2019-20 Vanderbilt Basketball schedule preview

Vanderbilt basketball's new regime looks to change the direction of the program after a winless SEC season.

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2019-20 Vanderbilt Basketball schedule preview

Photo by Emily Gonçalves

Photo by Emily Gonçalves

Photo by Emily Gonçalves

Photo by Emily Gonçalves

Jesse Goldman

Last year the Vanderbilt Commodores were winless in SEC conference play (0-18), and were (9-23) overall. Four of those nine wins came in the four games future fifth overall pick Darius Garland played before sustaining an injury that would sideline him for the rest of the season. This was the first time in SEC history that a team ever finished (0-18) in conference play, and it cost Head Coach Bryce Drew his job. 

With the hire of former NBA All-Star Jerry Stackhouse to lead the program, Athletic Director Malcom Turner is publicly attempting to revitalize Commodore basketball. With only one senior on the roster, Stackhouse will work with a roster anchored around junior Saben Lee and sophomore Aaron Nesmith, the team’s two leading scorers a season ago. The lack of upper class experience also leaves opportunity for the 48th ranked recruiting class headlined by Dylan Disu and Scotty Pippen Jr., to step in and play right away. 

Last week, Vanderbilt Basketball announced its 2019-20 basketball schedule, one with a relatively soft non-conference slate to prepare a young team for the SEC gauntlet. Here’s a look at the schedule, still more than a month out from opening tipoff.

Non-Conference Play

Vanderbilt begins the season with 14 games against non-conference opponents, none of which belong to a Power Five conference. These are likely all games Vanderbilt expects to be competitive in, and with the majority of these games at home, they’ll have the opportunity to win most of them. 

Easier non-conference games provide Stackhouse with the perfect opportunity to expose his freshmen to collegiate basketball before hitting more difficult conference play. With a new schematic system and a plethora of young players, it’s going take some time to get the players comfortable and clicking on all cylinders. 

By the time the Commodores head to the Basketball Hall of Fame Showcase to take on Loyola-Chicago in Phoenix, Arizona in mid-December, fans can expect that the on-the-court product to be what the team will look like entering league play. A few more non-league games after the tournament will give Stackhouse the opportunity to finetune some things before the league opener against Auburn in January. 

League Play

The format of SEC play is fairly simple. Each team plays 18 league games. All 13 teams will be played at least once. Each team in the SEC has three permanent opponents, meaning they will always play them twice. Vanderbilt’s permanent opponents are Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida. The final two games are cycled through the rest of the teams in the league on a rotating basis. 

Because of the difference in skill between Vanderbilt and many of the other SEC teams, and the commonality of all teams appearing on the schedule, no individual game sticks out as particularly notable from an overhead view. Therefore, games matter for the aforementioned factors of recruiting, experience and recognition. 

Key Recruiting Games

Tennessee – (Home) Saturday, Jan. 18, 6PM, SECN

Coaches like to bring in their biggest recruiting targets for marquee games that present a great in-stadium atmosphere and gameday experience. This Saturday night game against Tennessee may be one of the few times Memorial Gymnasium is guaranteed to be packed, and therefore is an ideal opportunity to show off Vanderbilt to high school players who have yet to commit to a school. Tennessee is coming off one of the best seasons in its history, and the Volunteers are the closest thing Vanderbilt has to an intense rivalry. 

Fans flocked Memorial Gym for last season’s instant classic against Tennessee which resulted in an 88-83 overtime loss. (Photo by Emily Gonçalves)

Georgia – (Home) Saturday Feb. 22, 6PM, SECN

Similar to the Tennessee game, Georgia presents another weekend night game that would allow recruits to spend the day on campus and then attend the event. The added aspect here is that besides Vanderbilt, Georgia was the worst team in the SEC last year with only two conference wins. This is a highly winnable game for the Commodores, which would leave recruits feeling optimistic about the future of the Vanderbilt program.

Key Experience Games

Auburn – (Road) Wednesday Jan. 8, 9PM, SECN

The Commodores begin their SEC season on the road against the Auburn Tigers. The Tigers are coming off a loss in the Final Four to Virginia, but they lost their three highest scorers to the NBA draft or graduation. All three players — Bryce Brown, Jared Harper and Chuma Okeke — were exceptional 3-point shooters. Auburn developed a game plan centered around their shooting ability which enabled them to go on lethal runs that could put teams away in the first half. 

Auburn Head Coach Bruce Pearl has proved to be one of the best coaches in the country, overperforming his talent, and will most likely be the best coach the Vanderbilt Freshmen have ever played against. Lee and Nesmith will be relied on to carry the Commodores through this game, as the freshmen will likely experience gameplanning they have never before faced exploiting their weaknesses both offensively and defensively. Although this will be an immense challenge, it will only make the young players better. 

Kentucky – (Road) Wednesday Jan. 21, 6:30PM, SECN

While the opening game at Auburn should have a raucous atmosphere, the basketball appeal at a primarily football school is no match for Lexington. This will be Vanderbilt’s first game of the 2019-20 season in a prime college basketball environment. Rupp Arena at Kentucky will be a sea of blue, and this reconstructed roster and Stackhouse will get their first taste of what NCAA basketball has to offer at its highest level. Kentucky will open the season ranked #2 in the country, and has expectations of a second National Championship under John Calipari. 

Tennessee – (Road) Tuesday Feb. 18, 6:30PM, SECN 

This is a road rivalry game for Vanderbilt, but what is most important here is that this game is the second game in three days on the road. After playing Florida in Gainesville on Sunday with an 8PM start, the Commodores will have a quick turnaround, making their way to Knoxville for another tough matchup.

This is the first of two back-to-backs Vanderbilt will play this season. Teams are statistically worse at the end of road trips and also more likely to get injured when playing games so close together, so it will be interesting to watch how the younger players respond to a new travel experience. 

Key Recognition Games

Kentucky – (Home) Tuesday Feb. 12, 7PM, ESPN

When Kentucky plays basketball, people watch. Coach John Calipari leads one of the nation’s most renowned programs, famous for building off highly ranked one-and-done Freshmen. This game occurs in February, which is right around the time more people start tuning into college basketball in preparation for the NCAA tournament. This game will be broadcast on ESPN Super Tuesday, giving the team its first appearance of the year on national television. 

Vanderbilt looks to beat Kentucky for the first time since 2016 when they face off twice this upcoming season. Photo by Madison Lindeman.

Missouri – (Home) Wednesday Feb. 26, 9PM, ESPN

This is Vanderbilt’s only other national television appearance before the SEC Tournament, and once again it comes on ESPN. Coming relatively close to the end of the regular season, the chance to beat Missouri at home will give Vanderbilt the opportunity to display the improvement they have made throughout the season.   

In a year with lower expectations than usual for Vanderbilt basketball, these games will provide a better view of the state of the program than the record will. With four-star Notre Dame transfer D.J. Harvey gaining eligibility next season, and another year of recruiting from Stackhouse, the 2019-20 season is the perfect time to lay the foundation for a quick turnaround by the start of the 2020-21 season.

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