Two possessions, two dunks. That's just how Brad Tinsley does it.
By the time Tinsley flushed his second straight entry to the upcoming Fox special "World's Whitest Dunks," any lingering effects from Saturday's overtime loss to Mississippi State had disappeared in Nashville. Vanderbilt was beating their arch rivals 38-16 late in the first half. Jeffery Taylor was coming to grips with his ability to manipulate the matrix. Memorial Gym had regained its madness. All was right with the world.
The moment wasn't lasting, but it was another link in what has been a chain of dominant performances from the Commodores. Vanderbilt is now 5-1 in SEC play, and all five wins have come in blowout form. While the level of competition in these games hasn't been the greatest, their outcomes have still been impressive. It's doubtful that you'd have been able to find anyone that was confident that this Vandy team would be able to defeat Cuonzo Martin's Tennessee squad so handily.
Though UT was just 9-10 heading into the game, they had already posted two wins over top 15 ranked opponents. They were also transforming into a stronger unit behind the addition of freshman big man Jarnell Stokes. Stokes's presence helped lead the team to a major upset of #11 Connecticut and kept them within three points of #1 Kentucky a week earlier.
The Volunteers proved in 2011 that they could control the Commodores even amidst turmoil and turnover. A team that finished with 15 losses and the dismissed their head coach after the season ended up sweeping Vanderbilt in statement-making games. Both games saw the 'Dores squander double-digit second half leads. If nothing else, that Tennessee team showcased a distinct mental advantage over their in-state rivals.
Taylor, Tinsley, and the rest of this Commodore team reversed that trend in 2012. Vanderbilt refused to be bullied or intimidated on their home court. More importantly, they maintained their level of intensity for 40 straight minutes, denying the Vols' offense even late in the game. John Jenkins's presence on the court in the final minutes of a blowout wasn't just about exerting dominance over UT - it was a reaction to recent critiques that this team has difficulty closing out big wins.
That wasn't the only concern being addressed in the win. Taylor put together a strong wire-to-wire performance that helped shake some of the concerns about his ability to play with intensity on both ends of the court for a full 40 minutes. The Vandy defense clamped down and showed that athletic scoring guards like Trae Golden (2-11, 4 points) aren't their kryptonite. Festus Ezeli proved that he can defend physical post players even with a bum knee, holding Stokes to a season-low six points and helping to force the freshman into seven turnovers.
Vanderbilt held serve with an affirming win over an underrated Tennessee team Tuesday night. While that victory won't move the needle too much in the eyes of national pollsters, it should inspire confidence amongst the Vandy faithful. The 'Dores won big when they needed to bounce back and proved that Memorial Gym can regain the magic that makes it a daunting setting for teams like Florida and Tennessee. Last night's win wasn't the high point of this season, but it was certainly a building block for what may become a truly special campaign.
Two more things we learned from Vanderbilt/Tennessee I are after the jump...
Steve Tchiengang's unheralded contributions. The senior forward has been stuck in a rut this season. His shooting percentages are down and he's struggled to make plays with the ball in the paint. In his past two games, he has failed to pull down a rebound in 26 minutes of play. Even his defining characteristic - his ability to step out of the paint and hit three-pointers - has suffered in 2011-2012. He's gone from shooting 41.5 percent from long distance last season to just 21.3 this year.
However, he's still making himself a valuable presence on offense thanks to his ability to pop out and handle the ball at the top of the key. Tchiengang isn't much of a distributor, but his ball skills are strong enough to make him an important safety valve for when this team's guards get stuck. If Tinsley or Jenkins are caught in a corner or working against a double-team, Tchiengang is the guy who provides help on the perimeter and allows this team to reset itself.
It's a small part of his game, but it is something that Tchiengang has brought to the table in the absence of Andre Walker. While he's not impacting the offense with his shooting, he has been able to stabilize the team and turn potential turnovers to new looks for the Commodores. On a team whose bench is led by a pair of freshman guards, this calming influence is a key factor for Vanderbilt - and one that won't show up on the stat sheet.
Jeffery Taylor's draft stock. This isn't exactly a novel observation, but Taylor's draft stock continued its rise with a monster performance Tuesday night. He finished the game with 23 points, nine rebounds, and four steals in 29 minutes of play. He's now third in the SEC in scoring (17.4 ppg), second in three-point percentage (48.6%), and ninth in steals per game (1.4). Those aren't just qualities that the NBA will be looking for from a scoring/defending wing, they're the stats of a potential SEC Player of the Year.
You'll have to go back more than three weeks to find a game where he has shot less than 50 percent from three-point range. This sharpshooting ability is not only a display of his abilities, but his commitment to getting better as a player. As a sophomore, he shot 9.1 percent from behind the arc. After the UT game, he was up to 48.6 percent.
As more and more teams realize what a threat he is as a spot-up shooter, they've begun to bring their man-to-man defense out past the three-point line to defend him. For Jeffery Taylor, that means more drives to the basket, more fouls drawn, and more big-time finishes at the rim. The senior seems to be improving with every game and has made free throws his only glaring weakness in 2012. As others have noted, he's got the potential to have a Derrick Byars-like impact on this team in the postseason.