Vanderbilt Basketball: Takeaways from season opening loss to Memphis

Jerry Stackhouse and Vanderbilt Basketball couldn’t get it done against Memphis on opening night. Here are some takeaways from the defeat.

Jerry Stackhouse started his fourth season as the head coach of Vanderbilt Basketball with a 76-67 loss to Memphis and fellow former NBA star-turned-head coach Penny Hardaway. The Commodores returned plenty of familiar faces from the past few seasons but entered this season without one of the best players in the SEC over the past three years: Scotty Pippen Jr.

There’s plenty of room for improvement and with the Commodores trailing the entire game, it can be easy for Vanderbilt fans to feel discouraged with the loss. However, there are some bright spots and by playing a high-quality team to start the season, we got a good glimpse as to what this team will look like as the season progresses.

So with an 0-1 start to the season, let’s decipher what the real takeaways should be after one game and what Coach Stackhouse has in his 22-23 squad.

Scotty Pippen Jr. is not walking through that door

I’m going to channel my inner Rick Pitino here and state the obvious: now former Commodore floor general, Scotty Pippen Jr., is not walking through that door. Vanderbilt’s first-team All-SEC-sized departure from last year takes with him the seventh-highest usage rate, the 23rd-highest shot share, the 33rd-highest assist rate, and the number-one highest rate of drawing fouls in all of college basketball. That’s a ton of reliance on one player to be the heartbeat of your attack. How do you replenish that production?

After one game, they still don’t have an answer to that question. They won’t for a while, at least. Vanderbilt struggled to create offense in the opening half and oftentimes seemed timid and disorganized, forcing themselves to hoist up contested shots late in the shot clock. The Commodores are a good three-point shooting team but were 2-14 in the first half from deep because very few of them were what could be considered clean looks.

Pippen Jr. created so many of those Jordan Wright or Myles Stute catch-and-shoot threes last season and the ‘Dores will need to find a way to get those two the ball on the wing in more advantageous positions. As a team, they posted a pedestrian 14:13 assist-to-turnover ratio with some of those live-ball turnovers creating easy Memphis fast break buckets. Those fast break points were a crucial stat in the game given Memphis’ seven-point advantage in the game and their nine-point margin of victory. During that ice-cold first half, Vanderbilt’s turnovers and poor shot selection late in the shot clock dug them a 28-11 hole. That 17-point deficit was eventually cut to as low as nine but ultimately insurmountable.

Replacing Pippen won’t be easy, but it can be an effort by committee. Wright had five assists and made up for a subpar shooting night and UC Davis transfer Ezra Manjon chipped in three assists and assumed a lot of the ball-handling duties.

Lastly, Pippen shot over 38% of Vanderbilt’s free throws last year. He was one of the best in the country at getting to the free throw line and creating offense with the clock stopped. In the opener against Memphis, they eventually attempted 15 free throws but still lost the FT attempt battle with Memphis shooting 19. But where it really had an impact on the offense was the first half, when they dug their insurmountable deficit. Vanderbilt attempted only three free throws in the first half and settled for bad jumpers and lacked an aggressiveness that they relied a lot on from Pippen. It looked uncomfortable, there was no flow and the clunkiness of their first-half offense resulted in the low total on the scoreboard and in the FT attempt category.

Flamethrowing second half

I already chronicled many of the first-half struggles for the ‘Dores: turnovers, lack of urgency, poor shot creation, and a grand total of only 22 points. But in the second half, Vanderbilt displayed their perimeter shooting capabilities that helped them win two SEC Tournament games and make a mini-run in the NIT.

After a 2-14 first-half three-point showing, Vanderbilt made 10-16 from beyond the arc in the second. Stute made four of his eight attempts for the game. Tyrin Lawrence and Trey Thomas also made a pair of triples each. The pace picked up in the second half as the Commodores attempted to stage a late comeback. The pace seemingly suited them better as their perimeter attempts were much cleaner. Playing at that pace and aggressiveness on the dribble from players like Manjon, Lawrence and Wright created much better looks and showed as the home team shot a blistering 73% eFG percentage.

Let’s be realistic, they won’t shoot 73% eFG for an entire game this season but they have the perimeter shooting capabilities to play up to the competition and expand their ceiling.

Great first half defense

In this tale of two halves, Vanderbilt’s offense was atrocious but the defense looked solid. Yes, Memphis still scored 34 points and made nine of their first 12 two-point attempts but they didn’t come easily. The ‘Dores employed a defense that switched a lot of off-ball action and displayed a good ability to be versatile on that side of the ball. With the exception of a few baskets, the Memphis-made buckets were mostly well-contested, especially from the perimeter.

The most impressive defensive sequence came on the last play of the first half. With 22 seconds remaining, Manjon picked up Tigers point guard Kendric Davis at half-court, denied him the middle of the floor, and forced him right to dribble into a double team with seven-foot center Liam Robbins. Wright and Lawrence rotated well off-ball and limited where Davis could pass out of the double team. The rotations and double team created an indecisiveness from Davis that melted too much time off the clock and by the time a pass was finally made, it was too late to make an additional pass or shoot the ball. Memphis couldn’t even get a shot off.

The Commodore defense at times looked cohesive, switchable, and tough to take off the dribble. Memphis was forced to make tough shots and to their credit, they did.

Final takeaway

Overall, it was a decent opener for Vanderbilt. Memphis was expected to win and is an all-around better and older basketball team. The defense passed the eye test in the first half but struggled to maintain in the second and offensively, their first-half struggles made it to where a blistering shooting performance in the second half not matter in regards to the final result.

I still want to see more from the freshman class of Lee Dort (played three minutes), Paul Lewis (played six minutes), Colin Smith (played 12 minutes with three points), and Malik Dia (played 11 minutes and knocked down a corner three). Their opportunities will come later in the year when they become more seasoned but this team could really use the depth they can provide if they can all give solid bench outputs.

First half Vanderbilt looks like a team that will be a bottom-feeder in the SEC. Second half Vanderbilt can be a team that plays close to .500 in a better-than-ever SEC.