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Stream of consciousness final thoughts on the 2021-22 basketball season

This could have gone better.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament-Kentucky vs Vanderbilt Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball season ended with tonight’s 75-73 loss to Xavier in the quarterfinals of the NIT, and as is tradition, or at least since the end of the 2018 football season, I present the quick version of my final thoughts on the season that just transpired.

  • I thought about doing this after Vanderbilt was eliminated from the SEC Tournament, but held off in case the team made the NIT, and I’m glad that I did because seeing the team make a run in the NIT gave me some more data on what this team was capable of when healthy. And that’s important to summing things up.
  • Because, really, I’m fully convinced that this would have been an NCAA Tournament team had Liam Robbins and Rodney Chatman not lost a total of 41 games (20 for Chatman, 21 for Robbins) to injury. Vanderbilt had both available for exactly nine games all season, and you could argue that Robbins wasn’t fully healthy for the first three of those (February games against Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee.) When they finally had both in the SEC Tournament and NIT, the team went 4-2 with a close-ish loss to Kentucky and tonight’s close call at Xavier.
  • Hell, with Chatman alone, Vanderbilt went 11-5 with three of the five losses coming to Kentucky and Tennessee.
  • The thing that gets missed sometimes in all of this is that a player can have a specific role on a team that can’t really be replaced, even if his actual production isn’t all that great. That was Chatman. Without him, Vanderbilt basically had only one guy (Scotty Pippen) who could play the point, and Chatman’s ability to play both guard spots gave Jerry Stackhouse a lot more flexibility with his lineups than he had otherwise.
  • The same, really, was true of Robbins, though Robbins himself was a much better player — but his ability to function as a stretch 4 meant that he could coexist with Quentin Millora-Brown, which was a big deal on the defensive end. Without Robbins, Vanderbilt was stuck playing Myles Stute as the de facto 4, which... wasn’t going to go well. (Also without Robbins, Vanderbilt was throwing Jamaine Mann out there as the backup to Millora-Brown. Mann is listed at 6’6” and that might be a bit generous.)
  • With all that said, I hated what Vanderbilt did when it didn’t have Chatman and Robbins. Granted, there were limitations in what they could do, but Chatman’s absence didn’t completely explain why the team went 8-12 when he didn’t play. Not when they were scoring 42 points in a loss at Florida. This honestly still could have been a tournament team if they had just held the line better in his absence.
  • Vanderbilt started its season ranked 77th in KenPom and finishes 64th, the second year in a row that the Commodores have overachieved his preseason projections — a sign that, whatever your expectations were for the season, Jerry Stackhouse probably exceeded them. Bryce Drew, on the other hand, underachieved in his last two seasons, in both cases badly. And Kevin Stallings did so in four of his last five, with 2014-15 marking the only exception to that trend.
  • The jury, of course, is still out on Jerry Stackhouse. I wrote about my feelings of general confusion back in January and frankly, even the last couple of weeks haven’t given me much reason to go back on that. Because the above paragraph kind of sums it up nicely; I’m torn between “Stackhouse can get the most out of what he has available” and “why is what he has available a team that’s ranked 77th in the preseason.”
  • It’s hard to argue with the performances of the six core players — Robbins, Chatman, Pippen, Myles Stute, Jordan Wright, and Quentin Millora-Brown. All of them played their roles well.
  • The bigger problem with the team, aside from the injuries, is that beyond those six guys, Vanderbilt didn’t have much. And that was really problematic when there were only four of those guys available. Eleven different players drew starts for Vanderbilt this season and that was with Pippen and Wright starting all 36 games, and Stute and Millora-Brown starting 30 each.
  • Here’s the thing about Vanderbilt’s roster this season past the top six: individually, I can make a case for most of them. Tyrin Lawrence can at least fake point guard enough to make him a backup combo guard. Trey Thomas, when he’s on, gives the team an outside threat that they really didn’t have outside of Pippen. Jamaine Mann can give you decent minutes off the bench at both forward spots and even did okay at the five when pressed into action. Shane Dezonie was sloppy plenty of the time, but also showed plenty of potential. Hell, I even liked Drew Weikert in spurts as a “what the hell, let’s give him some minutes if these guys don’t want to play hard” option.
