Star Gar­land’s in­jury is ter­ri­ble blow to Vandy, who bat­tle Wild­cats next

Lexington Herald-Leader - - Sports - BY JERRY TIPTON jtip­[email protected]­ald-leader.com

As part of the prepa­ra­tion for his first sea­son as an SEC Net­work an­a­lyst, for­mer Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy at­tended var­i­ous pre-sea­son prac­tices. Watch­ing Van­der­bilt’s fresh­man point guard, Dar­ius Gar­land, made a last­ing im­pres­sion.

“When I walked out, I said to my­self, ‘This kid’s got the whole pack­age,’” Kennedy said this week. “‘He’s strong. He’s quick. He’s shifty with the ball. He plays at an ef­fort­less pace. He can make shots. It’s hard to stay in front of him. He’s a good passer. He’s got a real vi­brant spirit that’s re­ally in­fec­tious.’”

Kennedy put Gar­land in the same cat­e­gory as such for­mer Ken­tucky back­court stars as John Wall, Eric Bled­soe and Bran­don Knight.

“I was re­ally look­ing for­ward to watch­ing him play, and see the type of im­pact he

would have on the land­scape of col­lege bas­ket­ball,” Kennedy said.

Of course, it was not to be. Gar­land tore the menis­cus in his left knee two min­utes into Vandy’s game against Kent State on Nov. 23. There was no con­tact in­volved. He drove to the bas­ket, then came away limp­ing.

Just like that, Gar­land’s fresh­man sea­son was over. The home­town hero — Gar­land led Brent­wood Academy to four Ten­nessee state cham­pi­onships — and the what-might-be ex­cite­ment he gen­er­ated was no more.

“Him be­ing out on our court was elec­tri­fy­ing for our fans, for our city,” Vandy Coach Bryce Drew said on a South­east­ern Con­fer­ence tele­con­fer­ence last week. “When he went down, it was ob­vi­ously a big blow in a lot of ways.

“We had to do kind of a 180 and change some things up in the last month.”

Van­der­bilt had built its team around Gar­land. Jerry Meyer, a re­cruit­ing an­a­lyst for 247Sports, likened the ex­pected im­pact Gar­land could make to what Trae Young did at Ok­la­homa last sea­son.

“It was a tremen­dous blow for Van­der­bilt,” Meyer said of Gar­land’s in­jury.

How good of a player is Gar­land? He is still pro­jected as a first-round pick in var­i­ous mock NBA drafts for 2019: The 18th pick ac­cord­ing to NBADraft.net, the eighth pick ac­cord­ing to SI.com and the sev­enth pick, ac­cord­ing to Bas­ket­ball In­sid­ers.

Dur­ing the tele­cast of Vandy’s game at Ge­or­gia on Wed­nes­day, an­nounc­ers Mike Mor­gan and Mark Wise spoke in mourn­ful tones about the “sad­ness,” the “malaise,” the “griev­ing,” the “psy­cho­log­i­cal break­down” caused by Gar­land’s in­jury.

For­mer Van­der­bilt star and SEC Net­work com­men­ta­tor Barry Booker also saw Gar­land’s in­jury as calami­tous.

“It is a dev­as­tat­ing in­jury,” said Booker. “They re­ally sort of built their of­fen­sive plan around him for the sea­son.”

Van­der­bilt had a 4-0 record be­fore Gar­land’s in­jury. He av­er­aged 19.8 points. Since then, the Com­modores are 5-5 go­ing into Satur­day’s game at Ken­tucky.

As part of Drew’s 180de­gree course change, Van­der­bilt moved sopho­more Saben Lee to point guard.

“Saben Lee is an ath­letic guy who can get to the bas­ket,” Kennedy said. “But he doesn’t shoot it. So as a re­sult teams kind of play off him a lit­tle bit and it cuts down a lot of that pen­e­tra­tion.”

Lee has made five of 24 three-point shots. Go­ing into this week’s games, Van­der­bilt, which has long been syn­ony­mous with good three­p­oint shoot­ing, ranked 10th among SEC teams in shoot­ing ac­cu­racy from be­yond the arc. Then the Com­modores made six of 25 three­p­oint shots in a loss at Ge­or­gia on Wed­nes­day.

Kennedy and Meyer saw an­other part of the ad­just­ment in­volv­ing an­other five-star fresh­man, Simisola Shittu. A ver­sa­tile 6-foot-10 Mc­Don­ald’s All-Amer­i­can whose game fits the trendy po­si­tion­less-player mold, Shittu has taken on some play­mak­ing du­ties. With Gar­land side­lined, Shittu is Vandy’s lead­ing scorer (14.6 ppg) as well as re­bounder (8.3 rpg).

“He’s a great player, too,” Meyer said. “He’s just not your point guard. . . . It’d re­ally hurt Van­der­bilt if they lost Simi, but not nearly as bad as los­ing your point guard.”

Sum­ming up the state of Van­der­bilt bas­ket­ball, Meyer called Gar­land’s sea­son-end­ing in­jury “a dev­as­tat­ing blow.”

“He’s a great player. He’s a point guard. You lose him. Ouch.”

MARK HUMPHREY AP

Dar­ius Gar­land av­er­aged 19.8 points per game in lead­ing Van­der­bilt to a 4-0 start. The point guard was lost for the sea­son when he tore the menis­cus in his left knee in the Com­modores’ fifth game.

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