A busy day for Commodore Nation, as eight different sports are in action today, including the nationally ranked men's basketball, women's lacrosse, men's baseball, and women's bowling teams. Jermaine Beal and company head out to Fayetteville, Arkansas for a match-up with the one-time SEC West leader Arkansas, who have dropped three of their last four and are the victims of LSU's only conference win. Vanderbilt will be looking for their first win in the Natural State (really? The Natural State? That's the best you've got for a nickname, Arkansas?) since 1996.
The 'Dores need a win to have a chance at taking the SEC regular season title, as a loss or a Kentucky win over the next three games would seal a Wildcats championship. They also need to stay ahead of quickly rising Florida in the quest for the second seed in the east, as the Gators are only a game behind in the standings and will host Vanderbilt next week. Arkansas, conversely, will need an SEC Tournament win to find their way into the NCAA Tournament - but as Georgia showed the league in 2008, anything is possible.
Arkansas (14-14, AP NR, Coaches NR)
Worst Loss: vs. South Alabama (RPI #214, KenPom #256) 61-74
Other Losses: at LSU, vs. East Tennessee State, at Auburn, vs. Morgan State, at Alabama
Arkansas (RPI #135, KenPom #98) had two candidates for worst loss after their recent beatdown at the hands of LSU, but in the end their 13 point home loss to a team that is 8-10 in the Sun Belt Conference stood out as the worst blemish on their profile. The Razorbacks stormed through the middle of SEC play, compiling a five game win streak that included victories over Mississippi, Mississippi State, and Georgia before running out of steam and dropping three out of their last four. They've proven to be a dangerous team at home, where they hold a 5-1 record in conference play.
However, the team has also dropped some surprising out-of-conference games at the Bud Walton Arena. Early season losses to South Alabama, East Tennessee State, and Morgan State all came in a three game streak that effectively picked apart the Razorbacks' NCAA Tournament hopes before the season could get into full swing. It's important to note that these losses came without star guard Courtney Fortson, who missed the first 14 games of the season.
Key to Destruction: It's tough to judge a game where the team was missing its best player, but this also showcases the team's weaknesses if the Commodores are able to shut Fortson down. The diminutive guard has a similar profile to South Carolina's Devan Downey - a quick guard who puts up tons of shots and scores more based on volume than shot selection. For the season, Fortson is shooting just 37.2% from the field, but his lack of efficiency has been static in both wins or losses, so it's tough to statistically gauge his overall impact on any given game.
Against South Alabama, the Razorbacks were outplayed in nearly every category. They were out-rebounded by the smaller team, shot worse than a team who only has one regular player who shoots over 45%, and out-hustled by a squad that came away with 13 steals. Without Fortson, the team sputtered to just 61 points. Freshman Julysses Nobles was pressed into starting action in his absence, but managed just three points before fouling out in 18 minutes.
Arkansas's problem starting the first and second halves was a familiar one for Vanderbilt fans. The Razorbacks started slowly and fell into an early 15 point deficit in the first ten minutes only to climb back into the lead at the half. However, unlike some of Vandy's ugly wins, Arkansas was unable to build on this momentum in the second half; South Alabama outscored the home team by 19 points in the first ten minutes of the second frame to assume a lead they'd never give up.
Keys to the Game:
- Come out with tenacity, and don't let Arkansas use runs to break open the game. A volume scorer like Courtney Fortson can get hot and shoot his team back into a game, especially at home. Vanderbilt needs to come out strong and silence the home crowd, then keep their composure to hold a lead and stop the Razorbacks from building momentum.
- Make Fortson shoot the ball from outside the paint, and don't let him get to the free throw line. Fortson is averaging 10 free throws per game in SEC wins, and just six per game in SEC losses. Due to his inconsistent shooting, he's considerably more dangerous from the line than from the floor. He demands defensive attention, but sending him to the free throw line will make him a more efficient scorer and give the Razorbacks their best opportunity to beat Vanderbilt.
Use the Commodores' depth to run this team off the court, and take advantage of bench mismatches. Though Arkansas has a strong starting five, Vanderbilt has the far deeper team. The bench has been playing well as of late, and the utilization of guys like John Jenkins, Festus Ezeli, and Lance Goulbourne should be a major factor in a Vanderbilt win.