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VOL. 43 | NO. 46 | Friday, November 15, 2019

3 new coaches, 3 unique storylines

Casey follows a legend at Belmont, Acuff follows Casey at Lipscomb, Stackhouse, VU try to rebuild

By Tom Wood

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One played for a Dean, the other inherited the title of dean of Nashville’s college basketball coaches. And the third may not have that connection, but he does share the last name of the King of Country Music.

Meet Jerry Stackhouse, Casey Alexander and Lennie Acuff, the new men’s college basketball coaches at Vanderbilt, Belmont and Lipscomb.

Stackhouse starred at the University of North Carolina under the tutelage of legendary coach Dean Smith, who led the Tar Heels to 879 victories, two national championships and 11 Final Four appearances including one featuring Stackhouse in 1995. Following a stellar NBA career, Stackhouse joined the pro coaching ranks before taking his first collegiate coaching job April 5, replacing Bryce Drew.

After winning his debut with the Commodores – beating Southeast Missouri State 83-65 at Memorial Gymnasium – Stackhouse began his postgame press availability conference with this deadpan quip: “878 more and then I’ll tie Coach Smith.”

Then breaking into his trademark smile, the coach added: “So you know what I’m saying, I’m well on my way.”

Stackhouse’s first collegiate coaching win came a day after his 45th birthday, meaning that if he averages 25 wins a season he would tie Smith’s record sometime around 2055 – at age 81.

If not for Stackhouse’s presence in Nashville, the media spotlight would shine even more on Alexander for two reasons: He replaces legendary Belmont coach Rick Byrd, who retired in April after 805 wins, and Alexander spent the last six seasons at crosstown rival Lipscomb, making him the longest-tenured coach in Nashville.

He returned to his alma mater April 10, coming off Lipscomb’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 2018 followed by an NIT runner-up finish this past season.

Alexander laughs when called the “dean of Nashville coaches,” then adds that he’s “fortunate to have lived in this town and been a part of this program for as long as I have. It’s great to be back.”

And while Nashville’s three-pronged coaching transition may be unique, “It doesn’t say a whole lot to me, honestly. All three programs are in good shape,” says Alexander, who lost his debut as Bruins coach 79-72 at Illinois State.

“Vanderbilt obviously is coming off a tough season, but they’ve got the resources and the history that they need to get back where they want to go.

“And then Belmont’s had a great run. We just enjoyed a great run last year.

“I’ve spent a lot of time talking to Lennie. We’re both in similar situations, me because not only am I inheriting a program that’s done great things, I’m following a coach that’s literally the best of the best.

“And (Acuff is) inheriting a program that’s just done some great things. So, we’re in the same circumstances.”

Acuff, no relation to the aforementioned “King of Country Music” Roy Acuff but certainly one of the kings of small-college basketball after a 22-year run at NCAA Division II Alabama-Huntsville, agrees with Alexander’s assessment.

“It’s unique. A lot of times when you take over programs, there’s been reasons for a change – that maybe there hasn’t been the success they’d like and they’ve decided to go in another direction. At neither Belmont nor Lipscomb is that the case,” explains Acuff, whose team routed Rhodes 104-55 in his debut at Allen Arena before suffering his first loss, 73-70, to MTSU.

“Coach Byrd retired as a legendary figure there, and then Casey did a remarkable job here. And so, both programs have experienced a great deal of success the last few years.”

Here’s a look at the coaches’ change of address and new jobs:

The Stackhouse file

Age: 45

Background: The North Carolina high school player of the year in 1992, Stackhouse spent his final season at Oak Hill Academy, which went undefeated. He was a two-time first-team Parade All-America pick and MVP of the McDonald’s All-American Game.

New Vanderbilt basketball coach Jerry Stackhouse watches his team win its season-opener, moving Stackhouse to 878 career wins behind his coach at North Carolina, Dean Smith.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

He spent two seasons at North Carolina, where as a sophomore he averaged 19.2 points and 8.2 rebounds to lead the Tar Heels to the Final Four. In 1995, he was named first-team All-America and Sports Illustrated player of the year before turning pro.

In the NBA, Stackhouse was the No. 3 pick overall for the 76ers and was named first-team All-Rookie. During 18 seasons with 8 teams, he averaged 16.9 points and was a two-time All-Star with the Pistons and reached the 2006 NBA Finals with the Mavericks.

Following his 2013 retirement, served as an assistant coach with the Raptors (2015-16) and Grizzlies (2018-19), and won the 2016-17 NBA G League title with Raptors 2015 and was named coach of the year.

Hoop scoop: Easily the nation’s most intriguing new coach because of his background, Stackhouse knows the transition is as much an adjustment for him as it is for the players, but he has embraced the challenges and sees himself as a teacher of the game and Memorial Gym as his classroom.

“I’ve never coached down at this level before. I’ve coached the pros, I’ve coached the best,” Stackhouse told reporters after his inaugural Vandy victory. “I’ve seen the best on a night-to-night basis. The best in the world who I’ve been coaching for the last four years and who I’ve been playing against for the last 18 years.

“These are kids. They’re just coming from secondary schools and grassroots so they’ve got a lot to learn. And it’s the same thing – I don’t look at it so much as coaching as opposed to teaching. Once we teach hopefully we get them the opportunity to perform what they’ve been taught on the court.”

And while all eyes are on Stackhouse and the rebuilding job, he would prefer that attention be focused on the players.

“I’m never going to be overbearing,” he says. “You see a lot of these college coaches where you feel it’s like it’s about them. It’s never going to be about that with me. It’s going to be about my players, about what they’re doing, giving them an opportunity to be successful on the court from the things that we teach them in practice.”

