Over the last few years, Vanderbilt has been one of the tougher programs to figure out. Bryce Drew’s final two seasons with the program and Jerry Stackhouse’s first two seasons saw the Commodores lost in the darkness. However, before last season, they appeared to be poised for a breakout. Stackhouse brought back a high-usage scoring guard, imported a reliable interior presence, and added a couple of young wings.
No doubt, Scotty Pippen, Jr. did his part, and Vandy finished 69th in KenPom — improving by 40 spots. Still, it didn’t quite match the expectations of folks in Nashville. Some of it was beyond Vandy’s control, with Liam Robbins — a Minnesota transfer — missing more than half the season. By the time he got fit, Stackhouse’s crew was short on time.
But there’s been tangible progress.
The question is whether Vandy can keep taking strides.
Previous SEC Previews
#11 Vanderbilt Commodores
Last Season: 19-17 (7-11 in conference) No. 64 KenPom
My Prediction: 15-16 (6-12 in conference)
The Masses Prediction: 4.7 - 13.3 (13th in conference)
SEC Media Prediction: 12th in conference
KenPom Projection: 15-15 (6-12 in conference) No. 66
HEAD COACH: Jerry Stackhouse | 4th Season, 39-54
I’m not going to lie; I really like Jerry Stackhouse.
He runs tremendous sets. His team plays hard, but they also remain organized. Maybe it’s hyperbole, but Stackhouse might rank the two or three best in the SEC in terms of pure coaching acumen.
Unfortunately, success in the SEC depends much more on who is running your brilliant scheme. Landing talent is the part of the equation that’s proven more elusive. Which, in some ways, is surprising. Before taking the Vandy job, Stack was a respected assistant coach in the NBA and a G-League Coach of the Year. If the goal of elite talent is to get to the League, you’d think more would be interested in Stackhouse’s resumé. But that hasn’t happened.
So far, Stackhouse hasn’t landed a prospect higher than 100th nationally in 247 Sports’ composite index. And that player, Shane Dezonie, bailed after his freshman campaign.
Instead of drawing blue chips to campus, Stack’s rebuild is old-fashioned: steadily develop low-four and three-star recruits over multiple years. That means getting incrementally better and — given enough time — assembling a core for a breakout. It can work.
Yet it’s fair to wonder if time is on Stack’s side.
Seat Temp: WARMING
The last 10 years haven’t been kind to a program that quietly became one of the most consistent nationally under Kevin Stallings.
Drew’s future appeared bright after scoring major recruiting wins and making the NCAA tournament in 2016 and 2017, but significant injuries torpedoed the 2018 and 2019 seasons, and Drew could never pull the ‘Dores out of a tailspin. Toss in a slump at the end of Stallings’ time, and Vandy has six sub-.500 seasons in the past decade.
Under those circumstances, you’d hope Vandy’s administration would give Stackhouse more time to sort matters out. Consider: The Commodores’ 7-11 mark in the SEC last season was its best since going 10-8 back in 2017.
SO, WHO’S GONE?
|Scotty Pippen Jr||professional||36||82.34%||28.89%||27.96%||28.71%|
It’s not hard to pinpoint the most impactful departure.
Few players carried the workload that fell on Pippen, whose 34.6 percent usage rate ranked seventh nationally and led high-major players. And yet Pippen was efficient, posting a plus-10.1 net rating and responsible for almost 30 percent of Vandy’s offensive output. His method was simple: run up the foul count and get to the line. As a result, his free throw rate was tops nationally, giving him chances to rack up points in the bonus. Often, those rim attacks came after smartly using hand-off actions cooked up by Stackhouse. And it also helped that Pippen maxed out unguarded jumpers when they came his way.
Replacing a third of your offense is... challenging.
After Pippen, though, the amount of production headed out the door isn’t dramatic. Graduate transfer Rodney Chatman provided depth to the rotation, especially as a spot-up threat who shot 36.8 percent behind the arc and could spell Pippen, if needed. Vandy went 11-5 with him in the lineup and 8-12 when he sat.
