Back on January 29, I wrote that it was fine to be concerned about Jerry Stackhouse’s rebuild of the Vanderbilt basketball program through a year and change. At that point, Vanderbilt was 0-6 in the SEC, ranked 142nd in KenPom, and seemed to be flailing around in search of an identity.
And then, a funny thing happened.
Vanderbilt basketball, first six SEC games: 423 possessions, 430 points (1.02 points per possession), 503 points allowed (1.19 per possession), 0-6 record
Vanderbilt basketball, last nine games: 639 possessions, 654 points (1.02 per possession), 665 points allowed (1.04 per possession), 3-6 record
The record is, of course, a little bit deceptive, but the improvement is notable. Vanderbilt has been outscored by 11 points, total, over its last nine games, and prior to last night’s 15-point loss at LSU (which came without the services of Scotty Pippen and Dylan Disu), Vanderbilt had actually outscored the opposition over its previous eight games. Meanwhile, the Commodores have crept into the top 100 of KenPom (they’re currently 98th) for the first time since January 2019.
Now, the obvious point here is that Vanderbilt’s offense hasn’t improved. What’s changed is that the defense has gone from a complete and utter disaster to actually pretty decent. But the interesting part is how it has changed.
Vanderbilt defense, first six SEC games: 423 possessions, 63 turnovers (14.9% of possessions)
Vanderbilt defense, last nine games: 639 possessions, 136 turnovers (21.3% of possessions)
Now, that’s improvement.
If you’ve noticed over the last few games, Vanderbilt has spent a lot more energy on the defensive end pressing and trapping, and that alone has made a significant difference in defensive efficiency. The team’s deficiencies at defending shots at the rim aren’t going to be solved immediately — that’s either going to require recruiting better players or developing the current bigs on the roster (Ejike Obinna, Quentin Millora-Brown, and Akeem Odusipe) — and neither is the team’s defensive rebounding, but Stackhouse seems to have figured out a way to mask the team’s deficiencies on that end of the floor to some degree. The defense we’ve seen over the last nine games still isn’t what I would call good by any stretch, but it’s passable. And while Vanderbilt is still likely headed for Wednesday night at the SEC Tournament (though it’s not a done deal; if the Commodores win Saturday at Ole Miss they could conceivably get the 11 seed over South Carolina and Texas A&M on tiebreakers), they rank 11th in the league in efficiency margin in league games, ahead of Texas A&M, South Carolina, and Georgia (the last of which is somehow 7-10 in the league.)
The thing about a rebuilding year is that while you don’t necessarily expect results on the floor, what you are looking for is (a) does the team look better in February/March than it does in December/January, and (b) do the young players on the team appear to be getting better? The team clearly passes the first test; what about the second?
Well, that’s where you have to squint. In terms of individual players, probably the biggest improvement over the last month or so has come from Maxwell Evans, who’s (a) a Bryce Drew recruit, and (b) probably gone after this season (technically he could come back thanks to a one-time NCAA waiver.) Other than that, Trey Thomas and Issac McBride have taken advantage of the absence of Scotty Pippen over the last three games to establish themselves as interesting pieces for 2021-22, but Myles Stute has scored 15 points over the last nine games (granted, in limited playing time) and Quentin Millora-Brown missed five games in a row and hasn’t really been a factor since returning. Believing in the future of the program under Jerry Stackhouse means believing in his ability to bring in and develop talented players, and so far, his two teams have basically revolved around holdovers from Bryce Drew — Aaron Nesmith and Saben Lee last season, Scotty Pippen and Dylan Disu this season.
The last nine games, then, have provided some reason for optimism, but Stackhouse isn’t out of the woods just yet.