Now or Never: Vanderbilt’s SEC Tournament push begins Wednesday night against Georgia

The Commodores have touched down in Tampa to begin the SEC Tournament. Their fight to remain in the postseason starts with Georgia.

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Vanderbilt Athletics

Scotty Pippen Jr. looks to the sideline during Vanderbilt’s loss to Kentucky on Feb. 2, 2022. (Vanderbilt Athletics)

Brandon Karp, Staff Writer

March has arrived, and the Vanderbilt Commodores (15-15, 7-11 SEC) desperately need some madness of their own to keep their postseason hopes alive. On Wednesday night, the 11-seeded Commodores will take on the 14-seeded Georgia Bulldogs (6-25, 1-17 SEC) in the play-in round of the SEC Tournament. The winner of this match will advance to the next round to face No. 6-seeded Alabama, while the loser will have surely played in their last game of the season. 

In another year, the Commodores might have hoped for a home-court advantage in the SEC Tournament, held in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena from 2013-2021. However, the 2022 iteration of the tournament will take place in Tampa, Florida before returning to Nashville from 2023-2030. Of course, the last time the tournament was played outside of Nashville was 2012, the year the Commodores shocked powerhouse No. 1 seed Kentucky to win the SEC Tournament Championship in New Orleans. Ten years later, the Commodores hope to repeat that magical run in Tampa. 

To earn the chance to be compared to that legendary 2012 championship team, the 2022 Commodores must first capitalize on a favorable matchup against Georgia. With just one win against SEC competition all season, Georgia is far from an NCAA Tournament caliber team. As such, beating the Bulldogs alone will do little to advance the Commodores’ already shaky postseason resume. A victory would, however, allow them to prove they belong against stronger SEC teams later in the tournament.

Vandy and Georgia faced off twice earlier this season, with both matches ending in comfortable victories for Vanderbilt. However, those losses have given Georgia an opportunity to learn Vanderbilt’s strengths and weaknesses and create a game plan accordingly. Liam Robbins, who has been a key piece for the Commodores since returning from a foot injury, chimed in on the difficulty of beating a team three consecutive times in a season. 

“It’s tough to beat a team three times. Everyone in college basketball kinda knows that. It’s just always tough to get that third win for whatever reason,” Robbins said of the upcoming battle with Georgia. “A lot of it comes down to just being us. Sticking to our offensive and defensive principles. If we don’t come in lax, we can do what we did the last two times.”

Robbins, who claims to be 100% healthy, will be an integral piece for the Commodores’ tournament hopes as a shot blocker and source of scoring in the paint. His interior presence down the stretch helped Vanderbilt clinch key victories against Texas A&M and Ole Miss. Robbins, who was still injured in Vanderbilt’s prior matchups with Georgia, emphasized that Vanderbilt’s SEC Tournament aspirations don’t end with a win at Georgia, and that the team is ready for an all-in push to make The Big Dance. 

“The goal is to make the NCAA Tournament.” Robbins said. “We have every intention of going down there and winning five [games].”

Robbins may not be the only key piece returning from injury to help the Commodores in their quest for an SEC championship. Sixth-year senior Rodney Chatman, who has been out with a significant hamstring injury since early February, will attempt to return at some point in the tournament for his final showing in Black and Gold. Chatman is an excellent complementary piece alongside fellow guard Scotty Pippen Jr., and his 41% 3-point percentage helped give Vanderbilt the edge in victories against top SEC teams Arkansas and LSU.

“I think he’s committed to playing. He knows that this is it for him… We have all the ace bandages, the cream of Jesus [analgesic cream], the bio freeze,” head coach Jerry Stackhouse said. “We’re going to do everything we can to get him loose, get him stretched out, and hopefully he can come in and help us. “

Alongside Robbins and Chatman, the Commodores’ regular key players are healthy and ready to step up in the tournament. Vanderbilt’s star point guard Scotty Pippen Jr. was just named to the All-SEC First Team for the second consecutive season. He’ll be tasked with leading the charge offensively after putting forth one of his most complete performances of the season in the last game against Georgia: 23 points and 9 assists. 

Recently named SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year, Jordan Wright will share the offensive burden with Pippen Jr., hoping to build off a double-double in Vanderbilt’s last game against Ole Miss. As has been the case all season, Stackhouse told the media he will not be changing the rotation based on the matchup against Georgia. 

“We’re going to go with our older guys.” Stackhouse said of the team’s prospective rotation. “We’re gonna go with our guys that have been around. That’s the hierarchy around here.” 

With so much on the line, Vanderbilt cannot afford to overlook Georgia just because of their atrocious record in SEC play. Despite their abysmal conference record, Georgia was able to upset a respectable Alabama team just a few weeks ago. Their offense is led by sophomore guard Kario Oquendo, who paces the team with 15.4 points per game. Two other key players to look out for are senior guards Aaron Cook and Noah Baumann; both are dangerous offensive threats when hot from 3-point range.  

Stackhouse, who led the University of North Carolina to a conference championship as a player, is ready to guide Vanderbilt into the postseason. His leadership experience under similar circumstances will be essential in ensuring that the team stays grounded and focuses on one game at a time. 

“I just think for us it’s about focusing on the stuff within the game.” Stackhouse said. “Not getting so much into the next game or the next opponent but just trying to handle our business on a possession to possession basis.” 

The Commodores and Bulldogs will face off at 7 p.m. CST on Wednesday.