As for Dezonie, he transferred back to his hometown of Philadelphia to play at Temple. So maybe the loss isn’t immediate, but the freshman carved out a strong reserve role off the bench and looked like a promising prospect. With Pippen gone, there would have been plenty of touches and a pressing need for him to take on a more prominent role.
Also gone is Jamaine Mann, who transferred up from Gardner-Webb and back down to Georgia State. The fit in the SEC wasn’t quite right. Terren Frank also transferred in from TCU, played a little over 20 percent of the minutes, and then transferred to Idaho. Gabe Dorsey, another developmental wing, left for William & Mary after seeing spot duty in just 22 games.
THEN, WHO’S BACK?
Jordan Wright | SENIOR | COMBO FORWARD
If there was ever a case study for Stackhouse’s method, it’s Wright. Ranked 331st nationally in the composite, the Baton Rouge, Louisiana native was overlooked as a recruit, only signing on with Vandy after Stack’s hiring. However, after a steady progression his first two seasons, Wright finally broke through to average 12.3 points and 6.4 rebounds last season.
So, what would be in store for a senior season? Hopefully, a minor uptick in overall efficiency after averaging 0.876 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports data. However, doing so might require him to cut down some inefficient mid-range attempts. Otherwise, his size and strength also make him an ideal two-way wing, one who allowed just 0.717 PPP last season and posted a plus-15.9 net rating.
His consistency in the lineup is pivotal if the ‘Dores are striving to exceed expectations.
Because of Pippen’s possession volume, it’s easy to assume he lacked any supporting cast. That’s not quite right. For example, stretch four Myles Stute made 43 percent of his 3-point attempts on high volume, and at 6-foot-7, 210 pounds, was versatile enough to slide up and down the lineup as a switch defender. So why isn’t a player with a plus-36 net rating getting more pub? Well, Stute only had 14.5 percent usage last season.
Not far behind Stute was Quentin Millora-Brown, a Rice transfer who spent two seasons transforming his body. Today, Brown’s one of the more agile bigs in the SEC, especially in various pick-and-roll coverages. But when needed, he’s still a reliable rim protector. He’s not a focal point offensively, but he still put up 1.0 PPP. If you need more evidence, consider that Vandy’s team net rating improved by almost 22 points per 100 possessions with Millora-Brown on the floor, per Pivot Analysis data.
Trey Thomas and Tyrin Lawrence are back after taking a small step forward last year. Lawrence was a spot starter when Chatman wasn’t available but struggled to shoot as a sophomore. At 6-4, the slightly undersized wing needs to prove consistently knock down shots because he’s an important defender. Thomas was the more consistent shooter, but at 5-11 and 160 pounds, you can’t play him at anything but lead guard.
Liam Robbins | SENIOR | POST
Robbins was one of the more heralded additions last season, and it never quite got on track. He missed the first 20 games with an injury, came back for one, took another off, and then stuck it out for the final 14— but on a minutes restriction. Sporadically, Robbins showed what everyone in Nashville thought they were getting. But it wasn’t often enough. Now, Stackhouse hopes he’s got the anchor he expected.
When Robbins is healthy and playing well, he’s an excellent rebounder and offensive weapon. In addition, he’s a good weak-side rim protector capable of making a difference defensively. The Big Ten is a less athletic conference versus much of the SEC, and while Robbins isn’t the most athletic big, he is a better athlete than you might think. Suppose Vanderbilt can get lead minutes and production out of Robbins. In that case, it will help them establish a baseline for the lineup.
AND, WHO’S NEW?
|G-SR||Emmanuel Ansong||6'4||195||TRANSFER||Green Bay||WING|
It seemed like Stackhouse finally had some recruiting momentum—and then his commitments sank in the rankings. When Lee Dort, a 6-10, 250-pound center, pledged, he was in the top 50 of the composite. Still, he remains an imposing interior defender and a strong finisher at the rim. Dort’s also working on his jumper and extending the floor. While he might not start, he should be a factor early on for Stack’s front-court group. Dort’s high school teammate Noah Shelby, a 6-3 guard, might be more ready to contribute offensively. The four-star talent is slippery off the bounce, attacks the rim, and has excellent body control.
