One More Stop to MSG: Commodores to battle Xavier in NIT Quarterfinals

After beating Dayton in Round 2 of the NIT, the Commodores will head to Xavier, where a bid to the semifinals in New York City is on the line.


Barrie Barto

Vanderbilt center Quentin Millora-Brown goes up for a dunk in the Commodores’ win over Dayton on March 20, 2022. (Hustler Multimedia/Barrie Barto)

Justin Hershey, Sports Editor

The Vanderbilt Commodores (19-16) have concluded their home schedule. But there is more basketball to be played for a squad eagerly in search of 20 victories.

On Tuesday, the Commodores will travel to Cincinnati to take on the Xavier Musketeers (20-13) in the quarterfinals of the National Invitation Tournament. The teams will jockey for a chance to play at the mecca of basketball—Madison Square Garden—in the semifinals next week.

“We know that it’s a big stage and it’s there,” head coach Jerry Stackhouse said Monday of the chance for his team to play in New York City. “But for us, not getting ahead of ourselves, just trying to focus on doing what we need to do possession by possession [is most important].”

While Vanderbilt’s head coach will try not to let his team get ahead of themselves, the potential for another significant milestone will be in the works on Tuesday—the chance for 20 victories.

After finishing with losing records the past four seasons, Stackhouse’s group has already secured a winning record for the first time since 2016-17. But with a win on Tuesday, in his third year on West End, Stackhouse would solidify the program’s most victories since the 2014-15 season.

“From where we started and where we have grown since we began, that would be a nice milestone. It would be a good feather in everybody’s cap, especially our guys’,” Stackhouse said. “To improve enough to win 20 games—I still don’t like the 16 losses—but it’s a lot of games when you think about it.”

To get the chance for 20 wins, Vanderbilt has had to battle its way through local rival Belmont and the tournament’s No. 1 seed, the Dayton Flyers. In an overtime thriller that surfaced energy not seen in Memorial Gymnasium for quite a few years, Vanderbilt guard Scotty Pippen Jr. led his team to a huge victory.

With 32 points, seven assists and a remarkable zero turnovers in 43 minutes, he was able to propel the Commodores to a 70-68 win in what might be his final game at Memorial should he elect to pursue professional basketball after this year.

Pippen Jr. will no doubt be the focal point once again on Tuesday against Xavier. All season the All-SEC First-Teamer has shown an ability to score against even the best of competition. But lately, it’s been his unselfishness that has helped Vanderbilt tally wins. Over his last five games he has 28 assists to just seven turnovers. And although his shooting numbers have tapered, he was able to break the Commodores’ single-season scoring record on Sunday by tallying over 700 points in one season.

Pippen Jr. and his teammates are not unfamiliar with this Xavier squad. During the preseason, the teams competed in a closed-door scrimmage that Vanderbilt reportedly won. Stackhouse was quick to point out that both teams have evolved tremendously since that October meet-up and that Xavier will likely be shorthanded. Guard Paul Scruggs, who takes over 21% of the Musketeers’ shots, injured his knee in their Round 2 win over Florida and will likely be inactive for Tuesday’s tilt.

“They are still playing inspired basketball. Unfortunately, Scruggs got hurt last night and you hate to see that for anybody,” Stackhouse said. “But they finished out the game strong and they are still going to be very tough for us. We need to come out with the approach of doing what we need to do on both ends of the floor.”

Xavier tore through its nonconference schedule, and entered Big East play 10-1, but underperformed in what was a very difficult conference. A one-game exit from the Big East Tournament prevented any hopes of an NCAA Tournament bid and soon after, the university announced it would part ways with head coach Travis Steele. It didn’t take long for the Musketeers to tap former Arizona head coach Sean Miller as their next head coach, but in the interim, it will be Jonas Hayes manning the sidelines.

Without a true head coach and likely one of their most important players, Xavier will bring a bit of uncertainty to Tuesday’s matchup. What Vanderbilt can count on, however, is that the Musketeers will play a physical brand of basketball predicated on scoring on the interior.

Three-pointers account for just 27% of Xavier’s shot attempts. Instead, forwards Jack Nunge and Zach Freemantle will look to pound the ball inside for shots. Even without Scruggs, the Musketeers boast four players who average double figures, making the interior presences of Liam Robbins and Quentin Millora-Brown that much more important.

Both are coming off of timely performances against Dayton. Millora-Brown registered a team-high plus-18 while on the floor, cleaning the glass at both ends and doing all the little things to help Vanderbilt win. Robbins, who has been battling a mild sprained ankle, emerged off the bench when Millora-Brown fouled out and came up with the game-winning basket and game-saving block at the other end.

Xavier and Vanderbilt both advanced in the NIT thanks to wins on Sunday but it’s Vanderbilt that may come into this game more drained. Both Pippen Jr. and Rodney Chatman played over 40 minutes in Sunday’s overtime win over Dayton, and Tuesday’s game will mark Vanderbilt’s sixth postseason game in just 13 days. 

The teams also sport contrasting playstyles—Vanderbilt’s average possession lasts 18 seconds, one of the slower marks in the nation. On the other side, Xavier works quickly and averages 16.6 seconds per possession. Whichever team can demand the pace and flow of the game may be headed for Madison Square Garden.

Tipoff is set for 8 p.m. CDT on ESPN from the Cintas Center in Xavier.