Following the 25 point loss at UK at the end of January, Tennessee stood at 2-5 in conference. Given their horrid pre-conference results, it looked to be a long winter in Knoxville for Vol basketball fans and for first year head coach Cuonzo Martin, cleaning up in the wake of the Bruce Pearl scandal.Instead, UT has won 7 of their last 8 contests, and now stands a surprising 9-6 in conference, good for 4th place. What has transpired to cause this turnaround?
The largest (both figuratively and literally) was the arrival of man-child Jarnell Stokes just a few games into the SEC season. Stokes has bolstered the previously undersized front line of UT and provided a very wide bodied player who is physical and a tremendous rebounder. He has also given UT a second post option to take some pressure off of Maymon, who has flourished under the coaching change.
The second biggest factor has been a somewhat easing of the schedule, having faced UK twice prior to February. Of the 7 wins, 5 have come against teams rated 100 or worse in the Kenpom rankings. The others were a win at UF (which I’m not sure I completely understand) and the most recent win against LSU, which stands just inside the top 100 at 95. Their only loss was to a depleted Bama squad on the road.
So what is UT doing right? Based on their conference numbers, they are doing two things very well – getting to the line and rebounding the basketball at defensive end of the floor. UT is 2nd to VU in FT rate, taking over 4 FT’s for every 10 FGA. Maymon and Stokes are the drivers, both with FT rates above 50%. Their other two high-usage players (Golden and McRae) are also adept at drawing fouls. Both Maymon and Stokes are excellent defensive rebounders, and SF Cam Tatum also chips in at that end. This makes up for the fact that UT doesn’t apply much pressure or attempt to turn the opponents over, leading to an excellent defense. They play straight up defense (B1G style) and rebound the misses. These strengths have allowed them to overcome a poor ballhandling and mediocre offensive numbers overall.
How does this affect the matchup on Saturday?
While UT is heading in the opposite direction of Florida, the matchups are completely different for Vanderbilt. While UT has two large bodies in the post that give a lot of teams trouble, they have difficulty with the overall size of Festus, who is much taller than either player. Neither Stokes nor Maymon are high-flyers, which has led to a relatively low block rate for UT, which is something that our post players have struggled against but will not have to face on Saturday. Golden and McRae have been very good for UT at guard, but Tate is more of a combo guard playing point, and neither is the super quick player that either Brad Tinsley or John Jenkins has difficult staying in front of. Their ability to draw fouls also goes against our great ability to avoid committing them.
Much of the game is matchups, and IMO, VU matches up well with UT, as we are able to match their size and athleticism in the paint, and can switch the guards without have a horrible matchup with Tinsley. Their defense is very solid, but they do not do the things that give us fits, namely press with a bunch of quick guards. The key matchup will be (as has been the case so many times this season) at the PF spot with LG against Maymon. In the first matchup Maymon was the only UT player in double figures and did so quite efficiently while grabbing 8 boards. Lance OTOH had a very poor game, with more fouls and TO’s (8) combined than points and rebounds (6). If Lance is able to play more evenly with his counterpart, UT will have a difficult time beating us. We can expect around 35-40 points between Taylor and Jenkins, but need more production from the secondary players.
Now, UT shot very poorly against us in the first matchup, especially from outside, and turned the ball over a mind-boggling 25 times. I do not expect to see a repeat of either of those numbers. If our starting posts get into foul trouble that could also cause some problems if the reserves are not ready to play. But UT will again have difficulty matchup up against Taylor, Ezeli is playing better than he did in the first matchup. UT similarly will have to worry about foul issues, as we’ve done a fantastic job over the last 8 games of drawing fouls against everybody, including the game at UK.
Overall, I expect a battle between the two squads as both have a lot to play for and it will be a rivalry game on senior night for UT.