Colin Smith, a 6-8 combo forward, is probably my favorite signee and the third four-star prospect in this signing class. His jumper is compact, and he moves well laterally — traits that could help Smith earn minutes as a 3-and-D option off the bench. Malik Dia is a classic stretch big. He’s not the most athletic, but he’s a consistent shooter who can pull defenders away from the basket. The question will be if he can defend. Paul Lewis was previously a Maryland commit before opening his recruitment back up and picking the ‘Dores. He won’t be pressed into action early, with Vandy already having some depth at guard.
Stackhouse didn’t raid the transfer portal, but Ezra Manjon might be an under-the-radar pickup. The point guard logged a ton of minutes at UC Davis, where his usage (28.7%) was within shouting distance of Pippen’s. Manjon’s not the most efficient scorer, but he can distribute the ball (23.4 assist rate) and grades well defensively. He’s an average PNR operator but can also be a threat on the break and in dribble handoffs. Vandy’s roster has enough shooting that he won’t have to take inefficient jumpers. Finally, Emmanuel Ansong is an 11-point scorer from a bad Green Bay team, but I wouldn’t expect much impact beyond depth.
|(1) Point Guard||Ezra Manjon||Trey Thomas||Paul Lewis|
|(2) Combo Guard||Jordan Wright||Noah Shelby|
|(3) Wing||Myles Stute||Tyrin Lawrence||Emmanuel Ansong|
|(4) Combo Forward||Quentin Millora-Brown||Colin Smith|
|(5) Post||Liam Robbins||Lee Dort||Malik Dia|
Vandy’s fortune hinges on whether Robbins remains healthy and productive. If so, Stackhouse will have an anchor. As for the rest of the depth chart, I’ve got Vandy playing its best five guys—even if they don’t quite fit the definition of each position. It means Vandy plays bigger at almost every spot but lead guard.
But there’s an advantage in having Wright and Stute operating as jumbo wings while going with a twin-post look. Going small is easy, too. Just insert Shelby or Lawrence at combo guard and bump everyone down a spot while Millora-Brown checks out. You’re trading ball-handling for a little bit of rebounding.
My Projected Record: 15-16 | KenPom Projected Record: 15-15
|Nov 11||Home||Southern Miss||324||W|
|Nov 18||Home||Morehead St||223||W|
|Nov 23||Neutral||Saint Mary's||47||L|
|Nov 24||Neutral||Fresno St / Washington||107 / 113||W|
|Dec 9||Home||Grambling St||325||W|
|Dec 17||Neutral||NC State||81||L|
|Dec 22||Home||Alabama A&M||327||W|
|Dec 30||Home||SE Louisiana||343||W|
You’ve heard how iron sharpens iron. Well, this might be a case of iron wearing on tin. Considering Vandy projects to finish in the lower half of the SEC standings, Stack’s upped the degree of difficulty, especially opening with an in-state showdown against Memphis. Penny Hardaway’s program is coming off a 10-1 stretch to end last season, including pushing Gonzaga in the second round of the NCAA tournament. But, even if the Tigers take a step back, they still project as a top-30 caliber squad this season, one that added an elite iso scorer in Kendric Davis.
They’ll see Dezonie again on a road trip to Temple, which finished fourth in the American Athletic Conference last season and might be angling for a spot on the bubble. Meanwhile, they also head west to play in the Wooden Legacy, opening against Saint Mary’s, while Washington and Fresno State are on the other side of the bracket. The upshot: The Gaels are retooling after earning a No. 5 seed in the big dance. As for Washington, the Huskies are currently 84th in Bart Torvik’s preseason ratings.
There is also a road trip to VCU, a home date against Pitt, and a neutral site game against N.C. State. The volume of quality opponents and setup of the slate means Stack needs his team ready to go out of the gate.
|Jan 3||HOME||South Carolina||78||W|
|Jan 28||Away||Texas A&M||45||L|
|Feb 4||HOME||Ole Miss||49||W|
|Feb 14||Away||South Carolina||78||L|
|Mar 4||HOME||Mississippi St||53||W|
The staff in Birmingham did no favors for the ‘Dores, who already have Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida as built-in home-and-homes each year. This season, they drew Alabama and South Carolina in the rotation. I’ve picked Vandy to go 3-7 in those games. However, picking off Kentucky or Tennessee once and sweeping the Gamecocks would do wonders.
