Vanderbilt visits Arkansas on Saturday

The Vanderbilt men’s basketball team tucked away a no-frills home win against a team likely to finish in the lower half of the conference. Now, though, comes an immediate road test in SEC competition, a visit to Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Can Vanderbilt be liberated by the prospect of having nothing to lose?


There will be games later in the SEC season in which Vanderbilt will be expected to achieve something. Road games against middle-tier or lower-tier opponents will need to be won. That’s how Vanderbilt will get to some kind of postseason tourney (or fail to do so, should it fall short) if it can’t grab big wins against top-tier teams.

Kentucky is the ultimate top-tier opponent, and Florida could become a top-tier opponent by the end of February (don’t count on it, though…). Yet, if there’s a third team that can really become something special in the SEC, it probably would be the Arkansas group Vanderbilt will play on Saturday.

There should always be a certain comfort in playing a game you’re not expected to win. The sense of “needing” to do something shouldn’t be as intensely felt. This is an opportunity to be pursued, not so much a “we have to win” situation in which something has to be somehow protected or preserved. When you’re playing on the road as a clear underdog, you don’t have to safeguard a reputation or worry about what will happen if you fail – that’s Arkansas’ problem in this game. Saturday, Vanderbilt should feel free to “let it ride” and allow the chips fall where they may. If ever there was a time early in the SEC season for Vanderbilt to be unburdened, and to play with a nothing-to-lose mentality, this is it. Cast aside results and technique for a moment – this is a time for Vanderbilt to gain a sense of how far it can push itself, knowing that if it loses to a possible NCAA tournament team, there’s nothing to be suffered in the way of consequences beyond one SEC loss… a loss many other teams in the league are going to absorb when they make their way to Bud Walton over the next few months.

Kevin Stallings has a chance to light a fire in his players’ eyes. It will be fascinating to see what this team can do when playing with house money.

ARKANSAS AT-A-GLANCE

Before one talks up the Razorbacks too much, let’s dial back the praise and point out that while this is still a likely top-three team in the SEC and very possibly the favorite for the runner-up spot behind Kentucky, there’s nothing guaranteed as far as the NCAA tournament is concerned. The Hogs have won at SMU and at home against Dayton. Before the season, if you had been told that a team would have beaten SMU on the road and Dayton at home, you would have been convinced that such a team was a near lock to make the NCAAs. However, SMU and Dayton have – for their own separate reasons – have not been quite as good as expected, especially SMU, given the departure of heralded recruit Emmanuel Mudiay before he bounced a single basketball in a Mustang uniform. Arkansas has lost one game that won’t harm the team in terms of its profile – at Iowa State – but a loss to Clemson will take away from the SMU and Dayton wins. One won’t find a lot of meat on the bones of Arkansas’ resume – not right now, at any rate. Given that the SEC isn’t stacked with high-leverage win opportunities, Arkansas will need to win at least 14 SEC games (plus two in the league tournament) if it wants to feel relatively safe on Selection Sunday, and it needs to make sure that its losses are limited to Kentucky and perhaps Florida as well. There’s a lot of work for this team to do, given that SMU and Dayton have not provided the resume bumps they were expected to offer. This shapes the urgency of Saturday’s game for coach Mike Anderson’s team, in a season when anything short of the NCAAs would be viewed as a full-fledged disaster and crisis, one that might get Anderson fired were it to unfold.

Starting Lineup

Forward – Bobby Portis –
Sophomore, 6-11, 242; 2014-15: 17.1 points per game, 7.6 rebounds per game

This is the unquestioned star of the Razorbacks. Portis goes (wait for it) whole Hog on every possession. He attacks the sport relentlessly with an overwhelming combination of power, agility, and leaping ability. Portis will be a ridiculously tough matchup for every non-Kentucky SEC team, because only the Wildcats can offer a similar package of size, length and athleticism in the post and near the rim. Portis will command double-team attention, and a core part of this game for VU on defense will be to identify the right moments when it should help on Portis.

