Previewing Vanderbilt’s SEC Tournament matchup with Arkansas

Arkansas blew Vanderbilt out in their first matchup, but Vanderbilt has gotten better since then, while Arkansas has regressed. Will it matter?

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Truman McDaniel

All-SEC Freshman Scotty Pippen Jr. brings the ball up in the Commodores matchup with Missouri on Feb. 26th.

Bryce Smith, Staff Writer

In just a few short weeks, the Vanderbilt Commodores have undergone a complete transformation. A team once desperate to break a historic losing streak, and subsequently prevent the growth of another, now enters Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday night with more confidence than its had in months. A look back at Vanderbilt’s performance at Rupp Arena six weeks ago sparks the inception of that transformation. Leading No. 13 Kentucky at the half and for a majority of the game, the Commodores pushed the Wildcats to the brink in what ended in a nine-point loss. Dylan Disu had a double-double. Saben Lee had 21 points on 8-13 shooting. 

From there on out, the formula changed for Coach Jerry Stackhouse. Lee was finding more open looks at the basket, and converting better from deep. Disu, Scotty Pippen Jr., Max Evans and Jordan Wright all had breakout games to complement him along the way. Vanderbilt snapped its SEC losing streak by beating LSU, then later won two in a row over Alabama and South Carolina to close out the season. On Tuesday, Lee was honored as a member of the second-team All-SEC squad and Pippen Jr. was tabbed an All-SEC freshman. 

Now, Vanderbilt has legitimate momentum on which to base confidence heading into their SEC Tournament matchup against the Arkansas Razorbacks after winning back-to-back SEC games. The latter of the two, last Saturday’s win over South Carolina, represented a microcosm of the progress Coach Stackhouse has made this season with Vanderbilt. In the first matchup in Columbia, the Gamecocks defeated the Commodores 90-64. Last weekend, Vanderbilt returned the favor, dominating the second half against South Carolina to close out the regular season on a high note, winning 83-74. This came off the heels of a Herculean effort from Lee (38 points on 14-20 shooting and 6-7 from 3-point range) at Alabama to secure Vanderbilt’s first road SEC win in two years.

As for the current matchup, Arkansas, once 14-2 and ranked, has the same record over their last 10 games as Vanderbilt at 3-7. They remain firmly on what is a weak NCAA Tournament bubble in 2020, but have been trending in the wrong direction since the beginning of February. They come into Bridgestone Arena in Nashville as the 11 seed at 19-12 in Eric Musselman’s first season at the helm in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks defeated the Commodores at home 75-55 on January 15. 

Arkansas features four guards averaging over 10 points a game in SEC co-player of the year Mason Jones (22.0 PPG), Isaiah Joe (16.8 PPG), Jimmy Whitt Jr. (14.1 PPG), and Desi Sills (10.3 PPG). Limiting both Jones and primary counterparts Joe (34% from three) and Whitt Jr. (30 points in the first matchup) will obviously be easier said than done, but it will be a big key for Vanderbilt defensively as Arkansas isn’t especially deep beyond their “Big Four”, only rotating eight players at most. 

As for the defensive end, the Razorbacks were elite at two things over the course of the regular season: limiting three pointers and generating steals. In SEC play, however (Arkansas played just the 136st hardest out of conference schedule), their overall defensive numbers decrease. The Razorbacks still sit top four in both opponent three point percentage and steal rate, but were lacking in some areas that should have Coach Stackhouse licking his chops. They were 12th or worse in SEC play in offensive rebounding percentage, free throw rate, two-point field goal percentage and blocks, according to KenPom. For a Vanderbilt team that isn’t especially big, both the rebounding and block figures from Arkansas play to Stackhouse’s strengths. And the Razorbacks’ inability to both stop two-point buckets and limit fouls as of late could lead to a strong day for both Saben Lee and Scotty Pippen Jr., who have been two of the league’s best at getting to the rim and generating contact.

Wednesday’s matchup could actually provide some juice to the opening round of the SEC Tournament with two teams trending in opposite directions and Vanderbilt looking to pop another rival’s NCAA tournament bubble. This game might just be a shootout. But the Commodores have thrived in those types of games during the conference season. When they’ve managed to score 75 points or more in SEC play, the Commodores have narrowly lost at undefeated Auburn, beaten No. 18 LSU, lost at the buzzer to Georgia, and beaten Alabama and South Carolina. Both teams will be hungry, but the Commodores are on a two-game winning streak and look poised to make some noise in Nashville on Wednesday night. If they win, they’ll earn a rubber match with South Carolina on Thursday. 

Tipoff tonight will be 30 minutes after the conclusion of Georgia vs. Ole Miss, which begins at 6:00 CT.

*All Statistics via KenPom