The #2 seed Vanderbilt Commodores hosted the #3 seed Michigan Wolverines in the second round of the NIT Tournament last Saturday morning. A matchup of two former teammates in Jerry Stackhouse and Juwan Howard had some hype coming in and it did not disappoint. Vanderbilt got off to a blazing 17-5 start much like they did against Yale in the 1st round and then cooled off as Coach Stackhouse went to his bench. Michigan was able to take the lead 30-29 heading into halftime as they found some success in the paint late in the first half and they continued to exploit it for most of the second half. Hunter Dickinson made his presence felt scoring 15 of his team-high 21 points in the second half as Vanderbilt had no answer for him defensively. It felt like Michigan has secured the game up 65-57 with under a minute to go until Memorial Magic struck once again. Vanderbilt rattled off 9 straight points off 3 straight Michigan turnovers as they could not handle the full-court press of the Commodores. Tyrin Lawrence’s game-winning layup, assisted by a Dickinson goaltend, gave Vanderbilt a 1-point lead with 11 seconds to go and Michigan could not convert their two attempts as time expired giving Vanderbilt a 66-65 victory. A wild and crazy ending symbolizing what has been a wild and crazy stretch run for the Commodores since that 57-point loss to Alabama back in late January. It doesn’t end here as Vanderbilt now hosts UAB at home Wednesday night with a chance to make the semifinals in Las Vegas. UAB is a very strong team led by their star Jordan “Jelly” Walker averaging 22.6 points per game. UAB is 3-0 against their common opponents with Vanderbilt (Georgia, South Carolina, Southern Miss) so this should prove to be a tough test. Here are 3 things I am looking for in this matchup.
Ezra Manjon on Jelly Walker
Manjon has been Vanderbilt’s 2nd best defender all year, behind the SEC defensive player of the year Liam Robbins, and this might be his toughest test to date. Walker is a 5’10 guard who can score from anywhere on the floor shooting 41.5% from the field and 39% from 3-point range this season. His 22.6 ppg is good for 4th best in the country, but Manjon may be the perfect matchup for him. Manjon has given smaller guards trouble all year with his pressure picking up at halfcourt. Manjon is as quick as any guard in the country so he should be able to stay with Walker and force him to take tough contested shots all night. Walker shoots 11 3’s per game as well, so Vanderbilt’s bigs will have to do a good job of hedging ball screens up top to allow Manjon to get through to get back on Walker. The ball screens gave Vanderbilt trouble on Wade Taylor IV in the SEC Tournament semi-final against Texas A&M as he was able to come off the screens with little hedge and get free for open shots. UAB has some competent scorers around Walker, but you must make them beat you and do everything you can to make Walker give the ball up and not beat you.
Play Your Rotations Like the SEC Tournament
Because the NIT isn’t the big dance and is more of a consolation tournament, Coach Stackhouse has opted to go deeper into his bench and play more guys than he had down the stretch run of the regular season and the SEC Tournament. This has actually cost Vanderbilt to give up the early leads they are getting off to and allow opponents to get back into games quickly. Now that we are in the quarterfinals and have an eye on a trip to Vegas for the semifinals, I would like to see Stackhouse treat this more like he did in late February and early March and play his best guys for the most minutes. An NIT tournament win could be big for not only recruiting outside players but keeping your guys like Jordan Wright and Tyrin Lawrence for next season. Myles Stute has already departed so that opens up more minutes for Colin Smith, but I’d like to see Trey Thomas and Emmanuel Ansong get fewer minutes and open those up for Paul Lewis, Lee Dort, and the starting 5. Barring foul trouble, two of the combination of Jordan Wright, Tyrin Lawrence, and Ezra Manjon should be on the floor a majority of the time, especially against a high-scoring team such as UAB.
Crash the Glass
UAB is second in the country in total rebounds per game just short of 41 per game, including 11.8 offensive rebounds per game. Vanderbilt is obviously missing their best rebounder in Liam Robbins, but it will have to be a team effort to clean up the glass defensively and limit UAB’s second chances. In times this has been needed we’ve seen Jordan Wright take charge and become a high-level rebounder. He averaged 9 rebounds a game in this SEC Tournament and had a team-high 15 in the win over LSU in the tournament. Vanderbilt could really use his leadership and I would not be surprised if Stackhouse does not challenge him to be the leading rebounder in the game. Coach Stack has talked very highly of Jordan partially being his first recruit ever and leans on him to get the job done when it is needed.
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