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