The Perfect Time to Turn the Tide: The Commodores face No. 24 Alabama at home in a true must-win showdown

The Commodores have battled for SEC recognition all season long. A late season win against Alabama would be hard to ignore.

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Geena Han

Vanderbilt forward Jordan Wright goes up for a layup against Texas A&M on Feb. 19, 2022. (Hustler Multimedia/Geena Han)

Brandon Karp, Staff Writer

The Vanderbilt Commodores (14-12, 6-8 SEC) will host the No. 24 Alabama Crimson Tide (17-10, 7-7 SEC) on Tuesday night in a pivotal showdown with major postseason implications. Vanderbilt enters their first matchup against Alabama just one game behind the Crimson Tide for fifth place in arguably the strongest conference in all of college basketball. 

Prior to the season, few would have predicted that this February matchup would be so instrumental in deciding the SEC hierarchy. At 14-12, Vanderbilt still has an outside chance of being selected to compete in the 2022 NCAA Tournament. A win against Alabama on Tuesday is the bare minimum to keep the Commodores’ March Madness dreams alive. For Alabama, a loss to Vanderbilt opens the door to a possible finish outside of the top 10 in the SEC, an end-of-season collapse that would almost certainly eliminate them from NCAA Tournament selection. 

The Commodores have performed well at home recently, winning their last four games at Memorial Gymnasium. This past Saturday, the Commodores bested a respectable Texas A&M team, generating some much needed momentum for an end-of-season rally. In large part due to his strong performance in that game, Scotty Pippen Jr. was named co-SEC Player of the Week alongside Arkansas’ Jaylin Williams after averaging 26.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists in two games. The Commodores hot streak at home bodes well against an Alabama team that has lost their last five games on the road.

The return of stalwart center Liam Robbins has fueled Vanderbilt’s recent success. Robbins, who joined the Commodores after transferring from Minnesota, was expected to play a vital role in the team’s frontcourt before an untimely injury setback in October. After a dominant performance in the victory against Texas A&M, Robbins told the media on Monday that he thinks he’s healthy enough to help the Commodores in their quest for an NCAA Tournament berth.   

“I definitely feel like I’ve come a long way since the first game we played against Kentucky,” Robbins said. “I don’t think I’m quite back to 100%, just because I didn’t have a full offseason. I feel like I’m in a good spot but I’m hoping to keep building on it and get to 100% by the end of the year.”

Robbins will remain a key difference maker in the matchup against Alabama, hoping to exploit his size advantage against a team with a propensity for small, fast-paced lineups. The Crimson Tide often play with four guards and lead the SEC in 3-point attempts and makes.

“They shoot a lot of 3s. They get them up,” Robbins said of the Crimson Tide’s offensive approach. “I have to be really disciplined in getting back, obviously I’m still going to be aggressive and crash the glass because they are a smaller team. But they’re also one of the top teams in offensive rebounding as well.”

Head coach Jerry Stackhouse echoed a similar sentiment to the media with regards to Alabama’s high-powered offense. He stressed the importance of each Vanderbilt player embracing their defensive assignment with commitment and consistency.

“This is a great scoring team. They’re going to score the ball no matter how great our defense is,” Stackhouse said. “I think the key is taking the challenge individually to step up and guard those guys.”

Alabama’s leading scorer is guard Jaden Shackelford, who is averaging 19.4 points per game on a blistering 44.9% from 3 on the road this season. The team’s next four leading scorers—Jahvon Quinerly, Keon Ellis, JD Davison and Noah Gurley—possess a similar skillset. Each player is a capable 3-point shooter with respectable ball handling skills, but all five are under 6’8”—leaving the team’s defense exposed when the five best scorers share the floor. Stackhouse recognizes the explosive potential of this Alabama offense and has been preparing the team accordingly.

“Ellis made like seven 3s last game. Shackelford is capable of making 3s at that clip,” Stackhouse explained on Monday. “Gurley is a pick-and-pop guy that can get it going from 3, we’ve seen Quinerly make big 3s, Davison is shooting 33%… we have to be ready to guard everybody actively and close out.”

Stackhouse also reiterated that despite the size advantage Vanderbilt holds over Alabama, the Commodores will not be changing their game plan based on Alabama’s small-ball lineups. 

“We’re going to start the same way, that’s our lineup right now. We don’t know what the game’s going to dictate right now,” Stackhouse said. “We’re still focusing on the guys we’ve been focusing on. Scotty Pippen Jr. is still the straw that stirs the drink for us on the offensive end.”

In addition to another exhibition of Pippen Jr.’s lethal scoring ability, fans can expect key contributions from forwards Jordan Wright, Myles Stute and Quentin Millora-Brown. Wright and Stute are skilled two-way players capable of applying pressure to Alabama’s defense from beyond the arc. Stackhouse has repeatedly referenced Millora-Brown as a vastly improved presence whose on-court awareness has directly translated into team success. 

Outside of the SEC tournament, none of the players on Vanderbilt’s current roster have any experience playing meaningful basketball this late in the season. Fortunately, their coach knows a thing or two about stepping up with March at the doorstep. Stackhouse had a message for his team on the attitude necessary to win when the stakes are this high. 

“We just have to come in and have a mindset of competing and playing hard,” Stackhouse said. “It’s not so much about the X’s and O’s at this point, it’s just about coming in and having that competitive nature and working the game.”

The Commodores and Crimson Tide will face off at 8 p.m. CST on Tuesday.