On a disappointing Senior Day in Memorial Gym last weekend, Vanderbilt limped into the postseason with an 82-67 loss to the Arkansas Razorbacks. Though the game didn't hurt the Commodores' SEC tournament seeding, it propelled the Hogs to the third seed in the SEC West, pitting them against the worst team in the East, the South Carolina Gamecocks. Arkansas had no trouble getting past the ‘Cocks in an 82-52 rout, setting up a quarterfinal rematch between the Commodores and Razorbacks on Friday in Atlanta.
The first-round win over South Carolina was the third straight for the Razorbacks, who seem to be peaking in time to make a run in this conference tournament. After a back-and-forth first half with the Gamecocks, Arkansas came out of halftime on a mission, scoring 51 second-half points to run away with the victory.
Red-hot point guard Gary Ervin and forward Darian Townes each scored 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting to lead the Razorbacks. Ervin, a junior, has been the catalyst in Arkansas's current winning streak, averaging 19 points per game over the past three contests. Shooting a respectable 46 percent on the year, Ervin has shot better than 62 percent from the floor over the Hogs' last three. The point guard torched Vanderbilt with 21 points, five rebounds, and four assists.
Townes, a 6-10, 255 pound junior, also turned in a solid performance against Vanderbilt to go along with the starring role he played on Thursday. Coming off the bench, Townes scored nine points and grabbed five boards against the Commodores. Don't be fooled by his reserve role; the junior has proven to be a force in the post in the past two games, and against South Carolina, the big man displayed his ability to run the floor and finish on the break.
Though freshman Patrick Beverly hasn't shot particularly well from the field lately, he's made some big shots and been a constant aggressor en route to becoming the Newcomer of the Year in the SEC. His 20 points in the regular season finale against Vanderbilt trailed only Gary Ervin's 21, and although the freshman went just 4-of-11 from the floor, his athleticism and savvy made him a perpetual threat in Memorial. Beverly grabbed a career-high 10 rebounds and dished out four assists in the winning effort against the ‘Dores. Already a team leader as a freshman, his play will be crucial in Friday's quarterfinal.
Junior Sonny Weems pitched in ten points in the win over South Carolina, but his biggest contribution in the Georgia Dome was on the defensive end. Standing 6-6, he was able to hold Gamecock point guard Tre Kelley, the SEC's leading scorer in conference play, to just 11 points on 4-of-14 shooting. He was also the key cog in a perimeter defense that held Derrick Byars, Shan Foster, and Alex Gordon to a dismal 11-of-38 shooting in Nashville on Saturday.
Charles Thomas and Steven Hill will round out the Hogs' starting lineup on Friday. The pair of big men hasn't posted significant scoring numbers in the past three games, but standing 6-8 and 7-0, respectively, Thomas and Hill posed a match-up problem on both ends for the undersized Commodores. The Vandy frontcourt must do a better job on the glass and on the offensive end against Townes, Thomas, and Hill.
Freshman forward Michael Washington came out of nowhere to burn the Commodores in the first bout between Vandy and Arkansas, and he continued his emergence Thursday against the Gamecocks. After scoring just 30 total points in the Hogs' first 29 games, Washington scored 15 and grabbed six rebounds in Nashville. He followed that career performance with a nine-point effort against South Carolina. At 6-10, Washington gives Arkansas yet another big, athletic forward that could give Vandy fits down low.
Though their offense has been fairly steady, the Razorbacks' three game winning streak has been sparked by stifling defense. Their lightning-quick perimeter defenders and height in the post has proven to be difficult for opponents to overcome lately, as Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, and South Carolina each shot 33 percent or worse consecutively against Arkansas. Further, each shot 28 percent or lower from beyond the arc, including Mississippi State, which shot an atrocious 6.7 percent from three-point distance.
The Commodores have the weapons to hurt Arkansas from the perimeter, but they cannot experience another shooting performance like the one they turned in against the Razorbacks last weekend and expect to win. Without question, Vanderbilt's shooting percentage will be the story of Friday's quarterfinal. The ‘Dores had a chance to come from behind and beat Arkansas in Memorial, but they missed some crucial shots and folded. If Byars, Foster and company can eclipse the 40 percent mark from long range, they'll have a great chance to get past the Hogs. Aside from a better shooting day, here are the keys for the Commodores to move on to the SEC semifinals:
- Guard the Perimeter: Gary Ervin and Patrick Beverly combined for 41 points against the Commodores in Nashville. The guard duo hit big shot after big shot to keep Vanderbilt at arm's length for most of the second half. If the two explode again on Friday, it will be very difficult for Vanderbilt to pull out a win. If Ervin and Beverly come out hot yet again from the perimeter, Jermaine Beal and George Drake should be given a chance to lock up the Arkansas shooters.
- Step up, Ross: The entire Vandy frontcourt was a no-show in the first round with Arkansas, as the Razorback big men out-rebounded, outscored, and out-hustled the Commodore forwards. Ross Neltner, in particular, was conspicuously absent on Saturday. His hard-nosed defense, toughness on the glass, and soft shooting touch are very important to Vanderbilt's success. Neltner came up huge against another team with a formidable frontcourt; he was integral in Vandy's win over the Florida Gators. If he can rise to the occasion again on Friday, he'll give the ‘Dores a great chance to advance.
- Tag Team: As has been the case all season long, simultaneous big games from Foster and Byars will spell success for the Commodores. Foster, a second team All-SEC choice, and Byars, the coaches' pick for conference Player of the Year, combined to shoot 9-of-29 against Arkansas in Memorial. Vanderbilt is 10-1 when the two combine for 39 or more points; if their leaders can both play like All-SEC performers in yet another big game, look for the ‘Dores to come out on top.
Prediction: Friday's game will be a huge test for a Vanderbilt team coming off a letdown and trying to build some momentum before the NCAA tournament. A 15-point loss to these Razorbacks fresh in their heads, can the Commodores bounce back and put an end to Arkansas's winning streak? The Hogs' stingy perimeter defense and athletic forwards say no. However, this season's precedent says that these Commodores play their best basketball with their backs against the wall. Avoiding back-to-back conference losses all season says a lot about this group. Look Byars and Foster to continue that streak with an inspired effort on Friday. Final score: Vanderbilt 78, Arkansas 73.