Vanderbilt, historically, has been known as a team that "lives by the three, and dies by the three." Hopefully, the historic win at Rupp Arena has helped them to shed that moniker. Derrick Byars has bolstered the perimeter on-the-ball defense, and the ‘Dores have been fairly successful in limiting high percentage three point shots. Coach Kevin Stallings has shown confidence in players such as Mario Moore. Although the point guard has performed well in terms of assists and turnovers, his scoring has been significantly down from last season. Recent press conferences and interviews by Moore and Alex Gordon have shown that they accept the new role of a point guard in the Commodore system – less scoring, and more coordination of the offense.
Arkansas relies on junior shooting guard Ronnie Brewer. Brewer is the SEC's top scorer as of Friday, averaging 18.5 points a game. Brewer is an impressive athlete, and at 6'7" and 217 pounds, he physically outmatches most other SEC shooting guards. However, he does not outmatch the Commodores wing players. Derrick Byars and Shan Foster have more than enough size to defend the dangerous Arkansas wing player.
However, Brewer averages over 4 assists per game, helping to feed the scoring efforts of Arkansas' 2nd and 3rd leading scorers – Jonathon Modica and Darian Townes. Modica is a high percentage shooter who stars at the small forward position. Townes is the team's leading rebounder (6.6 rpg), and is one of three starters who averages more than 10 points per game.
Another possible trouble spot for the ‘Dores is the point guard position – Dontell Jefferson, Arkansas' point guard, is a 6'5" senior who leads the team in assists per game (5.6 apg). Jefferson is on a recent hot streak, with 16 assists and only 5 turnovers in the last three games. However, Jefferson is not perceived as a scoring threat on the same scale as Kentucky's Rajon Rondo, who Vanderbilt held to 9 points on Tuesday. Jefferson averages 5.1 ppg, which puts him in the bottom half of SEC starting point guards.
Charles Thomas rounds out the starting lineup for the Razorbacks. At 6'8", he joins Darian Townes as a forward starting in Arkansas' three-guard set. The sophomore averages 8.2 ppg and 3.9 rpg, while leading the team in free throw shooting at 72.5%.
Arkansas is coming off of a tough loss at home to LSU on Wednesday. Brewer led the Razorbacks with 16 points, while Townes had 14 points and 8 rebounds. The loss to LSU is one of the reasons that Arkansas comes into the game with a sense of desperation – a loss to Vanderbilt would be yet another setback in a season that the Razorbacks hoped would lead to an SEC West title and an NCAA bid for Coach Stan Heath.
Heath has a 39-47 all-time record at Arkansas coming into this season, with a 69-53 record at all schools before this season began.
The Arkansas program has a proud history – Arkansas beat Duke to win the 1994 "march madness" tournament, earning a national championship. In 1995, the Razorbacks finished as runner-up to UCLA. However, since 2001, Arkansas has not been invited to the NCAA tournament, and long-time fans are starting to question the leadership of Coach Heath. However, Heath believes in this group of Arkansas players.
"This team has a lot of possibilities," said Heath, "It's an experienced team that has gone through a lot of ups and downs, and has matured. We finally feel like we have all the pieces – not only in terms of talent and experience, but the guys have and better understanding of how to win."
To keep the Razorbacks from winning on Saturday, Vanderbilt will have to excel in a few areas.
(1) Guarding Ronnie Brewer. Brewer is first among Arkansas players with 18.5 points per game – nearly 5 more than his nearest teammate. If Arkansas is to win this contest, they will need at least 18 points from their star player. Vanderbilt will try to limit Brewer's touches throughout the game – look for Derrick Byars to take the lead in a defensive role opposite the Razorback star.
(2) Winning the post contest – Vanderbilt's projected post starters (Julian Terrell and Ted Skuchas) averages fewer points than Arkansas' starters. However, DeMarre Carroll has played over 20 minutes in post positions often in this season, and he will make meaningful contributions on both sides of the ball. This game could be an opportunity for DeMarre to shine against shorter (but athletic) post players such as Charles Thomas. Vandy needs to collect more offensive rebounds than Arkansas. If they fail, then the game will come down to which team is shooting the best on the day.
(3) Continuing the "road soldier" mindset – the Dores have historically been a poor road team, as Coach Stallings openly admits. If this year is to be different, it will be the responsibility of coaches and players alike to change the culture of the team. If Vanderbilt plays as well on the road as they do in Memorial, they have a great chance at beating a talented Arkansas team.
However, this is a classic let-down situation for the Commodores. The win at Kentucky still resonates in the minds of fans and players, and perhaps a win at Arkansas is seen as a luxury by the ‘Dores. Arkansas will be playing for their season, as their pre-conference results disappointed many faithful fans. Expect Ronnie Brewer to frustrate the Commodore defense as he begins to earn his all-SEC honors. The Commodores will unfortunately drop a high-scoring contest, leaving them with a solid 3-2 road record thus far in the season.
Arkansas 71, Vanderbilt 68
Vanderbilt MVP: Derrick Byars
Arkansas MVP: Jonathon Modica (game winning shot)