FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas hasn’t won a Southeastern Conference Tournament game since 2008, stumbling in their first attempt in each of the past four years.
The only way to break the streak on Thursday is by beating a Vanderbilt team with wins in four of its final five games and serves as the unofficial SEC Tournament host in Nashville, Tenn. So Arkansas coach Mike Anderson believes the seventh-seeded Razorbacks face a “great task” in trying to end the skid against the No. 10 seed.
“They’re comfortable with one another,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “I think when you look at the young guys … They’re starting to put their impact on this team here. When they shoot the ball, I think they’re a dangerous team.”
Anderson is right. The Commodores don’t look like the minor hurdle they appeared to be earlier in the year after opening conference play 2-7. It included a 56-33 loss at Arkansas, when Vanderbilt nearly set the school record for fewest points scored.
Coach Kevin Stallings’ young team has shown gradual improvement since then, including a 67-49 win against the Razorbacks in Memorial Gym on Feb. 9.
Vanderbilt — once seemingly a lock for the bottom four in the conference standings and a Wednesday game in the SEC’s new 14-team tournament format - carries much more confidence into Bridgestone Arena as the conference’s No. 10 seed.
“We finished up the season strong, which we were happy about,” Stallings said during the SEC Teleconference on Monday. “And we feel like our team has continued to get better through the course of the season which is always our goal.”
No one will mistake Vanderbilt as the team to beat this week, although Stallings’ veteran roster won the 2012 SEC Tournament in New Orleans. The Commodores don’t have any wins against the top six teams in the SEC standings. In fact, six of their eight SEC wins have come against the bottom four teams of Auburn, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Mississippi State.
But South Carolina coach Frank Martin – whose team lost to Vanderbilt twice this season – said there has been a difference in their play lately. It begins with Vanderbilt’s improved ability to make shots after some early-season issues.
“Early in the year, I thought they struggled some shooting the basketball,” Martin said. “But that comes with being so young. Their defense has never been a problem. They defend you. They’re long. They stay between the ball and the rim. They’re long on the perimeter, which makes it hard to pass the basketball.
“I think you go back to the fact that you’re looking at a team that four months ago is playing all freshman and sophomores. Now they’re four months into it, and the challenges of the season have hardened their team, and they’re playing their basketball of the year at the right time.”
Guard Kedren Johnson remains Vanderbilt’s most reliable offensive player, leading Vanderbilt in scoring (13.8 points a game), 3-point field goals (53), and assists (3.6). But others like Rod Odom (10.2 points, 4.4 rebounds), Kyle Fuller (8.4 points), Kevin Bright (6.7 points, 5.6 rebounds) and Sheldon Jeter (5.7 points) have been key.
Vanderbilt is last in the SEC in scoring (60 points a game), but ranks third among fewest points allowed (60) behind Florida (53.2) and Alabama (59).
“Vandy is shooting the ball well. But their defense has been very good all year,” said Georgia coach Mark Fox, whose team lost to Vanderbilt 63-62 on Feb. 27.
Arkansas found out firsthand how strong the Commodores can be defensively, averaging 52.5 points in two games. It’s 21.2 points below Arkansas’ season average.
Vanderbilt’s 67-49 win against the Razorbacks snapped a four-game losing streak and helped kick off the second half of conference play. The Commodores went 6-3 over the stretch after the rough start with its only losses coming against three of the top five seeds in Tennessee (58-46), Kentucky (74-70) and Florida (66-40).
Stallings knows it will take more than just a strong close to the regular season to make a run in Nashville this week. But he’s hoping his team’s recent success can continue beginning with its opener against the Razorbacks on Thursday night.
“We have had some of our best conference tournaments having gone into the tournament not playing as well as we would have liked,” Stallings said. “We didn’t feel like we were playing great last year going into the tournament and we ended up winning. So I just don’t know if that is an indicator, what’s happened recently. I think it’s more who you draw and the teams getting on a roll as the week unfolds.”