The win moves Vanderbilt to 10-5 in conference play. By virtue of tiebreakers over Kentucky and Tennessee, the Commodores have clinched the second seed in next week's SEC tournament in Atlanta regardless of weekend results. Saturday's game holds its own significance, though, as the Arkansas Razorbacks come to town for the Vandy seniors' final home game.
The Razorbacks have been one of the most inconsistent teams in the SEC. With a conference record of 6-9, the Hogs sit in fifth place in the West, a game behind the four division leaders. The disappointing season will be fifth-year coach Stan Heath's last, making the Saturday matinee a poignant finale. Though Arkansas is out of the running for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, the visitors will undoubtedly continue to play hard for their coach.
Arkansas went 3-5 in February, including a road record of 0-3. Last season in Fayetteville, the Hogs dealt Vanderbilt a 12-point loss in the teams' only meeting. Since then, graduation and the NBA took the team's top two scorers, Jonathon Modica and Ronnie Brewer. A precocious freshman and a pair of transfers have filled in admirably, but with no seniors on the roster, the Razorbacks have looked like a team in transition at times.
The Hogs' leading scorer is 6-1 freshman Patrick Beverly. After bursting onto the scene with 29 points in his first college game, his 14.1 points per game rank him among the top 15 SEC scorers. A solid all-around guard, Beverly is second on the team in both assists (3.2 per game) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.5-to-1). The freshman has ample athleticism – he's a very good rebounder for his size (4.2 rpg), he can get to the basket on penetration, and he's the Razorbacks' best perimeter defender. Defensively, he makes up for his lack in size with excellent quickness and the ability to jump passing lanes. Beverly averages almost two steals per game, easily best on the team. Though his athleticism is his primary asset, the freshman can also stroke it from the perimeter. He leads Arkansas in three-pointers (64) and three-point percentage (42.7%). In the past two games, Beverly went 5-for-20 from the field, but with his combination of pure perimeter shooting and athleticism, the freshman is the biggest threat to the Commodores.
Junior college transfer Sonny Weems gives Arkansas another scoring threat from the perimeter. At 6-6, the former juco player of the year poses a different kind of problem for opposing defenses. He's the team's second leading rebounder (4.7 rpg), and his 48 percent shooting from the floor is best among Razorback perimeter players. Though he's not nearly the three-point threat that Beverly is, Weems shoots a decent percentage from beyond the arc (36.5%). The junior is at is best as a finisher off the fast break or when driving to the rim. His height and athleticism make him a solid defender against taller guards, so he'll be called on to guard Derrick Byars or Shan Foster.
Arkansas scored a coup when point guard Gary Ervin transferred from division rival Mississippi State. The six-foot speedster loves to get out and run on the break, and his 5.2 assists per game (second best in the SEC) indicate the skill with which he does so. His 1.7-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is a team high, yet conference foes have been able to prey on Ervin's tendency to play sloppily at times. The point guard has had four games of at least five turnovers in conference play. Ervin averages 9.5 points per game and shoots a decent percentage for a point guard (46.2%). Where Ervin could really hurt the ‘Dores, though, is on the defensive end. His speed allows him to be a real disruptor to opposing point guards.
Junior forward Charles Thomas is the Hogs' best scorer in the frontcourt, averaging 11.4 points per game. He led the team in free throw shooting a year ago, but his percentages have suffered this season. Thomas is shooting 45 percent from the floor, down from 52 percent last season. At 235 pounds, the junior is leads Arkansas in rebounding, grabbing 5.6 boards per game. In his last seven games, Thomas has recorded at least six rebounds in all but one. When center Steven Hill is on the court, Dan Cage will likely match up with Thomas. If Cage can take advantage of the mismatch on the offensive end, he could make his senior day one to remember.
The seven-foot Hill will make it difficult for the Commodores to get any easy shots around the basket. The junior leads the SEC in blocked shots with 88 a year after finishing second to Tyrus Thomas in the category. Offensively, Hill doesn't offer much, averaging just 6.3 points per game. The center does like to get out on the break to finish alley-oops, from time to time, though. His height may give Vandy trouble on the glass and on the defensive end, so expect Ted Skuchas to see an increased role in his final home game.
