Previewing the No. 10 team in the SEC, the Vanderbilt Commodores.
Somehow I don’t think four straight seasons of living in the SEC cellar is exactly what the Vanderbilt administration had in mind when they pushed out Kevin Stallings five years ago.
Stallings had been successful and was respected for his offensive basketball acumen while taking Vandy to 7 NCAA tournament appearances over 17 years, 6 of those over the last 10. But despite making the tournament in his last season, the message was a little stale and Stallings’, uh — let’s just say — prickly personality wore thin in Nashville. So this isn’t to say the move was unwarranted, but herein lies the risk with changing coaches— once you open the bad you never know how it’s going to turn out.
Bryce Drew landed elite recruits, but somehow managed to lose every game his last year at Vandy. He was replaced with Jerry Stackhouse, who had previously never coached basketball in college. And for Stack, who is by all means a talented basketball coach, the transition from the professional ranks to the College ranks has taken some time. But things are looking up.
Previous SEC Previews
Last Season: 9 – 16 (3-13 in conference) No. 104 KenPom
My Prediction: 16-14 (7-11, 10th in conference)
The Masses Prediction: 4.7-13.3, (12th in conference)
SEC Media Prediction: 13th in conference
KenPom Projection: 15-14 (7-11 in conference) No. 79
HEAD COACH: Jerry Stackhouse | Third Season, 20-37
For as much as the Vanderbilt administration didn’t see things quite going this way, I’m sure Jerry Stackhouse didn’t see it either. Stack has pedigree. For the uninitiated, Stackhouse was one of — if not the top player — in his high school class. He spent two years in Chapel Hill and was selected 3rd overall in the NBA Draft where he was a multiple time All-Star and had an 18 year career averaging over 16 points per game. His transition to coaching was a smooth one, and he was the G-League Coach of the Year in 2017. After one year on the Memphis Grizzlies’ bench, he accepted the Vanderbilt job. And as I mentioned above, it’s been a difficult move.
But if you’ve been watching closely, things are changing in Nashville. Vanderbilt has improved, even though they continued to lose games last year. But more than that, the recruiting has picked up, and after years in the dark, Stack is leading the Commodores out of the tunnel.
Seat Temp: LUKEWARM
It’s been a rocky 10 years in Nashville, with three tournament appearances, three coaches, and some wild swings in the KenPom output. Vanderbilt is an elite academic institution and far and away the leader in that category in the SEC. It’s a private institution with high academic standards and an ability to spend, coupled with a location in desirable city, so there’s no reason why Vanderbilt should be bad long. But as the SEC gets more and more competitive, it’s gotten more difficult to move up. It’s really just a matter of how much the athletic department wants to truly invest in being an elite hoops program. Being a private institution, we don’t truly know how much they’ve already invested, but I would be willing to bet it’s significant.
It was a rocky season for everyone dealing with COVID issues last year, which likely led to higher roster turnover than expected in Nashville. One of the biggest hits this offseason was when Vanderbilt lost Dylan Disu. Disu was a clear recruiting win for Stackhouse when he plucked the top 150 prospect out of an Austin, Texas suburb, and he blossomed into an elite defender and reliable shooter and rebounder. Then he bounced this offseason back home to play for Texas. Losing Disu was a serious hit to the roster plans for this season.
Maxwell Evans turned himself into a reliable rotational player and opted to exercise his graduate year for one last go around with TCU. DJ Harvey never quite filled out the role he imagined when transferring in from Notre Dame, and is spending his last year at Detroit Mercy. Isaac McBride left Kansas for Vanderbilt and got squeezed out of the rotation at point guard— he left for Oral Roberts. Both Ejike Obinna and Clevon Brown were reliable enough post players, but neither really cemented themselves beyond spot starts and reserve minutes. But both left with degrees and a year to play thanks to COVID— Brown to Florida International, and Obinna to St. Josephs. Braelee Albert and Akeem Odusipe were minor role guys off the bench.
