuries arrive.

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

Expectations aren’t unrealistic, and the roster isn’t hopeless. It just needs something that’s often sorely lacking: patience. There are solid building blocks, and Stackhouse has a roster with good players in positions of depth. Despite the lack of obvious star power, they were improved a year ago and could take another step forward by climbing out of the basement.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

How much improvement can you reasonably expect? Part of the calculus in hiring Stackhouse is that his NBA pedigree would appeal to elite prospects. (Look no further than Juwan Howard and the nation’s top recruiting class that just signed at Michigan.) Even if this core takes a step forward, what is its ceiling? The floor was 169th in KenPom, and it struggled to lock in defensively. Even if the Commodores improved by 50 spots, they’d still be toward the bottom of the conference.


About the preview: In past years we’ve had a single Google Form where a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick of the entire league schedule game by game. Because the Coronavirus has impacted just about everything, the schedule came out so late we were unable to run through this process. I worked with Matt Harris to get as much of a consensus between our two outcomes of picks (they are still game by game) but in the end these are all MY picks. I’ve tried to include the SEC Media’s predictions and KenPom’s preseason ratings into the preview to set some kind of balance.


GLOSSARY

* - an asterisk denotes a walk-on player

GP - Games Played

%min - percentage of total available minutes played, does not account for time missed due to injury

%ov - offensive team value, simple formula of (%points + %rebounds) - %turnovers/*100, similar to Offensive Rating but places more value on performance to the team

%poss - percentage of team possessions the player is responsible for ending a possession, whether by making a shot, missing a shot not rebounded by the offense or committing a turnover.

%pts - percentage of teams points scored

ts% - true shooting percentage, basically points scored divided by 2x fga +0.44*fta.