Garland, Shittu bring Memorial Magic back on opening night

Photo by Kevin Nguyen

“That’s what we came here for, to bring that spark back to Memorial Gym.”

Simisola Shittu, in one sentence, summed up exactly what made opening night so special for the Commodores.  It wasn’t necessarily his highlight dunks, or Darius Garland’s first half buzzer beater.  It was the atmosphere.  This is a new era in Vanderbilt basketball, and Memorial Magic, at least for one night, was back in full swing.

That’s just the aura that surrounds these two uber-talented freshmen.  Their basketball acumen is off the charts, but their passion for the game and for their fans is unmatched.  It was never more clear than after Shittu’s crossover led to a one-handed jam, when he flexed his muscles and riled up the crowd on his way back on defense.

The game wasn’t perfect for Vanderbilt, not by any stretch.  Undoubtedly, the nerves showed in the early minutes.  Vanderbilt fell victim to a nine-point deficit early in the first half thanks to some sloppy defense and poor shot selection.

But they adapted.  The offense started clicking, and the versatility showed.  For a team that’s fallen into a habit of passing around the perimeter until the shot clock ticks down to single digits in the past, the offense bared no resemblance last night.  This team got shots off, and got them off in bunches.  The Commodores hit their fair share of threes, but were never reliant on the long ball.  Garland and Shittu showed the ability to attack the basket at will and finish with both power and finesse around the rim.

Even before tipoff, Garland was the star of the show.  The hometown kid was met with thunderous applause in his pregame introduction.  He has already become one of the more popular players in the program’s history, and it’s easy to see why.

“A lot,” said Garland when asked how many friends and family he had at last night’s game.  “I didn’t even know about all of them.  I’d see a couple every other game, but this first game there was a lot of black and gold and I saw a lot of familiar faces.”

When asked about the pressure of being a hometown kid at a program not accustomed to having a player of his caliber, he quickly brushed the thought aside.

“Not at all,” he said.  “I’m here with my brothers.  I’m not worried about nothing else, just trying to win games.”

Garland’s play certainly backed up the hype, and he looked like the best player on the court all night en route to 24 points in his debut.  He just looked at ease with the ball in his hands, toying with Winthrop’s guards as if he had them on a string.  His quickness and ball-handling ability allowed him to create space on his own, and he used it to drain one jumper after another from the top of the key, including a step back buzzer-beater to end the first half that put Bjorn Broman in a spin cycle.

Garland used that jumper to open up the rest of his game.  When defenders would bite on his ball fake, he’d pivot, step through, and lay up a soft floater that just looked effortless.  His straight line drives would often result in free throws because the defense couldn’t stay in front of him.

It really looked like Garland was playing that game at a different speed than everyone around him.  He was just faster, digesting what was going on around him quicker than anyone else, sometimes even his own players.  Multiple times he fired passes off the hands of his teammates because they didn’t expect the ball in certain spots, but Garland got it to them.  Each bucket and each assist caused the crowd to erupt, and there will be a whole lot more to come this season.

Shittu didn’t look quite as polished as Garland, to be expected.  He is, of course, playing with a surgically-repaired ACL, but the talent just oozed out of him all night.  At the very start of the game, Shittu jumped the passing lane, led the break, and threw down the hammer on the other end.

At 6’10”, 240 lbs, he looked like a point guard in space.  He showed those skills off throughout the game, pulling down boards and just taking off with the ball.  He doesn’t need to find a guard on an outlet pass because he feels so comfortable leading the break himself.

“When Simi gets off the glass, everybody knows to run,” Garland said. “He’s going to find people or he’s going to hit a bucket.”

And he did hit buckets.  At one point in the first half, Shittu grabbed a rebound, went coast to coast, rose up, got hit, and used his body control to hit a floater.  He did it again just a few possessions later.  It was Giannis Antetokounmpo-esque, something you just don’t see often in the college game.

“Coach told me just to attack,” said Shittu.  “I’m bigger and stronger than them, so I guess I just got going from there.”

Shittu did show some shortcomings.  Chalk that up in large part to inexperience, and to the fact that he is in his first game back from injury.  He was a liability on defense for most of the night, looking reluctant to leap and contest shots at the rim.  The defense ran much more smoothly with Clevon Brown at the five, allowing Shittu to leave the paint and not be the primary rim protector.

He looked a bit out of control sometimes on offense too, trying to split double teams against smaller defenders that had no trouble picking his pocket.  But at the end of the day, 18 and 10 from the Commodore big man is nothing to scoff at.  Alongside Garland, he earned every one of those five stars last night.

Garland and Shittu weren’t the only ones who shined last night.  Contributions came from a number of guys on the roster, most notably from Matt Ryan.  Ryan’s shooting had been well advertised, but he exceeded expectations in his first game, putting up 16 points on four triples.

The most impressive part of Ryan’s game was the degree of difficulty on his shots.  These weren’t your average wide open corner threes.  On his solo nine-point run in the first half, Ryan hit three consecutive threes, the first with a hand in his face, the second on the move not squared up to the basket, and the third from beyond NBA-range.  In fact, he felt so hot that the next three he took was from nearly halfcourt.

Saben Lee quietly played excellently, with an efficient 12 points on 6-8 shooting to go along with five rebounds and five assists, and Joe Toye and Clevon Brown brought a veteran presence that allowed Vanderbilt to open up the game late in the first half and throughout the second.

Make no mistake about it, this is a different Vanderbilt basketball team this year.  And that’s a good thing for fans, because if the Commodores continue to play exciting basketball like they did last night, Memorial Magic will last a whole lot longer.

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