Vanderbilt searches for answers with Garland sidelined

Garland exited Friday's game against Kent State with a meniscus injury. (photo by Shun Ahmed)

Thanksgiving break didn’t end so well for Vanderbilt Basketball.

Darius Garland, Vanderbilt’s five-star freshman point guard who had helped lead the Commodores to four straight wins to open up the season, left Friday’s game against Kent State with a meniscus injury, the team announced Saturday morning.

It is unclear how much time Garland will miss, but the team has said he will be out indefinitely. Fortunately for the Commodores, according to Rivals.com, Garland is expected to return at some point this season and may not miss more than a few weeks.

Garland left Friday’s loss to Kent State just minutes into the contest, hitting a driving left-handed layup before falling awkwardly. After limping through the ensuing defensive possession, he was taken out of the game and into the locker room, returning to the bench in the second half in street clothes. He is still undergoing tests to get a clearer diagnosis.

Even if Garland returns in a matter of weeks, make no mistake about it: this is still a major loss for the Commodores. Garland has been the team’s best player to start the season, averaging 19.8 points on 53% shooting before sustaining the injury. This came just a few nights after he dropped 33 points on Liberty, the second-highest total for a freshman in Vanderbilt history.

Maxwell Evans and Saben Lee shared point guard duties in his stead, but the offense didn’t have remotely the same flow. At times, it remained completely stagnant, resulting in low-percentage looks, and Vanderbilt fell 77-75 to a far inferior Kent State team. The most glaring issue in Garland’s absence, however, was the lack of perimeter shooting.

The 6’2” freshman ranked first on the team in three-point percentage, shooting 48% from beyond the arc, and that’s something Vanderbilt will struggle to replace in the coming weeks. Matt Ryan and Joe Toye were still viable threats against Kent State, but neither possess the ability to shoot off the dribble quite like Garland, and without his penetration to create kick outs and standstill threes, the Commodore wings seldom found themselves with open looks. The team went just 5-18 from three, its worst clip of the season so far.

Heading into the heat of non-conference play, Bryce Drew is going to need to dial up a gameplan to alleviate the absence of his team’s star point guard. North Carolina State, Arizona State, and Kansas State all possess top talent at the guard position, and Vanderbilt’s backcourt will have a tall task ahead of them.

Luckily, the Commodores have something to hang their hat on following the loss, and that’s pace. Without Garland to run the offense in the halfcourt, Vanderbilt looked to run often, pushing the ball and scoring in transition. This helped them get to the line and attempt 27 free throws. Of course, the Commodores hit just 16 of those 27, losing the free throw battle by a tremendous amount, most notably in key moments, but that’s more than fixable.

The combination of Lee, Toye, and forward Simi Shittu looked comfortable running the break and finishing strong, and now with a solid perimeter defender to force turnovers in Maxwell Evans, those breaks might come more often.

Evans is one guy who will see his time on the court skyrocket. He played a season-high 21 minutes on Friday, and while he scored eight points and played well on the perimeter defensively, the rust was palpable. The sophomore from Houston, Texas blew a wide open layup in the first half and missed some key free throws down the stretch.

With Evans still adjusting to his new role, and only three viable guards on the roster, the best medicine for Vanderbilt is probably size. With little depth at guard, expect a lot of lineups that feature Shittu at the four, giving him more freedom to handle the ball. Clevon Brown and Matthew Moyer have looked strong defending in the post, especially when Drew has gone to a zone defense. Instead of completely filling Garland’s role, Drew might look to shift each player’s individual role, playing a bigger lineup and switching to a zone for longer stretches.

For now, the Commodores look to right the ship against a Savannah State team on Tuesday. It’s a game that will serve as a warmup for the non-conference gauntlet that Vanderbilt will face in the month of December, and they’ll likely have to go through it without their star.

More information on Garland’s injury will be provided as it is released, but for now, Vanderbilt needs to survive without him. It’s next-man-up for Bryce Drew and his team.

We’ll see if they can answer the call.

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