Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and a voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year three times.
Commodores put futility behind them
Vanderbilt coach Jerry Stackhouse directs his team Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020, during the first half against Arkansas in Bud Walton Arena.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Prior to last week, Vanderbilt's basketball team had been 1-33 in SEC regular-season games the past two years.
The Commodores' lone SEC victory in that span was 99-90 over LSU on Feb. 5. Vanderbilt broke an SEC-record 28-game conference losing streak, but then lost its next seven games.
Now the Commodores are bringing a winning streak into their SEC Tournament opener against the University of Arkansas tonight in Bridgestone Arena.
Granted, Vanderbilt has won just two games in a row.
But beating Alabama 87-79 on the road and South Carolina 83-74 at home last week gave Vanderbilt its first back-to-back SEC victories since February of 2018 when the Commodores beat Ole Miss 81-80 and Florida 71-68.
"Our guys knew if we figured out how to do things consistently, we would have success," said Vanderbilt Coach Jerry Stackhouse, the former North Carolina star who played 18 seasons in the NBA. "That's why they continue to fight the way they have. I'm extremely proud of them. It could have gone the other way."
Vanderbilt lost a star player to injury for the second consecutive season.
Last season, freshman point guard Darius Garland suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fifth game against Kent State. He still was the No. 5 overall pick in the NBA Draft by Cleveland.
The Commodores were 4-0 before Garland's injury, then went 5-23 the rest of the way, including 0-18 in SEC games.
Vanderbilt fired Bryce Drew as coach and hired Stackhouse, an NBA assistant coach with Memphis last season.
The Commodores started 8-5 under Stackhouse before losing star sophomore forward Aaron Nesmith -- a projected NBA first-round pick -- in the SEC opener against Auburn because of a stress fracture in his foot. He was averaging 23.0 points per game.
"It took a little while for them to figure things out after losing [Nesmith]," Alabama Coach Nate Oats said. "But they've figured it out. Their kids are playing hard. They're playing with five perimeter guys and spreading you out. We had a hard time guarding them.
"Offensively, they're doing a great job. Saben Lee has been one of the best players in the league for the last few weeks. They've got it figured out offensively, and they're just good enough to be in there defensively and to cause you problems."
Lee, a 6-2 junior forward averaging 18.2 points, scored 38 against Alabama and 19 against South Carolina. Freshman point guard Scotty Pippen Jr. had 13 points against Alabama and 21 against South Carolina.
"They've got one of the hardest players to defend in the league in Saben Lee," South Carolina Coach Frank Martin said. "Scotty Pippen Jr.'s come a long way over the course of the year, and he's playing phenomenal basketball for them right now."
In a season with several tough losses, the toughest was when Georgia beat Vanderbilt 80-78 at Memorial Gym on Tyree Crump's three-point basket -- from about 30 feet -- at the buzzer after Pippen missed two free throws with five seconds left.
Vanderbilt lost its next two games to Missouri 61-52 and at Ole Miss 86-60.
"We kind of had a little hangover from that one," Stackhouse said of losing to Georgia. "But we recovered, and obviously we're in a good place right now."
Stackhouse said he hopes playing Arkansas in Bridgestone Arena -- located 2 miles from the Vanderbilt campus -- will provide a home-court advantage for the Commodores.
"Hopefully, our fans really show up big for us," he said. "I think there's some momentum, some excitement from our fan base about how we closed out the season."
Sports on 03/11/2020
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