The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

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.

Vanderbilt returns home for another Top-25 test against Arkansas

Vanderbilt has played better as of late, but it hasn’t resulted in wins. As the Commodores continue to figure out their rotation can they finally get over the hump?
Vanderbilt Athletics
Liam Robbins surveys the court against Missouri on January 7, 2023 (Vanderbilt Athletics).

Just over a year ago, on January 4, 2022, to be exact, Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball went into Bud Walton arena and came out with its best win of the season. Behind the heroics of the now-departed Rodney Chatman, the Commodores etched out a 75-74 win over a Razorback squad that would go on to play in the Elite 8 in March. Until last Wednesday (an 84-69 defeat at the hands of Alabama), it was the last time a team had come out of Fayetteville victorious. 

Much has changed since last January 4 for both squads. In addition to Chatman’s departure, Vanderbilt (8-8, 1-2 SEC) lost do-everything point guard Scotty Pippen Jr., as well as its entire freshman class to the portal. Jerry Stackhouse responded by reeling in five new freshmen and two transfers. 

Quentin Millora-Brown goes up for a block against Arkansas in Vanderbilt's win on Jan. 4, 2021.
Quentin Millora-Brown goes up for a block against Arkansas in Vanderbilt’s win on Jan. 4, 2021. (Vanderbilt Athletics) (Vanderbilt Athletics)

Arkansas (12-4, 1-3) saw Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball’s offseason attrition and raised them to the tune of six incoming freshmen and five transfers. Even in the new era of the transfer portal and NIL, head coach Eric Musselman’s latest roster overhaul is extreme. 

Among the Razorbacks’ 11 new faces is Nick Smith, the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2022, per 247Sports. Anthony Black (No. 17 overall) and Jordan Walsh (No. 19) combine with Smith to headline a prep class that finished No. 2 in the nation when all was said and done. 

Musselman’s transfer crop didn’t lag far behind, finishing as the No. 6 class in the country according to 247Sports. Ricky Council, who came from Wichita State, leads the team in both points (17.9) and minutes (35.4) per game. He’s joined in the starting lineup by Rhode Island transfer Makhi Mitchell, whose twin Makhel is also on the roster. 

Despite the plethora of personnel changes, stylistically, the Razorbacks remain the same. As has become customary under Musselman, Arkansas butters its bread on the defensive end of the floor, coming into this matchup as the No. 11 ranked team in defensive efficiency per KenPom. Thus far, the Razorbacks have proven to be elite at cleaning the boards, generating turnovers and blocking shots at the rim. 

“They’re a young team. They’re a very, very talented team. Council has been one of the best players in the SEC this year,” Stackhouse told the media about Arkansas on Thursday afternoon. 

On the court, though, the Razorbacks have limped out of the gates in SEC play. Through its first four games, Arkansas has amassed just one win: a six-point win at home over Missouri. Losses at LSU and Auburn and against Alabama certainly aren’t resume-killers by any means, but, for a program looking to make its third straight Elite 8, expectations are elevated. 

One reason for the struggles? Arkansas is shooting just 28.4% from deep, a figure that rates them No. 345 nationally. As the offense has teetered, the defense has slipped as well. Double-digit losses in each of their past two games encapsulate the Razorbacks’ funk as of late and lend themselves to the idea that the Hogs will be hungry come Saturday. 

Vanderbilt, for its part, should be hungry as well, coming off back-to-back close losses against ranked opponents. The Commodores will return to Memorial Gymnasium for the first time in nine days and look to defend home court versus Arkansas. 

Undoubtedly, Vanderbilt has played better of late — the Commodores fought until the bitter end in Columbia against No. 20 Mizzou on Saturday and led at halftime against No. 5 Tennessee on Tuesday. The next step is translating those performances into wins on the schedule. 

“We’ve given ourselves a chance,” Stackhouse said. “We’ve just got to be a little sharper in our execution, a little tougher on our rebounding and make a couple more shots. I think our guys feel good about how we’re playing, for the most part.” 

Part of that resurgence of late for Vanderbilt has been the infusion of the youngsters in the lineup. Offensively, Noah Shelby has provided a boost with 18 points over the Commodores’ last two games — all via the deep ball. 

His high school teammate Lee Dort made his presence known against the Volunteers on Tuesday, notching eight points, two offensive rebounds and a block in just eight minutes off the bench. 

Last, but not least of the Texas trio, Colin Smith has nudged his way into the starting lineup in each of the last five games and knocked down a pair of big triples against Mizzou on Saturday. Even as his scoring has come and gone during his young freshman campaign, Smith’s constant energy and NBA height have been a welcome upgrade for Vanderbilt. 

As Vanderbilt continues to sort through a deep rotation, the freshmen will likely (and should likely) assert themselves as contributors on this squad. Alongside them, the Commodores have turned to veterans Liam Robbins (13.2 points per game), Jordan Wright (10.6) and Ezra Manjon (8.8) as the most consistent sources of production. 

Jordan Wright celebrates a made 3-pointer against South Carolina on January 3, 2023 (Vanderbilt Athletics).
Jordan Wright celebrates a made 3-pointer against South Carolina on January 3, 2023 (Vanderbilt Athletics). (Vanderbilt Athletics)

With students returning from winter break, the Commodores will look for a bit of Memorial Magic on Saturday as they go up against the No. 15 ranked Razorbacks (AP Poll). Arkansas’s depth and length, the Razorbacks feature just one player under 6’5 (Davonte Davis) in its rotation, who will pose issues for Vanderbilt. The ability of Stackhouse’s group to respond to those challenges and stay within themselves — that is limit turnovers, slow the tempo and take and make the 3 — will be a key factor in determining the outcome of this one. 

Vanderbilt and Arkansas will square off Vanderbilt and Missouri will tip off at 1 p.m. CST at Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville on Saturday, Jan. 14. 

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About the Contributor
Bryce Smith, Former Sports Editor
Bryce Smith ('23) is majoring in human and organizational development in Peabody College with a minor in business. Bryce previously wrote for SBNation before joining The Hustler. Hailing from Chicago, Bryce is a die-hard Bears and Cubs fan who is also hoping that the Bulls and Blackhawks may one day rekindle their dominance. He can be reached at [email protected].    
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