Sheldon Jeter's body held up, but he never truly recovered from the emotional damage Rashad Madden caused him that day. - Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports
Vanderbilt and Arkansas will square off for the third time on Thursday, but this time it's a winner-take-all situation. If Vandy can topple the Razorbacks, they'll extend their season. If not, 2013 could come to an ugly end in Nashville.
How do Commodore fans feel about the SEC Tournament now? Did last year's cathartic run through the bracket erase 60 years of bad feelings and terminal failures? Or are the memories of weekday upsets and early exits still too fresh for one weekend of success to erase?
We'll get to see this dynamic in play on Thursday when Vanderbilt makes the three mile trip downtown to kick off their postseason. Vandy will have the comfort of playing at the Bridgestone Arena, but lackluster home attendance in 2013 suggests that they won't get much of a hometown boost from the crowd. The Commodores had a great opportunity to build off last year's history-making SEC Title, but the loss of six key players has turned 2013 into a year of small successes.
Just getting past the play-in stage took some effort from this young team. Vandy was mired at 2-7 in the league and stuck in the conference basement before rallying to a 6-3 finish. Six of their 10 SEC losses came by four points or less (or in overtime), showing just how detrimental Vanderbilt's lack of experience has been this season. Without a steady hand to lead this team in the clutch, the 'Dores have struggled to finish games on a strong note.
They'll look to remedy that against Arkansas on Thursday in the rubber match between the two squads. Vanderbilt has traditionally floundered against the Razorbacks, and that was entirely evident in their 56-33 beating back in January. Since then, the 'Dores have expanded their offense behind the inside-out games of Josh Henderson, Sheldon Jeter, and Rod Odom to become a more formidable challenge. They proved that with a 67-49 home win over the Hogs a month later.
Now, they have to show that their improvement won't be scrubbed away. Mike Anderson will be ready for Vandy's newly diverse attack, and he'll challenge the 'Dores to slow down his own fast paced offense, led by point guard B.J. Young. The Commodores will have to work deliberately to control the ball and find open shots against a tough defense that manhandled them back in January. Can they rally for another big win? Let's take a closer look at how they did it back in February.
Arkansas (19-12, 10-8 SEC, unranked)
Other Losses: at South Carolina, at Texas A&M, vs. Arizona State, at LSU, at Alabama, at Ole Miss, vs. Wisconsin, at Missouri, vs. Syracuse, at Michigan, at Florida
- Feed Henderson - but don't force it. The sophomore center's length presents a real matchup problem for the small-ball oriented Razorbacks. However, Henderson is still an unpolished product in the paint, and he needs the right opportunities to thrive. The last time these two teams met, Hendo emerged as a second option at the rim when Arkansas began to divert their attention to the wings. Mike Anderson won't be as unprepared for the center's soft touch in the lane this time, so Vanderbilt will have to set up their attacks accordingly. If they can establish him as a scoring presence inside the arc, it will go a long way in setting up the 'Dores shooters.
- Play Big. Arkansas is one of the few teams in the SEC that Vanderbilt has a legitimate size advantage over. Back in February, this helped the 'Dores grind out a +9 rebounding advantage and record seven blocks despite the absence of 6'8" power forward Shelby Moats. Marshawn Powell, Coty Clarke, and Hunter Mickelson give the Razorbacks some beef up front, but it will be Vandy who'll have size on their side on Thursday. If Henderson, Odom, Jeter, and Moats can challenge shots and keep Arkansas away from the rim, they'll limit UA's second chances and go a long way in shutting down an otherwise efficient offense.
- Incorporate Sheldon Jeter. Over at Nashville Sports Hub, I wrote that Vanderbilt's ball movement is considerably more effective when Jeter emerges as an inside-out scoring threat. When he scores 10 points or more, Vandy gets assists on 2/3rds of their made buckets. When he scores nine or fewer, that number drops to 53.5 percent. Against Arkansas, "Jeet" had 13 points, and Vanderbilt had 15 assists to go with their 21 made baskets. If they can get similar production on Thursday, they'll be able to keep Arkansas off balance and prove that they've developed from the one-dimensional team that lost to the 'Hogs when they couldn't find their outside shot back in January.