FAYETTEVILLE — A new coach hasn’t brought new luck to the Vanderbilt Commodores (8-7, 0-2) in the SEC visiting the Arkansas Razorbacks (13-2, 2-1) in tonight’s SEC game at Walton Arena.
Tip-off is 7:30 p.m. and the game is televised on the SEC Network.
Before the 2018-19 season former Vandy coach Bryce Drew signed Darius Garland, one of the hottest recruits in the country.
Garland proved it scoring 24 and 33 points sailing the Commodores to a 2-0 start over Winthrop and Liberty. Game Three Drew suffered a season-ending injury. Garland lost his college career, opting out for the NBA and was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Commodores went 9-23 and lost every SEC game at 0-18 plus one and done in the SEC Tournament — Drew lost his job.
Jerry Stackhouse, the former North Carolina Tar Heels All-American, 18-year NBA player then NBA coach, replaced Drew.
Under Stackhouse, Vandy sophomore forward Aaron Nesmith (an 11.0 points per game score last season as a freshman) blossomed into an SEC leading scorer (23.0) and 3-point shooter.
After his first SEC game, a hard-fought 83-79 loss at Auburn to the No. 4 (15-0, 3-0) Tigers, it was discovered Nesmith suffered what likely is a season-ending stress fracture in his foot.
Minus Nesmith, the Texas A&M Aggies vanquished Vandy, 69-50 at the Commodores Memorial Gym in Nashville, Tenn last Saturday.
Stackhouse said the Commodores play was obviously affected by Nesmith’s absence. He anticipates a better adjusted Commodores tonight.
“They’re not grown men, hardened men who have been traded two or three times and you just tell them, ‘C’mon man, pick yourself up, and man up,'” Stackhouse said comparing the NBA teams he played for and coached. “It’s not as easy as that. The next man up is not quite as good as the man who just left. But we’ll find a way to compete.”
He has a plan.
“We’ll look through our personnel again and see where our main strengths are and try to build some offensive rhythm with the guys and their strengths,” Stackhouse said. “Maybe a little more slicing to the basket and things like that as opposed to being a perimeter-dominated team.”
Stackhouse has a man to execute the plan. Junior Vandy guard Saben Lee averages 15.7 and actually scored a team leading 27 the night Vandy with Nesmith pushed Auburn to the limit at Auburn.
“ You know Lee’s a really good player,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said. “He can really score the ball. He’s a great athlete. We’re going to have to contain him somewhat. Their power forward (Dylan Disu) can shoot the basketball. Their big (6-10 center Ejike Obinna against A&M) had a career night: 12 points and rebounded the ball well. He’s a big, strong body.”
Vandy guard Scotty Pippen Jr., yes the son of that Scottie Pippen, the Chicago Bulls NBA Hall of Famer and former University of Central Arkansas great, presents problems and averages 10.7 points.
“Obviously Pippen can really get in the lane and he keeps getting, as a freshmen he keeps getting better and better,” Musselman said.
The Commodores obviously would love to have Nesmith but at least short term, all teams have to adjust minus their stars which not so deep Arkansas has when any of its top six are in foul trouble or miss a game which leading scorer Mason Jones did early season with a shoulder injury.
“The whole identity changes a little bit,” Musselman said. “But having said that, it opens up other opportunities for other people. The night that Mason couldn't play for us, (a 66-60 victory over Northern Kentucky) someone else got his shots.“
Razorbacks Jimmy Whitt and Desi Sills combined for 41 points the game that Jones missed while Isaiah Joe, 34 points in Arkansas’ SEC success last Saturday at Ole Miss, only hit 2 for 11 against Northern Kentucky.
“Somebody is going to get his (Nesmith’s) shots and some of those shots are going to go in,” Musselman said. “Obviously he (Nesmith) is a really special player and a really difficult matchup. But they're a dangerous team.”
While vastly exceeding preseason expectations, the Razorbacks know they are a small team that doesn’t rebound well and not a deep team and vulnerable to foul trouble.
So, Musselman won’t tolerate a look ahead to Saturday’s ESPN televised game against Kentucky Saturday at Walton.
“I mean we’ve got one thing to worry about and it’s how do we get ready for Wednesday’s game,” Musselman said. “We have to get ready to figure out how to play Vandy. That’s it. It’s plain and simple.”