Forward – Moses Kingsley – Sophomore, 6-10, 230; 2014-15: 5.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg

Why might Arkansas fall short of its aspirations? If it doesn’t give Portis the help he needs in and around the painted area. Kingsley’s scant numbers make it that much easier for defenses to not take him too seriously, and this minimizes the effect Portis can have on a game if opponents are smart in sending bodies at him during a game.

Guard – Jabril Durham – Junior, 6-1, 185; 2014-15: 2.8 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 2.4 apg

This is where one needs to gain perspective on Arkansas’ overall rotation. The starting five is not in any way a guaranteed determinant of a certain amount of minutes above 15 per game. Anderson, as is well known, likes to shuttle in 10 players and give them double-figure minutes. In Arkansas’ game against Georgia this past week, 10 players did indeed get 10 minutes, with the five starters all getting at least 16. The only two starters who will be given starter-level minutes every game are Portis and the next person on this list – they both got at least 30 minutes of game time against Georgia. So, about that “next person,” here he is:

Guard – Michael Qualls – Junior, 6-6, 210; 2014-15: 15.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.7 apg

Portis is the Hogs’ main low-post force, and Qualls is the team’s main perimeter threat. Qualls hits a solid 37 percent of his threes, and what Vanderbilt needs to pay attention to is that Qualls has averaged seven free throw attempts over the course of his past five games. He is devoting more focus and effort to attacking the basket, and that’s what the Dores need to shut down on Saturday if they want to remove Arkansas’ best perimeter player from the equation.

Guard – Rashad Madden – Senior, 6-5, 180; 2014-15: 9.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 5.2 apg

If there’s a third player likely to get something approaching starter-level minutes on this team, it’s Madden, who averages 24 per game but got only 19 against Georgia. As you can see, the most outstanding feature of Madden’s game is that he’s the best distributor of the ball on the Razorbacks’ roster. If Qualls is going to get plenty of touches on the perimeter in this game, Vanderbilt needs to make sure that this is the result of Qualls freelancing, and not Madden making a timely rotational pass for an open shot, half a beat ahead of Vanderbilt’s defense. If Vanderbilt stops Madden as a facilitator for the Arkansas offense, it can then choke off a measure of production from Qualls and some of the role players on the Hogs.

Bench

As said above, the line between starter and reserve often blurs for Anderson. He gave more minutes to three bench players than to three of his starters against Georgia. Those players are forward Alandise Harris and guards Manuale Watkins and Anton Beard. Harris hit 7 of 8 shots against Georgia and was an instrumental figure in the Hogs’ crucial road win over the Bulldogs. He averages 8.5 points and 3.5 rebounds per game. Watkins averages 4.1 points and 3 rebounds per game. Beard averages 4.4 points and 2.2 rebounds. Other primary reserves are forward Jacorey Williams and guard Anthlon Bell. Williams averages 6.6 points and 3.4 rebounds per game. Bell averages 9.4 points per game – Vanderbilt has to watch out for him as a perimeter shooter.

Keys to the Game

1) Handling Portis and Qualls with doubleteams, helping, and more.
When Vanderbilt helps on defense against Portis, it must do so in ways that won’t give Qualls particularly easy looks. Vanderbilt’s decisions to doubleteam, hedge, and otherwise disrupt Arkansas’ offense must ensure that if attention is paid to one of the Hogs’ two stars, the other one isn’t left unattended. The role players must be forced to hit shots in this larger process.

2) Ball security. The Commodores did several things really well against Auburn: blocking shots, rebounding at both ends, and getting to the foul line. Three-point shooting was a deficit, but the bigger worry is that the Dores coughed up 19 turnovers. If they commit that many against Arkansas, they’ll likely get run out of Bud Walton Arena. This has to be VU’s first point of emphasis on offense. A missed shot with good floor balance is far better than a turnover, especially a live-ball one. Four players committed at least three turnovers against Auburn. Let’s see that list get shaved down to one player (and obviously, hoping that it can become zero).

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