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VOL. 43 | NO. 10 | Friday, March 8, 2019

Vanderbilt’s Lee making the most of challenging season

By Ivan Aronin

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“I know the numbers don’t show it but I can shoot the ball,” VU point guard Saben Lee says.

-- Photo By Jerry Denham |The Ledger

Just about everything has been a fast-break in the wrong direction for Vanderbilt men’s basketball team this season.

A loss to Texas A&M dropped the Commodores to 9-20, 0-16 with a school-record 17 consecutive losses, including all 16 in the Southeastern Conference. No team has ever finished 0-18 in SEC league play. Vandy has two more regular season games – Arkansas March 6 at home and LSU March 9 in Baton Rouge before the SEC tournament at Bridgestone Arena beginning March 13.

In a season of frustration, sophomore Saben Lee had to step up early on. He moved to point guard after freshman Darius Garland injured his knee in the fifth game of the season.

He leads Vanderbilt with 12.7 points per game, including tying his career-high twice this season with 24 points against Oklahoma and Alabama.

“Definitely it is a role change, playing point guard and I guess just stepping up as a leader and just encouraging guys and staying positive,” says the 6-foot-2 Lee, who is averaging nearly four assists per game.

“For a point guard to be successful in the SEC, you just need to lead. Not necessarily when it comes to stats like scoring but definitely in assists and making sure you get everyone involved on offense.”

Although Lee grew up in Tempe, Arizona, he had plenty of information about colleges and college sports in the South.

His mother attended Vanderbilt and his father, Amp Lee, was an All-America running back at Florida State. But Lee gives more credit to the Vanderbilt coaching staff for his decision to play in Nashville.

“(Vanderbilt) reached out to me my junior year. I never really cared about location or being away from home,” says Lee, who plans to major in mechanical engineering. “Just being here in the SEC, probably one of the best conferences for basketball, is a big reason why I came here.


“Also, Coach Drew played my position in the league (NBA) so he obviously knows a lot about the game. We are almost opposite players so I felt like I could learn a lot from what he was successful at and what I need to improve.”

Saben Lee on Nashville

Favorite Nashville team besides your team:

“The Titans because a lot of people follow them here.”

Favorite Nashville restaurant:

“Hattie B’s. I usually do the second-hottest chicken they have.”

Favorite place on campus:

“I guess it is my dorm room. I don’t leave there often. It is very relaxing there.”

Favorite Vanderbilt sports moment:

“Playing Tennessee this year. We didn’t win but I feel like a lot of the guys grew up that night. It was just fun playing them.”

Some national attention that Lee likely shares with his famous father is an appearance on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays of the day list for a down-the-lane powerful dunk against Tennessee State in December. But Lee missed the original broadcast.

“I always thought it would be cool to be on SportsCenter’s Top 10. Growing up you always watch the top plays,” Lee adds. “But it was definitely a cool experience watching my name show up on there.

“But someone told me the next day. They said I was No. 2 on SportsCenter, and I did not know what they were talking about. I knew I was a SportsCenter nominee but I did not know for sure until one of my teammates told me.”

Another way that Lee can be noticed on the court is by his uniform number — zero.

“I always rocked No. 7 growing up,” Lee recalls. “I got on the scene late usually, and I felt like not that many people believed in me except those in my circle and my mom and my dad so that is really how the zero came, for the circle.”

As for this character-building season with the Commodores, teammate Matt Ryan says Lee’s comfort level at the position has increased.

“He has gotten more comfortable by keeping the ball moving on offense to everyone,” Ryan points out. “He was pushed into the role (as point guard). No one expected him to be in that role but he is doing well.”

Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew says Lee’s success as a point guard depends on two factors: shooting and offensive pace.

“To be a great point guard in this league, first it matters who else is on your team, then to be able to shoot the ball and control the pace of the game,” Drew says. “Against Tennessee (an overtime loss in January), Saben did that and helped to keep it close by helping to control the game.”

Lee started 29 games as a freshman and led the Commodores in assists with 99 in 32 games.

Lee has worked on increasing his value as a 3-point shooter. He has made only 21 of 59 attempts so far this season, he hit 3 of 4 in a 71-55 loss to Florida.

“I feel like I have improved my 3-point shooting a lot and now I am just more comfortable taking those shots,” Lee says. “Coach (Drew) hasn’t told me to take more shots, but obviously if I am shooting at a good percentage then he wants me to shoot it, but I think he just sees that I am having some recent success.”

“I know the numbers don’t show it but I can shoot the ball,” Lee said following the first Tennessee game. “They (3-pointers) were just falling. Once I saw the first one go in, I was just more confident. So I just took the open shots.”

Free throws have been an issue for the sophomore.

“Saben has just made great strides in his 3-point shooting,” Drew says. “But we are still frustrated about his free throws.”

For the season, Lee is making 70 percent (125 of 180) of his free throws as the regular season winds down.

But more importantly for Vanderbilt, it might be the timing of his free throw misses more than the frequency. Lee missed the first shot of a 1-and-1 against Alabama that would have cut the Crimson Tide’s lead to just three points with four minutes remaining in a 77-67 Vanderbilt loss.

As for the upcoming tournaments, Lee is realistic and says he can see both Tennessee and Kentucky ending up in the Final Four.

“I think they both could go really far in the tournament,” Lee says. “Both are really elite teams. There is a reason they are ranked in the top 10.”

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