Scouting Report: Arkansas

Memorial Magic struck again Tuesday night, as Vanderbilt defeated top-ranked Tennessee in a Super Tuesday thriller. The win over the Vols capped a 4-0 homestand that has put the Commodores in position to get a top-4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. First, though, the ‘Dores have to take care of business down the stretch, beginning with a clash with Arkansas at Bud Walton Arena.

Shan Foster made his case for SEC Player of the Year on Tuesday, scoring 32 points on 9-of-13 shooting in what was perhaps the most important performance of his career.  Foster buried six of the nine three-pointers he attempted and made a season-high 11 trips to the free throw line.  The Commodores won despite A.J. Ogilvy being saddled with foul trouble through the entire game.  The Vanderbilt freshman scored just four points, the lowest scoring total of his career.  However, Jermaine Beal chipped in 17 points and gave the ‘Dores a steady presence at the point guard against the tenacious Tennessee press.  Vanderbilt committed just seven turnovers, a marked improvement over the 22 the Commodores coughed up in Knoxville, allowing the team to overcome a 38.8 percent shooting night.

As they've done in each of their seven consecutive wins, the Commodores proved once again that they have come a long way defensively since the start of SEC play.  Over the past seven games, Vanderbilt has allowed just 64 points per game.  The ‘Dores held Tennessee's SEC-leading offense to 11 points below its average, 32.8 percent shooting from the floor, and 26.9 percent from three-point range.  Chris Lofton netted 25 points, but Jermaine Beal blanketed him in the second half, forcing the Tennessee senior to take some bad shots in the closing minutes.

The Razorbacks (18-9, 7-6) have fallen off since putting together a 6-2 start to SEC play.  They've played four out of their last five on the road – a stretch similar to the one Vanderbilt struggled through in January – and lost all four, including a head-scratcher to Alabama on Wednesday.  Two weeks ago, John Pelphrey's squad seemed to have an NCAA bid in its grasp.  An 11-3 non-conference slate featured a quality win over Baylor, and the Hogs routed Mississippi State and Florida before the road trip that has left them just one game over .500 and fighting for their tournament lives.  Arkansas is a much better team at home, so despite their recent shortcomings, the Razorbacks will give the Commodores all they want in Fayetteville.

Senior swingman Sonny Weems has been the centerpiece of the Arkansas offense throughout conference play.  The 6-6 scorer leads the Razorbacks and ranks third in the conference with 18.8 points per game.  Weems has logged six 20-point games in SEC play, and he's capable of putting up big numbers against any team in the league.  His size makes him a match-up problem for most of the conference's guards.  Strong with the ball, the senior is most effective finishing around the bucket or pulling up for a mid-range jumper, but he also has a solid stroke from beyond the arc.  Weems' 43.8 percent shooting from downtown during SEC play is tops on the team and good for third in the conference.  Because of his size and incredible athleticism, he brings much more to the Hogs than scoring.  The senior averages 5.5 rebounds per game in league play, second on the team only to backcourt mate Patrick Beverley's 8.8.  Weems is also one of the conference's best perimeter defenders, snatching 1.5 steals per game.  Similar to Shan Foster in size and ability, Weems' match-up with the Vanderbilt senior will be crucial in Saturday's game.

Patrick Beverley has experienced a bit of a sophomore slump after being named SEC Freshman of the Year last season.  The 6-1 guard's numbers are down across the board, reflected most noticeably in his shooting percentages.  Beverley is shooting a pedestrian 37.7 percent from the floor this year, five full percentage points lower than a year ago.  During SEC play, he's been even worse, shooting just 35.3 percent in league games.  His three-point shooting has fallen from 38.6 percent to 35.9 percent, and his scoring average has dipped to just 9.9 points per game in SEC play, four points lower than his average as a freshman.  The one area of his game that hasn't suffered has been his rebounding.  Despite standing just 6-1, Beverley ranks fourth in the SEC with 8.8 boards per game in league play.  His athleticism and penchant for tracking the ball off of the rim give Arkansas a legitimate rebounder out of the backcourt, a luxury most teams don't have.

