NASHVILLE, Tenn. — This time of year, winning basketball can be as much about effort as it is execution.
That’s what Vanderbilt head coach Jerry Stackhouse is concerned with ahead of a 6 p.m. Wednesday matchup with Texas A&M in the opening game of the SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena.
“I want to see us win the hustle points, win the defections, win the 50-50 balls, win the rebounding,” he said. “I think if we win the free-throw game, if we’re able to come out and find a way to be ahead at the end of those 40 minutes in those categories it’s going to give us a great chance to win the game.”
The Commodores (8-15) enter the week as the No. 12 seed in a 13-team field which will crown a champion Sunday. Stackhouse said he and his squad are champing at the bit to start the second season – the first season being unlike any other Vandy or their competitors have experienced.
Vanderbilt was actually one of two teams to last play an SEC Tournament game when it lost to Arkansas on March 11. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything since.
“(The 2020-21 season) has definitely has been challenge for everyone. We’re just ecstatic to have an opportunity to get back out there and compete,” Stackhouse said. “We weren’t even sure there was going to be a season with how abruptly things ended last year and dealing with a global pandemic.
“We’re just thankful for the opportunity and to have everybody healthy. It’s great to be able to get out there and compete and for our guys to be able to have a chance showcase themselves.”
Vandy is 3-5 in its last eight games and 2-2 in its last four. It played just six nonconference games before the start of the SEC slate, lost Tyrin Lawrence for the season due to injury, shuffled starting lineups 17 times and, just last month, lost top rebounder and SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year in Dylan Disu due to injury.
Yet Stackhouse has still seen flashes of brilliance from All-SEC sophomore point guard Scotty Pippen Jr., sophomore guard Jordan Wright, senior guard Maxwell Evans and freshmen guards Trey Thomas and Issac McBride. Eight of the squad’s 13 SEC losses came by a total of just 42 combined points and, in recent weeks, the Dores knocked off Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Cincinnati.
All that have given the second-year coach a plan to roll with some of his more experienced players this week.
“We have a good group that has a chance to make some noise in this tournament. I’m excited to get started,” Stackhouse said. “We had a lot of different lineups during the course of the year, but I think going into this tournament I think this is where your experience and your leadership should step up and hopefully help carry us.”
Texas A&M has had, arguably, the toughest regular-season of all among SEC members. The Aggies (8-9) went from Jan. 30 to March 3 without playing a single game – Vanderbilt was supposed to travel to Texas A&M on Feb. 3 before that contest was postponed.
Coach Buzz Williams’ squad lost to Mississippi State and at Arkansas last week to finish 2-8 in league play. Forward Emanual Miller averages 15.9 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.
“Interesting matchup with Texas A&M. We haven’t seen them this year so it’s not ideal,” Stackhouse said. “You’d like to have some tape of the team that you’re playing so you can go back and see things that you didn’t do well or did do well against them. We really don’t have a frame of reference for them other than the games that we’ve seen them play as of late. And they’re playing differently than they were earlier in the year.
“We got to be ready to play any type of style, but I think more than anything we have to be us, try to be who we are defensively and do what we do offensively with sharing the ball. Their match-up zone is an animal within itself that we got to be prepared for just to be able to make plays.”
Wednesday’s contest will mark Vanderbilt’s 60th appearance in the SEC Tournament where it is 39-57 all-time and has won two championships. The matchup with Texas A&M will be Vandy’s 15th ever against the Aggies and second in the last three years in the postseason.
It will also be the next shot to take advantage of the opportunity that awaits.
“With a team that shoots 3s the way that we do and with that being a huge part of who we are, when we’re not making shots there’s opportunities for us to get second-chance opportunities,” Stackhouse said. “You’re not going to shoot well every night, but there’s things that you can do in those hustle departments to try to account for that to try to give ourselves second-chance opportunities. That’s going to be important.”
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.