  • (I would also mention here that Peyton Daniels’ decision to transfer three games into the season hurt in an unexpected way, since it left Vanderbilt without a backup point guard for most of the season.)
  • The problem, though, with the way that the bench was constructed is that there was too much overlap. You could have used one of Tyrin Lawrence and Shane Dezonie, but I’m not sure you needed both. Ditto Jamaine Mann and Terren Frank, who do a lot of the same things (the latter moreso in theory than in actuality.) That Gabe Dorsey wasn’t ready for prime time as a freshman meant that the reserve unit lacked a lot of flexibility; there was simply no one off the bench to replace Myles Stute or Jordan Wright effectively.
  • Which brings us to next season. Of the core six on this year’s team, I’d bet on at least four — Wright, Stute, Robbins, and Millora-Brown — returning. (The latter two on paper might seem up in the air, what with both of them being in their fourth year of college — meaning they probably have their degree or will have it at the end of semester — and also having a year of eligibility remaining. But notice that neither was recognized on Senior Night, something Vanderbilt normally does for guys who are graduating but unlikely to return.) Chatman is gone.
  • That leaves Scotty Pippen, and the one thing I’m specifically hoping for here is that he doesn’t drag his decision out into July and force Stackhouse to hold a spot for him instead of pursuing a transfer to play the point.
  • At this point, I really have no idea what Pippen is going to do. I’d been assuming all season that he would be gone after this year, whether to the transfer portal or to play professional basketball, but now I’m kind of wondering if he may think he has some unfinished business here. Because if all those guys return, that should be a tournament team next year.
  • 434. That’s all that separates Pippen from Shan Foster’s career scoring record at Vanderbilt, if you’re wondering what kind of unfinished business I might be speaking of (aside from making the NCAA Tournament before he leaves, that is.)
  • Aside from those five (or four plus a transfer point guard to be named later if Pippen leaves), Vanderbilt will have the four incoming freshmen — who I’m excited about to varying degrees — and that by itself could solve some of the bench problems. Between Noah Shelby (one/two), Malik Dia (three/four), Colin Smith (four), and Lee Dort (five), Vanderbilt could have every spot covered off the bench if all four are ready to contribute as freshmen.
  • What happens with the rest of the roster? At the moment, Vanderbilt has six guys (Trey Thomas, Tyrin Lawrence, Shane Dezonie, Jamaine Mann, Terren Frank, and Gabe Dorsey) for four spots (technically it’s five if Pippen leaves, but Stackhouse would almost certainly replace him with a transfer if he does.) It’s probably not a great sign for Frank’s future with the program that he didn’t play at all in the last five games of the season. Thomas and Mann can carve out a role for themselves, but they’d also rank pretty high on the list of “guys most likely to lose playing time to one of the incoming freshmen.” And I’d like to keep Lawrence and Dezonie around, but I can see why you’d only feel the need to keep one, particularly with Noah Shelby coming in.
  • What you do with the last few spots on the bench may not seem particularly important, but it’s also a matter of which of the freshmen I’m less confident will be ready to play rotation minutes right away. That’s probably Dort and maybe Dia, so I would lean toward keeping the guys who can play those roles — except that in Dia’s case, as we saw this season, there really wasn’t anybody who could play that role off the bench. Unless Dorsey improves a lot between now and next season, Vanderbilt might have to find a transfer for that spot.
  • Of course, in the era of the transfer portal, well, keeping guys around may not really be a choice...
  • Overall, it’s nice to finally be able to look forward to next season again, and feel like the program is moving in the right direction. No, 19-17 and a loss in the NIT quarterfinals isn’t where we want to be. But how many of this wouldn’t take this season over the four that preceded it?