Scotty Pippen, Jr | JUNIOR | COMBO GUARD
One of the breakout stars of last year was Scotty Pippen, Jr. The sophomore took a major step forward last year when he went from scoring an inefficient 12 points (out of necessity) to scoring 20.8 points a game with an efficiency rating of 108.8 and 35.2% usage. That’s absurd, really. There were only two other players with a usage rate that high, and neither were as efficient. Pippen shot 35% from deep, and had a 37% assist rate, and had the 6th most fouls drawn rate in the country. Basically, Pippen turned into a monster at the point, and nearly turned pro. But he came back, and with Pippen playing at that level, Vandy is dangerous and tough.
Jordan Wright stepped into a larger role last year as a sophomore. The jumbo wing/combo forward became a starter in the 11th game of the season after the Commodores lost their first four games in conference, and while he didn’t solve all the problems, Wright’s ability to break down bigger defenders off the dribble and be a consistent 3-point threat turned the volume up on the Vandy offense. Trey Thomas played the role of intriguing point guard prospect a year ago, having some big games — and disappearing in others — but the skill level is there.
I really liked what little I saw of Myles Stute and Quentin Millora-Brown. Both guys played limited roles at combo forward and post. Stute is a sturdy forward with enough size to play the five, but the mobility to defense multiple positions, so being a more consistent shooter will help keep Stute be on the floor more often. Millora-Brown was kind of trending in the right direction before a mysterious absence in the middle of the season, likely COVID-related. But he’s a good rebounder, mobile, and a consistent shot maker around the rim.
Liam Robbins | SENIOR | COMBO FORWARD
Of all the big transfer news in the SEC, the transfer of the Minnesota big man to Vanderbilt was one of the biggest. Literally. Robbins was a critical piece for the early season run in Minnesota, as he’s a consistent scorer around the rim, a reliable defender, and has a growing outside arsenal. Although the Gophers season went south, Robbins was having a really good season until he got banged up a bit and ended up missing the last six games while being limited in the three before that. Robbins should immediately step into a starting role and give the Commodores the inside scoring punch they need.
Stackhouse has a trio of intriguing freshmen coming in led by 4-star wing prospect Shane Dezonie, a crafty 6-4 guard from New Jersey. Dezonie was committed to Arizona before they fired Sean Miller, and he chose Vanderbilt with a quick turnaround. I actually really like Gabe Dorsey, the 3-star wing from Maryland. He’s a sturdy wing with a soft shooting touch and a good feel for the game. It wouldn’t surprise me if he turned out to be the best recruit out of the class. Peyton Daniels is an exciting scoring point guard who might have a stiff road up in getting playing time but the ceiling is high and he has the skillset and athleticism to compete for minutes.
In need of more depth and consistency at lead guard, Stackhouse brought in Dayton transfer Rodney Chatman. Chatman was an important player for a really good Dayton team, and a mid-season injury (that, and the loss of Obi Toppin) is one of the key reasons Dayton struggled more than the previous two years. Chatman should bring a steadiness to the guard position.
Stack also imports Terren Frank, a lightly used but intriguing prospect who has good size and mobility, and if he can shoot the ball with consistency could help out at the four spot. Lastly is Jamaine Mann, a Georgia native who signed with Gardner-Webb and had a good freshman season. Mann had a nice season but not necessarily a standout one, so I’m a little surprised he’s making the move to the SEC. Mann is a bit of a combo forward, but one quite comfortable attacking around the rim.
For the starting lineup you start with Scotty Pippen, Jr and work from there. Liam Robbins deserves the benefit of the doubt and will almost assuredly start. I think a guy like Jordan Wright can hold the keys to the Vanderbilt offense taking off, and I also think the addition of Rodney Chatman should help shoulder the ball handling load and give Pippen a break. Pippen will also have Peyton Daniels and Trey Thomas to get minutes at the point and push him off the ball to preserve some energy for all the scoring he’s gonna do. There should be some competition for minutes at the four spot with Stute, Millora-Brown, and Frank all competing for time there, as well as the wing where Gabe Dorsey, Jordan Wright, and Shane Dezonie should all find minutes. You could easily see Wright get minutes at the four also.