A 6-10 junior provides Arkansas with some frontcourt depth. Darian Townes killed the Commodores last season, scoring 17 points in the Razorbacks' victory. His scoring (8.2 ppg) and rebounding (4.3) numbers are down from a year ago, but Townes leads the team with 53 percent shooting from the floor. He gives the Hogs another shot blocker, and he's more of a scoring threat in the paint than Hill.
Coming off the bench in the backcourt are freshman Stefan Welsh and sophomore Sean McCurdy. Welsh had been relatively quiet in SEC play until the Hogs' most recent game, a win over Mississippi State. The frosh played 19 minutes and scored a career-high 16 points in the win.
Before the win over State, Sean McCurdy had played at least 12 minutes in each of the past four games, dishing out a total of 12 assists in those four games. When not setting up his teammates, the sophomore is most effective from behind the arc, where he shoots 40 percent.
Defensively, Arkansas uses backcourt pressure from Beverly and Ervin to grind opposing offenses to a halt, allowing the Hog shot blockers time to clog the lane. The Razorbacks lead the SEC in field goal percentage defense in conference play, allowing opponents to shoot just 41.7 percent (33 percent from three-point distance). They also lead the league in blocks and defensive rebounds, a direct result of the Hogs' height.
While they generally play solid defense, the Razorbacks have lost games by shooting themselves in the foot offensively. They rank dead last in the conference in turnover margin, committing three more turnovers per game than they force. When Ervin keeps the tempo under control, the Hogs have a nice inside-outside balance that can be a match-up nightmare for some teams. However, Stan Heath's squad tends to get ahead of themselves, often trying to force the issue and coughing the ball up as a result.
The regular season finale has no bearing on Vanderbilt's seed in the SEC tournament. However, Saturday's contest will be bittersweet for the three Commodore seniors. The home team should come out playing with fire for Derrick, Dan, and Ted, as well as a chance to increase their NCAA tournament seeding. To make this Senior Day a memorable one, here are the keys to the game for the Commodores:
- Push It: In a half court set, Arkansas doesn't give up a lot of shots around the basket. Even if Hill or Townes don't send the shot the other way, their ability to get into the heads of players driving to the lane affects the way opponents attack the Hogs. The Commodore four-guard attack can succeed against the front line of Arkansas by pushing the tempo at every opportunity. If the ‘Dores can get good shots before the Arkansas bigs can set up shop in the paint, the home team could build a big lead in a hurry.
- Point vs. Point: Gary Ervin can influence a game in both good ways and bad. His defensive pressure can rattle opposing guards, while his ability to run the fast break can lead to a lot of open looks for Weems and Beverly. However, Ervin has also killed his team by playing too fast and committing too many turnovers. Vandy's Alex Gordon has played with great control throughout conference play. He'll need to continue his steady play and consistently stay in front of the speedy Ervin to come out on top in a position battle that could decide the game.
- Senior Citizens: Each of the three Vanderbilt seniors have an important role in Saturday's game. Byars has been the leader of the Commodores all season; as he goes, so go the ‘Dores. He struggled in regulation against South Carolina, and Vandy almost lost the game. Byars must return to form against Arkansas, because the Hogs have the firepower to finish what the Gamecocks couldn't. Dan Cage's match-up with Charles Thomas will be pivotal. If the big Razorback takes advantage of his size in the post, Cage may find himself in early foul trouble yet again. However, if Cage can draw Thomas out to the perimeter, he could burn the Hogs from distance. Finally, with Steven Hill roaming the paint, Vandy will have to counter with their own Goliath, Ted Skuchas. Not only does Skuchas have the ability to shut down Hill, but he also has proved able to score on slow defenders.
Prediction: The past two games, nail-biting wins over Kentucky and South Carolina, have been real confidence-boosters for Vanderbilt. A win Saturday would not only be a fitting honor to the Commodores' leaders, but it would also build even more momentum heading into the SEC tournament. Arkansas has struggled on the road lately, and Vanderbilt's home success has been well-documented. On Senior Day, the ‘Dores will make it 8-0 in SEC games in Memorial. Final score: Vanderbilt 82, Arkansas 74.