NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Vanderbilt men’s basketball team won three conference games during the 2019-20 season.
It finished in last place, two games behind 13th-place Georgia.
No one would ever suspect that’s the case speaking with the Commodores (11-20) in the hours leading up to the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
“This team is 3-15 (in the SEC) – I think in their mind they’re a lot better than a 3-15 team,” Vanderbilt head coach Jerry Stackhouse said Tuesday. “And they are, at this point, maybe not 10 games ago. Right now they’re much better than their record shows and I think they’re starting to feel themselves a little bit.”
Vandy, on a two-game winning streak, faces Arkansas at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at Bridgestone Arena. It’s then that the Commodores will try to get their first postseason win since March 4, 2017.
But Stackhouse’s team needs more than one victory – it needs five in five days to advance to the NCAA Tournament.
“Five games, that’s our approach. We got five games,” Stackhouse said. “At some point, teams that I’ve been able to coach, they get to the point where I feel like we’ve always won 10 in a row. So we’re due.
“Might can’t get all the way to that 10 in a row, but we can get as close as we can and I think our guys are going to respond.”
Stackhouse said the difference for his team in recent wins, as well as in seven league losses by an average of 6.3 points, has been its ability to consistently understand what to look for offensively and defensively, the best way to execute schemes on both ends of the court and how not to beat themselves.
Junior guard Saben Lee has become the focal point on offense (18.2 points per game) and defense (1.6 steals per game). Scotty Pippen Jr., a freshman, has continued to grow as a point guard with his 3.6 assists and 11.9 points per game.
Junior Maxwell Evans (44 3s made) and freshman Dylan Disu (48 3s made) have shown they can get hot at any point and redshirt-sophomore Ejike Obinna has grown into his role as key rebounder. Guards Jordan Wright and Braelee Albert have been integral to Vandy’s successful nights as well.
“I feel like we’re just playing with each other better, reading each other and just playing to each other’s strengths, knowing where to get people the ball, where people like to have the ball in transition and just different plays that are successful for individual players,” Lee said. “This is a new team. We have a really young team, a lot of new faces. Coach Stackhouse would always tell us it would just take time, things are going to turn for us and things are going to click. I feel like we’re starting to play well together.”
Arkansas, losers of 7 of 10, features the league’s Co-Player of the Year as voted on by The Associated Press. A 6-foot-5 junior guard, Jones averages 22 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.6 steals per game.
Oddly enough, Jones was held to just one point in 31 minutes (to go along with eight assists and seven rebounds) Jan. 15. That was a night the Razorbacks beat Vanderbilt 77-55 in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
The Commodores had 16 turnovers in that contest and were just 5 of 20 from long range. Arkansas (19-12) was 14-2 at that point.
“We’re a different team than we were then, they’re a different team then they were at that point,” Stackhouse said. “This is the SEC Tournament, everybody should be excited to play, but I feel like if we come out and play with the toughness that we’ve been talking about and compete and share the ball and do all the things that we know how to do and we’ve been doing over the last couple weeks than we’ll have a great opportunity.”
• Vanderbilt ranks 26th nationally with 708 free throws attempts and 42nd with 492 made free throws.
• Lee (1,308) needs three points to pass Barry Booker (1,310) for 26th on Vanderbilt’s all-time scoring list. Damian Jones (1,313) is 25th.
• Lee’s 564 points this season are the sixth-most in a single season by a junior in Vanderbilt history. Jeff Fosnes is fifth having scored 575 in 1975.
• Lee ranks 34th nationally with 193 free throws attempts and 42nd with 144 free throws made.
• Vandy is 10-2 this season when leading at the 5-minute mark, 11-2 this season when leading at the 2-minute mark, 11-6 when scoring more than 70 points, 8-2 when scoring more than 80 points and 9-5 when shooting better than 40 percent.
• The Commodores trail the series with Arkansas 27-12 and 4-1 in SEC Tournament matchups.
• Vandy’s lone win against the Razorbacks in the postseason came March 14, 2013 at Bridgestone Arena.
• Vanderbilt is 39-56 in SEC Tournament games.