NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The next phase in the growth of Vanderbilt basketball in the Jerry Stackhouse Era takes place at 6 p.m. Tuesday inside Memorial Gymnasium where the Commodores will play a postseason game for the first time with their third-year head coach.
Vandy hosts cross-town rival Belmont in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament, a matchup that holds significant weight for Stackhouse’s program in the larger scheme of things.
“We play the game to win and have success. We had some growing pains, obviously some moments where we feel like we let some things slip away, but it’s part of our process. We’re where we’re supposed to be,” Stackhouse said. “It’s a good step for us, a good opportunity for us to have something to play for over this three-year period that we’ve been here that we’ve worked for and had the support for what we’re trying to do.”
Vanderbilt finished the regular season 15-15 before going 2-1 at the SEC Tournament in Tampa, Florida. A 77-71 loss to Kentucky ended Vandy’s titles hopes, but didn’t ruin its inclusion in this week’s 32-team NIT.
Six wins against teams considered Quad 1 and/or Quad 2 and a solid strength of schedule gave the Commodores a nice-looking resume through 33 games. Now they hope to reset, regroup and start a new chapter that in what has become a defining campaign for Stackhouse.
“It’s a lot of fun for our guys. A lot of work has gone in to it from a lot of people, from administration to our staff. Super excited for them, but really ecstatic for our guys and their families,” Stackhouse said. “Our goal was the NCAA (Tournament), but we’re super thankful that the NIT has a platform for teams like us, that feel like we’re an NCAA team but didn’t quite make it.”
Belmont travels down the road to play inside Memorial Gymnasium for the first time since 2016 — and the Bruins have had a sensational season.
Led by head coach Casey Alexander, the Bruins (25-7) have had winning streaks of eight and 10 this season. They fell short of an Ohio Valley Conference Tournament championship by losing 53-51 to Morehead State in Evansville, Indiana, on Friday.
Junior guard Ben Sheppard (16.4 ppg) and senior center Nick Muszynski (15.9 ppg) lead the Belmont offensive attack. The Bruins as a team are among the nation’s best in assists per game, shooting, steals per game and the fewest fouls per game.
“ ‘Big M’ is a problem down there that we’re aware of and we’ve got to account for him. We see guys like that (in the SEC) that are bridges. That will help us prepare with some of the things that they do,” Stackhouse said of Muszynski. “Even though they haven’t shot I as well as they have in previous years, all that stuff is out of the window right now.
“It’s a local game with guys that know each other. They come over here and play, we go over there and play. They got some familiarity with this gym. We got to defend them. That’s what we have to do, not only just on the interior, but I still think they’re a very dangerous team from 3. They take good shots and they move the ball well. It’s an older team that knows how to play and we have to make sure that we have the poise and put our imprint and our identity on the game the way that we’ve been doing in our most recent games.”
Vanderbilt’s appearance in the NIT marks its 28th postseason berth and 13th in the NIT. The Commodores, in the postseason for the first time since 2017, is 20-11 all-time in the NIT and last played in the event in 2015.
Should Vandy win Tuesday it would advance to face the winner of Dayton-Toledo on Saturday or Sunday.
• Vanderbilt junior Scotty Pippen Jr. (1,507) is 14th on Vanderbilt’s all-time scoring list. Barry Goheen (1,509) is 13th.
• Pippen Jr. has 666 points this season, the fourth-most in a single Vanderbilt season and the third-most by a junior in a single Vanderbilt season.
• Pippen could still become the first SEC player to average at least 20 points per game in consecutive seasons since Ronnie Henderson of LSU did so from 1994-96.
• Jordan Wright has started 38 straight games for Vanderbilt.
• The Commodores are 5-1 all-time against Belmont with the Bruins’ lone win coming in 2017 at Belmont.
• Vandy is 4-0 against the Bruins all-time at home.
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.