Running the show for Arkansas is senior Gary Ervin.  Averaging 9.5 points and a team-best 3.3 assists in league play, the 6-0 point guard has been a steadying influence on the Razorback offense.  Ervin is a mercurial scorer; he has the ability to impact a game with his penetration, but he doesn't shoot well enough from the perimeter to be an elite scorer.  The senior has made just nine three-pointers in SEC play.  Like Beverley (and most of the Razorbacks), Ervin has seen his shooting percentages fall off this season.  Much of his value, though, stems from his distributing abilities.  He's posted an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.54, good for seventh in the conference.  Ervin may be the quickest guard in the league not named Devan Downey; he'll facilitate a fast break at every opportunity, and though the Hogs have sputtered on offense recently, their point guard remains a threat in transition.

Forward Charles Thomas gives the Razorbacks a scoring threat in the post, though he's been less effective as of late.  After eight consecutive games in which he scored in double figures, the 6-8 senior has been held to fewer than 10 points in each of the last nine games.  Shooting 51.9 percent on the year, Thomas has shot just 34.7 percent from the floor over the past five games.  Since returning from a one-game suspension a month ago, the senior's minutes have declined, partly due to his decrease in production.  Normally one of the team's best rebounders, Thomas is averaging just 2.9 boards per game over the past nine contests.  He was held in check in two games against Vanderbilt last season; don't expect Thomas to do too much damage on Saturday.

Defensive menace Steven Hill rounds out Arkansas' starting five.  The 7-0 senior ranks second in the SEC with 2.4 blocks per game in league play.  Hill doesn't offer much on the offensive end, averaging just 4.9 points per game on the season.  However, he can make such an impact defensively that the Hogs have no choice but to give the big man significant minutes.  On the rare occasion that Hill takes a shot, he's almost always in great position to finish, as indicated by his team-best 68.4 percent shooting from the floor.  However, he doesn't (and shouldn't) take enough shots to strike fear into the hearts of opposing defenses; the senior has scored in double figures just once this season.

Though he doesn't start, senior center Darian Townes plays more minutes per game than Steven Hill.  While Hill brings the defense to the Razorbacks' center position, Townes brings the scoring punch.  Following a common theme for the Hogs, the 6-10, 243-pound senior has seen his production decline in league play.  Averaging 11.1 points on the year, Townes is scoring 9.4 per game in SEC contests.  The big man is shooting 58.4 percent from the floor this season, with almost all of his shots coming from inside the paint.  Defensively, Townes is no Hill, but he's not too shabby himself, swatting just over one shot per game.

Michael Washington, a 6-10 sophomore, adds more depth to the athletic Arkansas frontcourt.  Washington has shown flashes of brilliance on the offensive end, but he has struggled to find any consistency.  He's averaging just 4.2 points per game on 46.5 percent shooting in league play.  Though he's shooting just 29.2 percent from three-point range this season, Washington does pose a perimeter threat.  He scored a surprising 15 points against Vanderbilt in the last game of the regular season last year, but the Commodores have the athletes in the frontcourt – namely A.J. Ogilvy and Darshawn McClellan – to keep the sophomore at bay this season.

Stefan Welsh, a 6-2 sophomore, gives the Hogs a steady combo guard off the bench.  Averaging 4.6 points and 2.0 assists in league play, Welsh can capably fill either guard position.  A terrific scorer in high school, Welsh has yet to find his stroke in almost two seasons at Arkansas.  The sophomore is shooting just 33.8 percent from the floor – 29.5 percent in league play – and 28.4 percent from downtown.  When he's on the court, the ‘Dores should be less concerned about his scoring and more about Welsh setting up the other Razorback scorers.

With a pair of athletic wings and one of the nation's quickest point guards, Arkansas aims to get up and down the court as much as possible.  They play at a considerably above-average tempo, averaging about 70 possessions per game.  When Beverley and Weems are scoring and the Hogs are avoiding turnovers, they can score with any team in the league.  However, turnovers have been their downfall in conference play; the Razorbacks rank 10th in the conference with 14.5 turnovers per game and 8th with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 0.95-to-1.

