The Oklahoma Sooners are stepping out of conference play on Saturday to host Vanderbilt in the Big 12/S.E.C. Challenge. The Commodores (9-9) limp into Norman having lost six consecutive games, all in conference.
The losing streak doesn’t make Vandy any less threatening though as they just took the nation’s top-ranked team to the wire in a 88-83 overtime loss, at home, to Tennessee on Wednesday night.
To help up better familiarize ourselves with Vanderbilt basketball we reached out to Commodores beat writer Adam Sparks. He’s been covering the Vanderbilt beat, for The Tennessean, since 2014 so he knows a thing or two about Oklahoma’s next opponent.
HS: At the beginning of the season, Vanderbilt legitimately possessed two potential first round picks in the upcoming NBA Draft. Now clinging to a 9-9 overall record, what were the expectations and how did those change with the indefinite loss of Darius Garland?
AS: Five-star prospects Darius Garland and Simi Shittu and four-star prospect Aaron Nesmith made up the best recruiting class in program history. Garland went down with a season-ending knee injury, and he announced earlier this week that he will enter the NBA Draft this year. Shittu hasn’t not announced yet, but it would seem reasonable for him to come back one more season. Nesmith has really elevated his game recently. So much of the team was centered around Garland that when he went down, the other players sometimes looked lost. Vandy beat then-No. 19 Arizona State without Garland, but it has lost all six SEC games. Expectations were at least a Sweet 16 run (or something similar), but now the Commodores are just trying to win an SEC game.
HS: From an outsider’s perspective, I expected an uptick in numbers from Simi Shittu with the absence of the aforementioned Garland since November. Has the uptick occurred as expected? If not which member of the team has assumed a majority of the responsibility?
AS: Shittu has quietly put up good numbers. The loss of Garland put a lot on him. Before, he was expected to run the break some, finish plays that Garland set up and settle in. Without Garland, he’s been looked at to score despite double-teams, facilitate offense for others and lead an offense that lacks consistent shooters.
HS: The Commodores are coming off an emotional overtime loss to the No. 1 team in the land. Do you predict a bit of a letdown in the Big 12/SEC Challenge or has Vandy finally showcased exactly what the program is capable of this year?
AS: Past results say this will be a letdown simply because it’s a young team that’s been inconsistent. That being said, the loss to UT was Vandy’s best game of the year. The pieces are there for the Commodores to win, but they rarely have put things together for 40 minutes. If Vandy shoots the ball well from the perimeter and makes FTs, it will be in the game late – but those instances have been few and far between. But just my hunch – I think Vandy will play well in this game. The UT loss seemed like an over-the-hump performance.
HS: On the court, the Sooners have proven to be one of the better defensive programs in the Big 12 Conference. Holding opponents to 38.8% shooting from the floor, Oklahoma ranks 15th in the country largely due to the rangy defenders.
Does Vanderbilt have the ability to stretch the floor with shooters to put pressure on Oklahoma defensively?
AS: That’s a big question. Freshman Aaron Nesmith and Notre Dame transfer Matt Ryan are very good 3-point shooters, but they’ve been hit-or-miss much of this season. Point guard Saben Lee is a big question mark because he’s lacked a consistent jump shot until the UT game, when he made three 3-pointers and some mid-range jumpers. If Ryan and Nesmith get hot, Oklahoma will have to adjust. And if Lee makes shots, the Sooners will be really need to take notice. But, again, those things are more in the realm of potential than reality at this point.
HS: Final question is a three-part one
Vanderbilt snaps the losing streak if?
AS: They hit at least 10 3-pointers (done that four times this season) and make critical foul shots in the final eight minutes (something they’ve rarely done).
The Commodores continue their losing streak if?
AS: They fail to make 3-pointers – which will squeeze Oklahoma’s defense inside the arc, limit penetration by Lee and surround Shittu around the paint. Vandy needs an open floor to win.
Which of those two scenarios is more likely to happen in your opinion?
AS: Well, the second one because it’s been the case more times than not since Garland’s injury. Don’t get me wrong, Vandy can win this game. But it would take a few factors that have not gone the Commodores’ way in the past two months.