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The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

A Nashville Showdown: Vanderbilt hosts neighbor Belmont in the first round of the NIT

After an impressive showing in the SEC Tournament, it’s tournament time in Nashville. The crosstown Bruins come to Memorial Gym for the Commodores’ first postseason game since 2017.
Rodney+Chatman+surveys+the+floor+in+Vanderbilts+home+contest+against+South+Carolina+on+Jan.+8%2C+2021.
Vanderbilt Athletics
Rodney Chatman surveys the floor in Vanderbilt’s home contest against South Carolina on Jan. 8, 2021. (Vanderbilt Athletics)

Following a 35-point dismantling of the Georgia Bulldogs (6-26), an upset over the Alabama Crimson Tide (19-13) and a hard-fought 77-71 loss to the Kentucky Wildcats (26-7), the Vanderbilt Commodores (17-16) will play postseason basketball for the first time since 2017. 

Although missing out on a bid for the NCAA Tournament, the Commodores earned the No. 4 seed in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT). For their first playoff game in five years, Vanderbilt will host the Belmont Bruins (25-7) in a battle of Nashville, at 6 p.m. CDT on Tuesday at Memorial Gymnasium.

The NIT

The National Invitational Tournament (NIT) is a 32-team tournament consisting of teams that are just on the outside of receiving an NCAA Tournament bid. The 32 teams are divided into four smaller bracket regions, where the eight teams are seeded based on regular-season play. In the 2022 NIT, games up until the semifinals will be hosted by the higher-seeded team. The semifinals and championship games will take place on March 29 and March 31, respectively, at Madison Square Garden.

Vanderbilt will play as the No. 4 seed in the top left portion of the bracket. The rest of this quadrant is rounded out by No. 1 Dayton, No. 2 Xavier, No. 3 Florida, No. 5 Belmont, No. 6 Iona, No. 7 Cleveland State and No. 8 Toledo. 

Vanderbilt interestingly draws the neighboring No. 5 Belmont Bruins in the first round. Despite being located a mile apart, the two teams play sparingly—their last matchup was in 2017, a 69-60 Belmont victory. The Commodores are 5-1 against Belmont overall, winning all five matchups prior to the most recent.

Vanderbilt should not expect a traditional home crowd at Memorial Gym, as this matchup is a truly high-stakes intra-city game. Vanderbilt head coach Jerry Stackhouse echoed this excitement for his first playoff run with Vanderbilt, and specifically the Nashville showdown.

“I think our staff is really excited about preparing for them, having to play a local team, a really good team in Belmont,” Stackhouse said. “These guys know each other well, we scheduled those guys to have workouts in the summer and scrimmage each other. They frequent a lot of the same local places around here and know each other, it should make for a real fun environment, but hopefully a competitive one we step up to.”

The Vanderbilt Commodores

Despite limping towards a modest 15-15 record before the SEC Tournament, the Commodores showed resilience amidst big injuries to starters Liam Robbins and Rodney Chatman. Vanderbilt notched a huge 75-74 road win at Arkansas (25-8) to begin 2022 and also knocked off the LSU Tigers (22-11) 75-66 at home on Feb. 5.

The pinnacle of the Commodores’ regular season came in the SEC Tournament where Chatman returned to action. With their starting lineup finally healthy, Vanderbilt obliterated Georgia in the first round 86-51, while making a scorching 16 3s. The excitement did not stop there as the Commodores completed a 15-point comeback victory over Alabama the next day. Sophomore forward Myles Stute was red-hot in the victory, canning 6 of 10 from beyond the arc. Although ending the tournament with a 77-71 loss to Kentucky, the Commodores showed great fight and led by as much as seven in the second half against a team with a chance to win the NCAA Tournament. 

Vanderbilt may have had too many losses against not-great teams, such as South Carolina and Florida, but with some impressive victories, the Selection Committee sent Vanderbilt to the NIT as a solid No. 4 seed. 

Vanderbilt’s roster is coming together at the right time. The ideal starting lineup—consisting of guards Scotty Pippen Jr. and Chatman, forwards Stute and Jordan Wright, and center Robbins—is finally on the court. After 32 hard minutes against Kentucky, culminating a stretch of three games in three days, Stackhouse silenced any doubts regarding Chatman’s status and the health of his hamstring.

