The SEC's Worst Losses: Tennessee's Turnaround and the Battle for Second Place (Probably)

You might be able to drive past Brad Tinsley, but you'll never be quick enough to escape his roundhouse kick.

If Tennessee beats Vanderbilt on Saturday they will (probably) finish in second place in the SEC. Raise your hand if you saw that coming in January.

Cuonzo Martin's coaching and Jarnell Stokes's presence have turned the Volunteers into a contender in 2012. Tennessee looked like a doormat through January, dropping games to teams like Austin Peay and the College of Charleston (...again) and looked destined to finish outside of even NIT consideration. Then, February hit, and all Martin's work paid off.

Tennessee has looked like a completely different team over the past month. They've gone 7-1 and their only loss came against a surging Alabama squad on the road. They shot 48 percent from the field in an unlikely upset over #8 Florida at the O-Dome. Five of their wins came by nine points or more in this stretch.

The only thing missing from Tennessee's turnaround has been a tight strength of schedule. Their 7-1 run has included wins over Florida and LSU, but the Vols have also beaten up on basement dwellers like Georgia and South Carolina (twice) in that span. A win over a peaking Vanderbilt squad would not only even the season series with their rivals, but validate Martin's turnaround in Knoxville.

After a 3-6 start to the season and a 2-5 foray into conference play, the Volunteers have built the momentum to make an unlikely postseason run. Though Tennessee will likely be sunk for an at-large bid after such a rough start, their recent record suggests that the SEC's automatic bid isn't out of the question - particularly if they can snag a favorable seed with a win Saturday against Vanderbilt.

This matchup will be a lot closer than Tennessee's disingenuous RPI ranking of 81 would suggest. Vandy will be traveling down I-40 to battle against their arch-rivals in the midst of their Senior Night. If those stakes weren't high enough, the winner will probably get the SEC's #2 seed and have the opportunity to avoid top-ranked Kentucky in the early stages of the conference tournament. The Vols overtime win against LSU on Wednesday suddenly made this game one of the most important showdowns of Vanderbilt's regular season slate.

Somehow, a date that had been circled on the calendar since the schedules were printed just got even bigger. Can Vanderbilt harness their momentum into a big win at Thompson-Boling Arena? Let's look at their first win against the Vols to see what this team did right against Martin's blossoming squad.

Tennessee (17-13, Unranked, #61 in the Pomeroy Rankings)

Relevant Loss: at Vanderbilt (21-9, KenPom #19, CBS RPI #21), 47-65
Other Losses: vs. Duke, vs. Memphis, at Oakland, vs. Pitt, vs. Austin Peay, at College of Charleston, at Memphis, at Mississippi State, vs. Kentucky, at Georgia, at Kentucky, at Alabama

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When these two teams first met, Vanderbilt defended their home court with a lopsided beating. Tennessee struggled to gain their footing all night in a game where the 'Dores never trailed. Vandy shot out to a 26-8 lead early in the first half and held on to post an invigorating win over UT.

Jeffery Taylor had 23 points, nine rebounds, and four steals in a game that helped put his name on the map in 2012. However, the game wasn't without some controversy. Yemi Makanjuola, the Vols' other athletic freshman big man, was ejected with just 1:25 remaining in a blowout game for a flagrant foul on John Jenkins. This chippiness did little to dispel the series's standing as a premier basketball rivalry for both teams.

Key to Destruction: Wing scoring. Vanderbilt was driven by their two most prolific scorers, Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor. The duo combined for 39 points despite an off day for Jenkins where he made just two of six three-point attempts. Defensively, the pair helped to limit Tennessee's entire backcourt to just 11 points on 4-21 shooting. This advantage was the difference in a Commodore blowout back in January.

Keys to the Game:

  • Make Tennessee out-shoot you. Tennessee's only efficient offensive output game from big man Jeronne Maymon, who made a few jumpers and scored at the rim to lead the Volunteers in Nashville. When Vanderbilt forced UT to shoot from outside of 12 feet, the Vols went cold. The team shot 12-15 (80 percent) from around the rim but just 6-36 (16.7 percent) when taking jumpers. Vandy's zone defense forced Tennessee to shoot the ball, and an ice cold day from outside the paint killed them.

    Vanderbilt can't expect a solid UT team to shoot this poorly again, but the Volunteer lapses weren't just a function of sloppy play. Stallings's team kept their opponents out of the paint and made them rely on these bad shots. They'll need to force the action to the outside once more to slow down a suddenly-hot Tennessee team.
  • Make Jarnell Stokes play like a freshman. Stokes had just arrived in Knoxville when the Commodores last saw him, and was a key factor in their upset win over then-#11 Connecticut back in January. Vanderbilt was able to turn him into a detriment by forcing him into seven turnovers - as many as he's had in his last four games combined. Festus Ezeli is a tough matchup for the youngster in the paint, as Ezeli is one of the few players that can match up with Stokes's strength in the interior.

    Stokes is going to have to prove that his game has developed significantly in order to get the better of a seasoned defended like Festus. Ezeli has the strength and athleticism to limit the freshman, and UT's budding star may not have the game to get Ezeli in foul trouble and glue him to the bench. If Vanderbilt can make Stokes show his youth, they'll be able to ride their frontcourt advantage to a big win.
  • Give Jeffery Taylor the ball, get out of his way. Taylor did a bit of everything against the Vols in their last meeting. Long range shooting? He went 3-3 from behind the arc. Getting to the rim? The senior had two layups and two dunks in the first half alone. The only things missing from his game against UT were two-point jumpers, and he supplemented that weakness with the first two strengths.

    Taylor's biggest advantage is that there's no right way to guard him unless you've got an elite one-on-one defender on your roster. His shooting game has evolved to the point where he's now one of the country's best from three-point land. His driving ability has risen from good to great over the course of this season alone. In between the two? He's got a solid mid-range game that also works. The only limit is his own drive and determination. Against Florida, he proved that he can overcome early adversity to impact a game. He'll have a chance to back that up on hostile ground in Knoxville on Saturday.
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