The Razorbacks' defense has been solid all season.  They rank third in the SEC in scoring defense, allowing 68.1 points per game in league play.  Arkansas is particularly strong in the post, where Steven Hill and Darian Townes make life miserable for opponents trying to attack the rim.  According to Ken Pomeroy, the Hogs block 15 percent of opponents' shots, and Hill rejects 13.2 percent of shots that are attempted while he's on the court.  The Razorback guards put intense pressure on opposing ball handlers, funneling them into the teeth of their interior defense.

After a perfect four game homestand, the Commodores now face an athletic team in one of the toughest road atmospheres in the SEC.  The Razorbacks have lost just one game at home all season, a four-point defeat at the hands of South Carolina.  While Vanderbilt has compiled an impressive résumé, the ‘Dores lack a quality road win.  Saturday affords them that opportunity, and with it the chance to further improve their seeding.  To take advantage of that opportunity and come away with a solid road victory, here are the keys for the Commodores:

  • Work the Mid-Range:  Arkansas' defense is at its stoutest when Weems, Beverley, and Ervin create enough pressure on the perimeter to force opposing guards into the lane, where the Hogs' shot blockers await.  The Razorbacks allow SEC opponents to shoot just 31.2 percent from three-point range because of the disruption caused by their guards.  If the Commodores aren't getting clean looks from downtown early on, they'll need Shan Foster to go to the mid-range fall-aways, floaters, and turn-arounds that have been so successful lately.  If Alex Gordon can chip in a couple of the pull-up 17-footers he knocked down against Tennessee, all the better.  In fact, the ‘Dores may find success using Ogilvy to draw Steven Hill out to the perimeter, where the Aussie can drive by using his quick first step, knock down a jumper if Hill gives him room, or simply act as a decoy to spread the floor for the rest of the Commodores.  A spread court means more chances to find the mid-range shots that Vanderbilt will need to open up the three-pointers.
  • Turn Up the Heat:  Teams have found success against Arkansas by constantly pressuring the Razorback ball handlers in the half-court.  The Hogs turn the ball over on almost 23 percent of their possessions, putting them among the worst teams in the nation in turnover percentage.  Meanwhile, the Commodore defense has improved markedly since the beginning of SEC play, especially in the backcourt, where Jermaine Beal and Shan Foster can be difference makers on the defensive end.  If the ‘Dores can create the kind of half-court pressure they showed in the last ten minutes against Tennessee, look for them to stifle the Arkansas attack.  To that end, don't be surprised to see the ultra-athletic Jamie Graham get off the bench and into the face of Ervin and the Razorback guards.  A slower, more physical game could actually favor the ‘Dores on Saturday; Arkansas is 2-6 when scoring fewer than 75 points in SEC play, and they're 5-0 when they eclipse that total.
  • Sonny vs. Shan:  Weems and Foster are the premiere wings in the SEC.  They are both tall, athletic, and can score in a variety of ways.  Most importantly, their output can determine the fate of their respective teams.  Weems is the only Razorback in the top 25 in SEC scoring, and though Foster has more support than that, the Commodore fortunes rest on his shoulders more often than not.  The contributions of each star's supporting cast will be crucial, but at the end of the year, stars tend to decide games more often.

Prediction:  Last season, the Commodores fell to the Razorbacks in two straight games, the second bouncing them from the SEC Tournament.  Revenge has been on the minds of Foster and the ‘Dores frequently as of late, as Vanderbilt repaid Kentucky, Florida, and Tennessee for earlier losses over the past four games.  For the Commodores to score revenge against the athletic Hogs, they'll have to maintain their energy without a rowdy home crowd behind them.  If they can match the intensity of the increasingly desperate Razorbacks in the first half, expect a physical, neck-and-neck 40 minutes.  If the ‘Dores fall behind early (a la their January road games), they'll lose their first game in a month.  Behind its seniors, Vanderbilt is too focused right now to let the Tennessee win distract them from the task at hand; the ‘Dores will come out hungry and hang with the Hogs until the end – and we all know how the Commodores play at the end.  Final score: Vanderbilt 78, Arkansas 77.

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