Five games to watch for the 2018-19 Men’s Basketball season


The Vanderbilt Commodores men’s basketball team tops the LSU Tigers at home on January 20th, 2018. (Photo by Brent Szklaruk)

Max Schneider, Associate Sports Editor

As the air gets colder and the wind picks up on West End, basketball season is beginning to emerge on the horizon.

The long anticipation of a potential breakout year that features unprecedented freshman talent is at an all-time high, as the Vanderbilt Commodores’ November 6th showdown against Winthrop fast approaches.

The road ahead for the Commodores looks daunting, but that’s nothing new for a team that had the first and fourth toughest strengths of schedule over the past two seasons.  This year’s schedule looks eerily familiar to last year’s, and not just in SEC play.  Six of Vanderbilt’s twelve non-conference matchups will be rematches from last season, four of which saw the Commodores fall in close games.

If Vanderbilt is to be playing basketball in March, it’ll be because of signature wins over some of those opponents and a strong SEC resume, so without further ado, here are five games to watch for the 2018-2019 season.

North Carolina State at Vanderbilt (in Miami, Florida) – Sat, Dec. 1

Of the five games on this list, this is the only one that features a team the Commodores didn’t face last season.  Kevin Keatts’ team looked strong in his first season with the program, notching an NCAA Tournament berth in a tough ACC conference.  This season’s group is a little bit like Vanderbilt’s in terms of roster turnover.  The Wolfpack will rely on freshmen and transfers to fill the gaps left by seniors like Allerik Freeman and Abdul-Malik Abu.

Expect a tough matchup for Vanderbilt that will test its perimeter defense early in the season, as NC State is traditionally a team that loves to shoot the three. Torin Dorn, along with transfers Devon Daniels and CJ Bryce will certainly be the catalysts of that attack.  This will also be a bit of a reunion for Darius Garland, who played his summer ball with NC State freshman Jericole Hellems.

Vanderbilt vs. Kansas State – Sat, Dec. 22

These two teams met in Nashville last season with the Wildcats pulling out a narrow victory, stopping a late Vanderbilt run.  This year might be a whole different group for the Commodores, but they’ll have to be looking for revenge when these teams square off at a neutral site in Kansas City.  After a stellar tournament run to the Elite Eight that featured a signature upset over Kentucky, Kansas State returns 95% of the team’s minutes last season, including all five starters and the first four players off the bench.

It’s a large part of why the Wildcats open the season as the nation’s 12th ranked team.  This game will be a huge barometer for what Vanderbilt should be able to accomplish in conference play.  Kansas State is far and away the best team the Commodores will face in non-conference play, and Barry Brown and Dean Wade are the two best players they’ll see.  It might be early, but a Dean Wade-Simi Shittu matchup on ESPN2 is must-watch TV when this game rolls around.

Tennessee at Vanderbilt – Wed, Jan. 23

This rivalry is always a game to mark on the calendars, but this year’s matchup might be bigger than any in recent history.  Tennessee fans had to be bitter watching their in-state foes scoop up top freshmen talent during recruiting season, but they also know that they have a stacked roster of their own.

Following a breakout season in which Tennessee went from the projected 13th best team in the conference to the eventual conference champion, Rick Barnes and his group come into this year with sky-high expectations.

The sixth-ranked Volunteers have their eyes on a second-straight SEC title, and this team has the firepower to do a whole lot more than that.  With SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams, as well as Admiral Schofield, Jordan Bone and Lamonte Turner back for another run, this rivalry should reach its peak when these two teams clash for the first time on January 23rd.

Kentucky at Vanderbilt – Tue, Jan. 29

Well, Darius Garland and Simi Shittu said that they wanted to come to Vanderbilt to bring back Memorial Magic, and they’ll get it here.

Bring back the days of lines outside Memorial Gymnasium, trying to pack the student section before opening tip.  If there’s one day all year to be a Vanderbilt basketball fan, this is the day.  Make no mistake about it, this is an absolutely stacked Kentucky team, and while that’s the case nearly every year, this group looks just a bit different.

A squad usually littered with top freshmen, Kentucky’s roster this year is led by veteran talent.  Sophomore Quade Green leads a loaded backcourt, and Wenyen Gabriel spearheads a frontcourt to match, but the real threat is grad-transfer Reid Travis.  Travis was a two-time All-Pac 12 First Team honoree during his time at Stanford, and looks to bring that talent and experience to a Kentucky team poised to reclaim the SEC throne.

This will be the ultimate test for Shittu, Yanni Wetzell, and a new-look Vanderbilt frontcourt.  Mark your calendars.

Vanderbilt at LSU – Sat, Mar. 9

Even with its best recruiting season in program history, Vanderbilt’s class ranked third in the conference.  Of course Kentucky finished first, but it’s hard to imagine another group having a better freshman group than the Commodores.

Only LSU has just that.

The Tigers pulled in two five-stars of their own in Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams to go along with highly-touted four-stars in Javonte Smart and Darius Days.

Perhaps a bigger storyline than the influx of young talent is the point guard matchup.  LSU’s Tremont Waters averaged 15.9 points, 6.0 assists, and 2.0 steals per game last season, making him the first SEC freshman to average 15-5 since John Wall back in 2009-10.  He’ll test Darius Garland all day, and you can bet that scouts will be lined up to watch these two battle it out.

Waters and Garland might be a bit on the small side, but they’re two of the conference’s best point guards, and this should be a treat to watch.  It won’t happen until the very last day of the regular season, but all good things are worth waiting for.