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.
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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 Barry Booker also saw Garland’s injury as calamitous.
“It is a devastating injury,” said Booker, who also does commentary for the SEC Network. “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 180-degree 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 three-point shooting, ranked 10th among SEC teams in shooting accuracy from beyond the arc. Then the Commodores made six of 25 three-point 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.”
Vanderbilt at No. 18 Kentucky
When: 8:30 p.m. Saturday
TV: SEC Network