Looking to Liberty

Commodores back on the court after long layoff

by Chad Bishop

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It’s been a long layoff for the Vanderbilt men’s basketball team.

The Commodores haven’t stepped between the lines since Dec. 3 as they’ve tackled final exams while trying to fit as much practice time in as possible. Some of head coach Jerry Stackhouse’s team even has tests to take Saturday morning.

Vandy hosts Liberty (11-0) at 7 p.m. later that same day.

“I hope it works in our favor where they’re anxious to get back,” Stackhouse said before Friday’s practice. “Obviously they’ve been off for a little while, but we’ve had some good work. We’ve had a couple days of good individual work with smaller groups working around the exam schedules and then Thursday we had a good workout.

“Hopefully it’s rest versus rust, but I know they’re anxious to get back.”

Vandy will be looking to sustain momentum after its most-impressive win of the season. The Dores bounced back from a 67-58 setback to Tulsa on Nov. 30 to roll past Buffalo 90-76 on Dec. 3.

Stackhouse’s squad shot 46.4 percent from the floor, forced 17 turnovers and missed just four of its 26 free throws. They rode that momentum into the academic break.

“They’re learning. That’s all we can ask for,” Stackhouse said about his team’s growth. “They’re doing things consistently. Just going back and watching practices and me and Nicki (Gross) we’re looking at it and we’re like, ‘Man, this is a whole lot better than it was a few months ago.’

“Offensively, the way the continuity that we want to have is happening and then defensively of being in the right spots. It’s pretty fun to watch right now as you see these guys learning and having a better understanding and grasp of what they need to do.”

Vanderbilt (6-2) has been riding the play of sophomore guard Aaron Nesmith and junior guard Saben Lee, but got contributions from throughout the roster during the Buffalo victory. Ten different Commodores scored and/or grabbed at least one rebound in that performance and six different players had at least one assist.

Team basketball has been a mantra preached by Stackhouse since the beginning of the season as his unit tries to learn the balance of featuring Nesmith and Lee while not being totally reliant on the two.

“We’re getting more guys contributing, more guys understanding – they’re figuring how they can be a part of the offense and understanding that defense is what will get them more minutes and things like that. They’re really doing a good job of playing with each other,” Stackhouse said. “You hate to say that you’re too satisfied, but I am pleased at how we’re sharing the ball and how we’re working together and how we’re competing.”

Vanderbilt’s challenge Saturday night is a Liberty team yet to lose after 11 games. The Flames are also 22-2 in their last 24 dating back to last season, a season in which they won the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament championship and beat Mississippi State in the NCAA Tournament.

Head coach Ritchie McCay’s team ranks among the top 10 nationally in field goal percentage defense and scoring defense and is shooting 41.9 percent from the 3-point line. It’s also surrendering just 10 turnovers per contest.

Liberty has only played one true road game thus far, a 77-57 victory at East Carolina. It lost last year’s trip to Memorial Gymnasium 79-70.

“We should be on high alert knowing that we’re playing a good team, a team that likes to execute their offense similar to the way that we do. It’s a good match up for us – a good test for us,” Stackhouse said. “A good opportunity to see where we are, see who we are. We’ve talked about these opportunities and these moments. Obviously there are going to be bigger games throughout the SEC season, but for an early nonconference game, I think this is a very good test for us.”

After Saturday’s contest, the Commodores will leave Monday on just their second road trip of the season. Vandy faces Loyola of Chicago (6-4) at 5:30 p.m. CT Wednesday in Phoenix.


• Vanderbilt leads the series with Liberty 2-0.

• Going into the weekend, Nesmith leads the nation with 4.38 made 3s per game, is seventh in scoring (22.8 ppg), eighth with 35 made 3s and ninth in 3-point shooting (51.5 percent).

• Nesmith has 535 career points and 94 career made 3s.

• Lee ranks 18th in the nation with 6.3 assists per game and 47th with 50 total assists.

• Lee needs 117 points to reach 1,000 for his career.

• Vanderbilt senior Clevon Brown has 112 career blocks, the seventh-most by a Commodore all-time. Julian Terrell is sixth with 116.

• As a team, Vanderbilt ranks 17th nationally with 10.1 made 3s per game, is 23rd by scoring 82.4 points per game, is 28th with a field goal percentage of 48.5 and is 33rd with a 3-point shooting mark of 38.2 percent.

• Vanderbilt has made at least one 3 in 1,072 straight games.