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Final thoughts on the 2022-23 basketball season

We sure do wish we could have December back.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament Semifinals - Texas A&M vs Vanderbilt Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a bit delayed because I’m solo parenting a pair of two-year-olds through Saturday, but here are my final thoughts on the 2022-23 basketball season.

  • After a December 17 loss to NC State, Vanderbilt was 5-6 with losses to Grambling and Southern Miss, and to that point its best win was over a Pitt team that appeared to be a middling ACC team at best, and that was by one point. The idea that I would be writing this on March 23 and not, say, March 9 (the day after the first round of the SEC Tournament) was frankly absurd at that point.
  • A ton of credit goes to Jerry Stackhouse for not losing the team at various points, which would have been easy to do after either the Grambling loss or the 57-point loss at Alabama. Still, next year Stackhouse needs to figure out how not to punt away an NCAA Tournament bid in December. I still firmly believe that had Vanderbilt simply beaten Grambling, they would have been at worst 50-50 to make the tournament. Beat Grambling and (pick literally any other loss on the schedule), and this was a NCAA Tournament team.
  • Stackhouse expressed that he sort of gets this in last night’s press conference:
  • Of course, what’s not clear in that statement is whether he intends to replace the VCUs with more NC States and Pitts (beatable power-conference teams that won’t cost you much if you lose to them) or more Alabama A&Ms (games that you’re winning no matter what.) The tough part of this for me as a fan is that I’d rather not have to sit through more walkovers against terrible teams in the nonconference portion of the schedule, but when the NCAA Selection Committee looks at Mississippi State’s resume (12-1 nonconference against a schedule that included seven teams ranked outside the top 200 of KenPom, 8-10 SEC record with only three of the wins coming against NCAA Tournament teams) and Vanderbilt’s resume (7-6 nonconference against a schedule that only had four non-top 200 teams, 11-7 SEC record with five wins against NCAA Tournament teams) and picks Mississippi State, it’s clear that putting together a tough nonconference schedule doesn’t win you any favors with the Selection Committee.
  • The thing that hurt Vanderbilt’s NET rating? Beating Wofford by three points and Alabama A&M by eight points. The problem early on was that the games that should have been walkovers often weren’t walkovers.
  • Ezra Manjon’s Offensive Ratings by game through the first eleven games of the season: 89 (Memphis), 65 (Southern Miss), 143 (Temple), 107 (Morehead State), 49 (Saint Mary’s), 90 (Fresno State), 111 (VCU), 112 (Wofford), 87 (Pitt), 19 (Grambling), 102 (NC State.) That explained a lot of the early-season struggles more than we realized at the time (okay, okay, at the time we thought he was just a bad player), probably moreso than Stackhouse experimenting with rotations. By the time SEC play rolled around, Manjon became probably one of the league’s best point guards, and that made a huge difference. It’s also something that probably won’t be an issue next season when he’s had a year under Stack and adjusting to the level of competition.
  • Vanderbilt went 10-3 this season when Liam Robbins played at least 25 minutes. They went 6-2 after he got hurt. Prior to that, Vanderbilt was 6-9 when Robbins played fewer than 25 minutes (including the four games he missed completely.) This was where I absolutely understood the complaints about the rotation: what the hell was Robbins, quite clearly the team’s best player, doing on the bench so often? Foul trouble explained some of it, I guess, but he wasn’t absurdly foul-prone for a big man. For the season he played just 40.1 percent of the available minutes, which is absurd for the best player on your team even when he was unavailable for eleven games (and only played four minutes in the game he got hurt.)
  • With all that said, I never completely understood the complaint about the rotation, because not everybody needs or wants to be Eric Musselman. Vanderbilt ranked 54th nationally in bench minutes — a high number, to be sure, but it’s below four teams still playing in the NCAA Tournament including Alabama and Tennessee. I might have bought it if there were specific guys playing a lot of minutes who I thought shouldn’t be playing those minutes, but that really wasn’t the case most of the time.
  • It sucks to miss the NCAA Tournament four years in a row — six if you count the last two years under Bryce Drew — but you can’t really argue against the steady improvement both in the overall record, from 11-21 to 9-16 to 19-17 to 22-15, and in the SEC record, from 3-15 to 3-13 to 7-11 to 11-7. Stackhouse pretty clearly earned another year; if the difference between going to Dayton and getting a 2-seed in the NIT is the difference between retaining the coach and firing him, then your evaluation process frankly sucks. (This goes both ways, by the way; Kevin Stallings didn’t deserve another year just because the selection committee gifted his final Vanderbilt team a trip to Dayton.)
  • Of course, next year is a “make the NCAA Tournament or you’re gone” year, and that should be made clear. Steady improvement will have me forgiving missing the tournament four years in a row but not five (but especially since missing the tournament next year would break the string of improvement.) That wouldn’t be the case if this year’s team had made the tournament, but Stackhouse has managed to keep his job without really building any equity. Kevin Stallings could survive a couple of bad years after 2012 because he’d made the tournament five of the previous six years. Stackhouse can’t miss five years in a row.
  • We’ll have to see how the roster shakes out, but next year’s team could be pretty good. We already know Ezra Manjon is returning, and that’s a big deal. Of the remaining players (who have eligibility remaining, so not including Liam Robbins), the one guy they absolutely can’t afford to lose is Tyrin Lawrence. I’d hate to lose Colin Smith and Lee Dort, for different reasons, but Vanderbilt can probably find guys to give them similar production in the transfer portal.
  • Overall, though, this was an important year for Jerry Stackhouse because it established that the improvement in the program from 2019 to 2022 wasn’t just about Scotty Pippen Jr. being good. Stackhouse showed that he could not only win without him, but actually put a better team on the floor. That’s a big deal, and it suggests a lot of promise for the next couple of years.