My Projected Record: 16-14 | KenPom Projected Record: 15-14
It’s a very manageable schedule, I like this for this group a lot. There are a few solid home games with Winthrop, Temple and VCU which are all good matchups and completely winnable. I gave Vandy losses in their road games at Pitt and at SMU, but those are also very winnable games. Pitt is hitting a huge reset with their roster and SMU should be decent at least, but they’re not expected to compete for the AAC title. There’s a bit of a weird MTE in Hawai’i around Christmas with teams like Hawai’i, BYU, Stanford, Northern Iowa, and L*berty, along with Wyoming and South Florida. BYU would be the most likely loss here, but the rest of the field is a handful of teams where Vandy would likely be favored.
I think Vanderbilt can be a sneaky good team in the SEC, and one of the things which might allow them to move up is getting South Carolina and Georgia each twice. The challenge is that the other home-and-home matchups are against Florida, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Currently, the pick is for Vandy to go 4-0 against the bottom two, and 0-6 against the top 3. All Vandy has to do is go 2-4 against UT/UF/UK and suddenly they’re at .500 in league play. Pick off one more game and this is a team who’s a shoe-in for the NCAA tournament.
I understand skepticism around Vanderbilt. Most fans are used to year after year of losing. But by the end of the season last year, Vandy was a team nobody wanted to play. And while they certainly would have been a tougher team had they hung onto Dylan Disu, this is still a solid roster.
It all obviously starts with Scotty Pippen, Jr and his decision to return to school. Pippen’s ability to score and do so efficiently again this season holds a big key towards a new kind of look in Nashville. Mainly because this season he has help.
If Liam Robbins is healthy and consistently the player he was at times in Minnesota, there’s another dimension for the offense. An efficient and offensively enabled big man is something Vandy hasn’t had since Luke Kornet, or even before him in Damian Jones. They need someone who is capable of scoring around the rim, stretching the floor, and doing so with a healthy offensive rating while still culling around 25% of possessions.
If you insert Robbins into a lineup with Pippen, reliable point guard play, and some consistent shooting, now suddenly that top 75 offense can slide into the top 30 or 40. Then the only question comes down to whether Stackhouse can field a good defense.
Under Stackhouse, the defense has been quite bad, ranking 221st in year 1 and 136th last year. They don’t give up a lot of offensive rebounds, but coupled with an effective Field Goal percentage over 52% means teams were getting the kind of looks they wanted early. If you look at the average defensive possession length, Vanderbilt was getting lit up and lit up early in the clock. So it’s not as if there aren’t things to fix.
On tape last year the Commodores were a well-coached team on offense. But Pippen seemed more interested in conserving his energy for the offensive side, and without the right kind of backline help, the defense was a sieve.
However, with some steady improvements in the ball handling department — starting with decreasing Pippen’s energy expenditure by being the primary ball handler — Vanderbilt can offload that responsibility from Pippen and onto capable ball handlers like Chatman and Thomas and Daniels. The import of Chatman and his ability to log minutes with efficiency at the point is particularly key.
So if the Commodores can continue their ascent offensively and find a way to just be competent on defense, you have the baseline of a team who can contend for a tournament bid. But they’ve got to find a way to overcome the better teams on the schedule. If Vandy can get to 9-9 or 10-8 in league play with wins over Tennessee or Florida or Kentucky, now suddenly you have an NCAA level resume. It doesn’t take much.
Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC
An All—SEC level guard is coming back along with a reliably consistent post player and a multitude of wings, and they’re led by a really good basketball coach who just needed some time to figure out the whole college thing. Vandy has the resources and the roster to make this right this year.
Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC
It hasn’t worked yet. Even as Vanderbilt has improved by being more competitive they’re still a team who hasn’t figured out how to win. So going from the basement to suddenly becoming an NCAA Tournament team is just too tall of an ask for a roster who relied so much upon one player last year.
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.