“He came out okay, obviously just a little tight,” Stackhouse said. “It’s just about the recovery. He won’t do a lot today, we’re just going to save him as much as we can for the actual game.”

The Commodores, however, will miss sharpshooting guard Trey Thomas, who’s still nursing a hamstring injury suffered against Alabama. Given a tournament run though, Stackhouse is hopeful for his return.

Fortunately for the Commodores, many of All-SEC First Teamer Pippen Jr.’s teammates are stepping up. Despite the loss, Wright, the SEC’s Scholar-Athlete of the Year, kept Vanderbilt toe-to-toe with Kentucky with a blistering 10-for-12 from the field, 5-for-6 from 3 and 27 points. The Commodores will look to use Wright in a multitude of ways, from the post to the 3-point line, giving his versatile skillset.

On defense, the interior combination of Robbins and Quentin Millora-Brown continues to stifle opponents. Against Kentucky, Robbins and Millora-Brown gave SEC Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe a difficult time. The dominating big man was held to only 12 points and 14 rebounds, both below his season averages. 

This strength for Vanderbilt is of particular importance against Belmont as the Bruins lead the nation in 2-point field goal percentage, at 61%. The Commodores will have to display their previous effort to contain Belmont star center Nick Muszynski, who averages 16 points on 56.8% shooting.

Coming from an uncharacteristically off night, shooting 2-for-17 vs. Kentucky, Pippen Jr. remains the focal point for the Commodore offense. The junior guard has single-handedly willed the team at times, and his all-around offensive prowess gives the Commodores a chance any given night. Opponents have a tough time with Pippen Jr. single-covered, and Belmont may not be able to play another way defensively, with Vanderbilt’s supporting cast stepping up recently. 

The Belmont Bruins

The Bruins boast an impressive 25-7 overall record, good for second best in the Ohio Valley Conference, behind Murray State (30-2). Being in a non-Power Five conference, the Bruins have blown out much of their competition throughout the season, including 25-plus-point victories over Tennessee State, Eastern Illinois and Lipscomb. 

While making a case to be an NCAA Tournament team with many victories, the Bruins have struggled mightily against decent competition. Belmont imploded 83-53 against LSU, a team Vanderbilt beat, and also fell twice to Murray State, and three times to Morehead State, including in the semifinals of the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament. 

Belmont’s weak competition was not enough to grant an at-large NCAA Tournament bid but sufficed for a No. 5 seed in the NIT. 

Belmont’s claim to fame is their previously mentioned nation-leading 61% shooting inside the arc. Led by Muszynski and guard Ben Sheppard, the Bruin offense outscores their opponents by 10 on average. 

Sheppard will look to exploit the Commodore defense that will have their hands full with Muszynski down low. While the Commodores dialed in on Tshiebwe in the Kentucky game, guard Tyty Washington Jr. had a field day with 25 points on 8-for-17 shooting. Sheppard hopes to have similar success and find open looks from 3 to propel the Bruin offense.

The Bruins have had a clean season with respect to injuries, and will be operating at full strength for this matchup. Remarkably, the entire starting lineup has only missed four starts over the whole season.

Both teams seek to advance to the round of 16 for a date with Dayton or Toledo. For the Bruins, the one-two punch of Muszynski and Sheppard will look to catalyze a high-octane offense. For the Commodores, the well-rounded nature of the team may prove too much for Belmont to handle. Vanderbilt’s first postseason game in five years, a matchup against Belmont, will have Memorial Gym rocking with fans of both sides and create memorable Nashville storylines.

“I think it’s great for the city. It’s warming up, hopefully everyone comes out and supports,” Stackhouse said. “We’re looking forward to having an energized crowd to really help our guys. It should be a great environment and it’s really good for our city.”

The teams will tip things off on Tuesday at 6 p.m. CDT.

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About the Contributor
Adam Weiss, Former Staff Writer
Adam Weiss (2024) is a sophomore from Colts Neck, N.J., in the College of Arts and Science. He is studying economics and math with a minor in data science. Adam is currently a staff writer for the Sports section. In his free time, he loves to play basketball and golf, while also hoping his New York Giants and Knicks can turn it around.
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