If the ‘Dores are eyeing pick-up opportunities, there are home dates against Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, and Missouri. Win more of those games than not, and six SEC wins could turn into 10— a tally we usually see from an NCAA tournament team.
You can usually break the SEC into tiers each season, and none is more clogged than teams jostling between sixth and 11th in the standings. Usually, just two or three results is the margin between a bubble spot and playing on Wednesday at Bridgestone Arena. Last year, five teams finished 9-9, putting tiebreakers to work.
Vanderbilt escaped the basement. Now, it has to elbow its way to the front of the queue. Last season, Vandy was one victory from the NIT semifinals and a shot at 20 wins. So it’s reasonable to expect the program to sniff NCAA tournament contention.
But few teams will lose someone as important as Pippen, who papered over any chips and cracks in the rotation. There are some viable options to replace portions of that output. But will they?
As noted earlier, Manjon’s accustomed to a ton of possessions flowing his way. Still, he was nowhere near as efficient as Pippen. And that’s before mentioning UC Davis finished 221st in KenPom, playing in a Big West Conference that ranked 19th out of 32 leagues. Maybe Manjon’s facilitating carriers over, but who will make shots?
The obvious candidate is Wright plays on the perimeter, but his build and game make him a more natural fit on the wing or a small-ball four. If Manjon can’t deliver, the pressure falls on Lawrence, Thomas, and Shelby to fill the void. The most likely of the three is Lawrence. He struggled offensively as he returned from a knee injury halfway through his freshman season.
Another vital aspect to watch is the health of Robbins, who fought through some foot issues and was good enough to make a small impact. But at full strength, Robbin can soak up possessions and protect the rim.
Wright, Stute, and Millora-Brown can collectively make Vandy competitive, but none is a focal point. That’s fine if Manjon acclimates and Robbins isn’t in and out of the lineup.
Having a cadre of high percentage spot-up shooters helps when your offensive generates many of those looks. For Stute (1.373 PPP), Thomas (1.208 PPP), and Wright (0.967 PPP), you have guys who can knock down those shots. Stute, in particular, is a standout hitting 46.7 percent of his spot-up 3s. You also have Stute, Lawrence, Wright, and Millora-Brown, who all were among Vandy’s best defensive players.
When you look at who impacts Vanderbilt’s net rating, the four best Commodores from last year are all back. If they can add in a healthy Liam Robbins and some solid playmaking from the point guard spot, this team can easily surprise in league play.
Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC
Stackhouse down a lot of the heavy lifting in nurturing a core of talent that can be the third, fourth, and fifth option in a quality rotation. Meanwhile, Lawrence, Millora-Brown, and Stute are also solid defensive assets. What Stackhouse needs is some good health for Robbins. If he gets that, there’s enough talent to replace Pippen by committee. In a year where six programs turned over coaching jobs, there might be an opening for his veteran group to exploit instability and move up the standing. More than that, it’s time for Stackhouse to show his basketball intellect produces results.
Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC
A third of the offense is gone, and we should keep our expectations conservative until the vets scale up their production. Pippen didn’t just score. His gravity and advantage creation opened up high-efficiency touches for everyone else. Now, the vets left behind have to do something they’ve never done — manufacture offense. Oh, and two of the best options need a lead guard to set them up. It wouldn’t be a shock if the uptick in usage for players eats away at their efficiency and Vanderbilt struggles to get the train moving in the right direction.
About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick for the entire league schedule game by game. Because these are game by game picks, they often tend to be a bit of a rosier picture of each teams potential. Each rep’s picks are reflected in “the Masses” picks. Included in “the Masses” are various SEC media members who made picks at my request also.
If you’d like to submit your picks, click here for the Google Form we used.
* - 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.