By Cody Soto
Baylor men’s basketball looks to continue its current success as it hits the road to face Vanderbilt in the Big 12/SEC Challenge tonight in Nashville, Tenn.
The Bears (6-1) look to take their first win over the Commodores (5-1) since the teams first met in 1949. Baylor has dropped eight straight games to Vanderbilt, and the last being on Dec. 7, 1985.
Senior guard Kenny Chery is sitting out with a foot injury, so Baylor fans will still see a shift in the lineup from head coach Scott Drew. Chery is letting his voice be heard whether on the bench or on the court, according to Drew.
“Kenny has done a great job being vocal on the bench, and on the court there’s no doubt he’s our leader,” Drew said. “The great thing is that every timeout, he tells the team what he sees and what he thinks. He’s done a great job helping Lester, Al and the younger guys.”
All players saw game action in Monday’s dominant 75-49 win over Texas Southern, and several team members rose up to the challenge. Junior guard Lester Medford and freshman guard Al Freeman were a big part in filling Chery’s shoes.
“When Lester and Al are in, they are playing against teams that are NCAA and quality teams, and they’re doing a great job, especially Lester,” Drew said. “We haven’t had the chance to give Lester a lot of rest between games, but he’s done a great job.”
Baylor will need to shake off its cold shooting that was seen in Monday night’s game and against Illinois last Friday. The Bears were only 33.3 percent from the field against Illinois and started out 2-for-9 against Texas Southern.
However, both games ended differently. Baylor pulled together and used its defense to obstruct shots and defend the perimeter. The offense started rolling Monday night after some big three-pointers by Medford, but the shots were not falling Friday night.
Baylor and Vanderbilt come into tonight’s game with similarities. While Vanderbilt outscores the Bears 71.5 to 68 points per game, Baylor limits its opponent to only 51.1 points per contest. The Bears lead the Big 12 and ranks seventh nationally in scoring defense.
“Our defense has been doing well, especially with rebounding,” senior forward Royce O’Neale said. “But we’ve got to cut down turnovers, play as a team, and do what we do.”
Sophomore forward Ishmail Wainwright said he loves playing defense, and that helps the Bears maintain its ranking.
“We have a lot of weapons on offense, and we need to keep it up and share the ball to make it work,” Wainwright said. “Offensive-wise, we thrive off of defense. Once that gets going, we thrive on fast breaks and dunks.”
Baylor has the Big 12’s best record in conference challenge games, sitting at 4-1. The Bears took a 67-62 win over Kentucky last season in the first Big 12/SEC challenge.
With six games under their belt, the Bears are led by junior forward Taurean Prince with 12.8 points per game, followed by Chery with 10.3 points. Senior forward Royce O’Neale and junior forward Rico Gathers contribute 9.7 points for contests and provide big offensive plays.
“We can see we are going in the right direction, but it’s a daily thing. We need to execute in the game and play for each other,” O’Neale said.
Vanderbilt is led by sophomore center Damian Jones who posts 17.2 points per contest with a .633 shooting average. Jones was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team last season, putting up 11.3 points in his first year at Vanderbilt.
“Damian Jones is a physical sophomore whose he’s really come on and emerged to be a good player for them,” Drew said. “Vanderbilt is a fundamentally sound team. They shoot the ball and run a good offense.”
The Commodores’ only loss is a 68-65 loss to Rutgers in the Barclays Center Classic on Nov. 28. Despite a better shooting percentage, Vanderbilt surrendered a layup and a free throw to drop their first game of the season. They held Rutgers to a 39.3 shooting effort in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“They have made a tremendous defensive effort so far. They play a 2-3 zone, man-to-man, and they make it hard to get in the point,” Drew said.
The oddly shaped venue will serve as another test for the Bears who look for its seventh win to start the season.
“Anytime we play on the road, it’s tough. Playing at a place where there’s good attendance and a traditionally good team at home, it’s tough to win,” Drew said. ”In order for us to win, we have to play well and take care of our shots.”
Baylor faces Vanderbilt tonight at Memorial Stadium in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. Game time is set for 6 p.m. on ESPNU.