Outlook: The only direction is up after going winless in the SEC last season for the first time in school history and ending the season with a 20-game losing streak dating back to Dec. 31, 2018. So it’s no surprise the Commodores were picked last in the 2019-20 SEC preseason poll.

But this team has some talented returning players, notably Aaron Nesmith (pronounced Nee-Smith) and Saben Lee, to go with some exciting newcomers in point guard Scotty Pippen Jr., and 6-9 Dylan Disu. The players have already bought into Stackhouse’s style of play and energy. And look for good things from 6-8 center Clevon Brown, who also can shoot from 3-point range, and ace defender Maxwell Evans.

Probably the most affected player in the coaching change is Lee, who started every game last season but is now coming in off the bench behind Pippen, the son of former NBA star Scottie Pippen. Stackhouse says it’s not about who starts but who finishes, and Lee has responded well so far with 21 points in 28 minutes to go with Nesmith’s 25 points.

The season-opening win over SEMO took care of the lengthy losing skid that cost Drew his job, and gave the Commodores something to build upon. Vandy defeated Texas A&M Corpus Christi on Monday night before making their first road trip to Richmond on Thursday, Nov. 14. Then it’s back home on Nov. 20 to face Austin Peay.

The Alexander file

Age: 47

Background: Starred at Brentwood Academy before signing with Belmont, where he graduated in 1995. He was later inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame a decade later.

Alexander played point guard for Byrd at Belmont 1991-95. He compiled a 119-25 record as a player and helped lead Belmont to the top of the NAIA. As a senior in 1995, Alexander directed the then-Rebels to a 37-2 record, a No. 1 national ranking and an appearance in the NAIA National Semifinals.

Belmont’s Casey Alexander led Lipscomb to the NIT championship game last season.

-- Photograph By Belmont Athletics

Alexander spent 16 seasons on Byrd’s staff, helping the Bruins to their first four NCAA Tournament appearances. In 2011, he got his first head coaching job at Stetson, going 17-19 in two seasons before being hired by Lipscomb.

During six seasons, Alexander compiled a 113-84 record, 59-31 in the A-Sun Conference, highlighted by the school’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 2018 and the NIT Finals appearance last season that capped a 29-win season. He returned to his alma mater April 10.

Hoop scoop: Alexander is excited to be back at his alma mater, but will never put his Lipscomb experience behind him. That will only further enhance the “Battle of the Boulevard” showcase rivalry between the two schools. Lipscomb hosts Belmont on Nov. 20 and visits the Bruins on Dec. 3.

“I’m never going to walk away from Lipscomb and pretend it didn’t happen and that it’s not important to me, because it is,” Alexander says. “The players I coached, the friendships I made … that will last a lifetime. And so I refuse to pretend that it didn’t happen.

“At the same time, I’m at Belmont now, and that’s where my obligation is. It’s where my heart is. And it’s what my job is.”

Alexander reiterated that point at Belmont’s Tipoff Luncheon, telling a packed crowd that the more things change, the more they’ll stay the same for the Bruins.

“We are totally committed to playing to a standard, behaving to a standard, representing Belmont as our first and foremost priority.

“Everywhere that we go, everything that we do, by how we play, by how we act. You name it. That will not change, 100% will not change. Our out-of-bounds plays may have a different name to them, we may choose to do things a little differently on one end or another, but who we are and what we’re about, the reason we’re here, and what makes you proud to be a Belmont supporter, our pledge is that that’s going to stay the same.

“We’re going to strive to be better than we’ve ever been, to go places we’ve never gone, to do things we never have. And a lot of coaches can stand up here and talk about things like that, but they’re not at a place where they’re positioned to do that. We are, and so that is entirely what our objective is – to keep knocking doors down.”

Outlook: Coming off last season’s NCAA Tournament at-large bid, the Bruins were selected as OVC preseason favorite. It’s always a tough league and the conference has only twice received an at-large NCAA.

The Bruins are led by redshirt sophomores Nick Muszynski and Grayson Murphy, and have a balanced surrounding cast. They defeated Samford on Monday night before visiting Boston College on Saturday, Nov. 16. Belmont will then host Samford on Monday before visiting Lipscomb Wednesday to renew the Belmont Boulevard rivalry. The Bruins won both meetings in 2018.

The Acuff file

Age: 54

Background: In 22 seasons at Alabama-Huntsville, Acuff compiled a record of 437-214 and his overall record is 554-325 with 11 NCAA Division II tournament appearances and stockpiling multiple coach of the year honors.

He played at Shorter College, where he set several school records and in 2011 was inducted into the Shorter Athletic Hall of Fame. Like Stackhouse, this is Acuff’s first NCAA Division I coaching job.

Lipscomb coach Lennie Acuff amassed a 437-214 record at Division II Alabama-Huntsville.

-- Photograph By Lipscomb Athletics

Hoop scoop: Lipscomb enjoyed a remarkable National Invitation Tournament run to end last season, going 3-0 against North Carolina powers UNC-Greensboro, North Carolina State and Davidson to reach the NIT Final Four. At Madison Square Garden, Lipscomb defeated Wichita State in the semifinals before running out of gas in an 81-66 NIT finals loss to Texas.

Outlook: The talent cupboard isn’t bare, but there are challenges reflected by their A-Sun preseason poll picks of fifth by the coaches and fourth by the media.

“(Lipscomb is) a program that’s had their best team as a Division I program and played in the NIT finals, won 29 games. The sidebar to that, though, is you lose 7,700 points and over 3,000 rebounds,” Acuff says. “So you’re not inheriting the same team, but you are hopefully inheriting a lot of the qualities and culture that was established from the previous coaching staff – which I have a ton of respect for.”

The Bisons visited Tennessee State on Tuesday and are at Duquesne on Friday, Nov. 15, before renewing the rivalry with Belmont on Wednesday.

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