Saturday was bad for Commodore fans, but a win tomorrow could make things much, much better. Vanderbilt can clear the bad taste of a 22-point beatdown against Missouri with a sweet Super Tuesday victory over Tennessee in Knoxville.
Both Vandy and UT are mired in disappointing seasons so far. The Volunteers are 10-8 and share Vanderbilt's 2-4 conference record this season. They've recovered from a four-game losing streak that dropped them into the SEC's basement earlier this month, but a loss against the rebuilding Commodores would likely put the kibosh on any NCAA Tournament dreams that Cuonzo Martin's team has in 2013.
That's what makes this game so important for Vanderbilt. This young squad has almost no postseason aspirations after losing their top six players from last year's SEC Champion team. Their best hope for the remainder of this season is to play spoiler to some of the SEC programs they've developed a rivalry with. What better place to start than against the creamsicle demons from down I-40?
Tennessee has a top 100 RPI and could feasibly sneak onto the postseason bubble with a big run through February and into the SEC Tournament. Their profile - which includes a handful of losses to quality opponents - would sustain significant damage if they couldn't handle a Vandy squad that is struggling to crack the top 150. A Commodore win might not be just the difference between UT and the NCAA Tournament - it could mean keeping the Vols from even earning a NIT bid.
The odds are against Vanderbilt in this one. With the exception of a win in Cincinnati against Xavier, this untested team has struggled on the road. Their best showings in the SEC came in close-but-no-cigar home losses to Kentucky and Ole Miss. They'll have to survive the pressure cooker of a hostile environment in Knoxville to win a game that Commodore fans would consider one of the biggest of the season.
It's going to be tough for the 'Dores, but not unprecedented. Virginia was able to drag Tennessee into a low-scoring affair and out-slop the Vols in a 46-38 win. Let's look at how the Cavaliers were able to beat UT in a slow-paced game back in early December.
Tennessee (10-8, 2-4 SEC, Unranked)
Other Losses: at Ole Miss, vs. Ole Miss, at Georgetown, vs. Oklahoma State, vs. Memphis, at Kentucky, at Alabama
- MAKE YOUR FREE THROWS. Vanderbilt responded from an 80 percent night from the charity stripe by making 30 percent of their freebies against Mizzou.The good news is that Vanderbilt moved up the ranks in terms of team free throw percentage in the NCAA. The bad news is that they're ranked 338th and better than only seven teams in that category. Virginia only went to the line 10 times against UT, and the Vols typically avoid foul trouble - Jarnell Stokes and Yemi Makanjuola excluded - but Vanderbilt can't afford to leave points on the floor in this game.
- Limit Jarnell Stokes. Vanderbilt got utterly destroyed on the boards against Missouri on Saturday. The Tigers held a 35-14 advantage on the glass late in the second half and finished with a +22 rebounding margin. That's a bad sign for a team going up against a 270 pound monster who has a pair of double-doubles in his past three games. Alex Oriakhi punished Vandy inside when it was clear that the 'Dores couldn't handle his size and strength in the post. Tennessee will look to do the same with Stokes. The sophomore will give Kevin Stallings a big puzzle to figure out on Tuesday night.
- Protect the ball. Virginia only turned the ball over eight times against Tennessee, limiting the Vols' chances and holding them to just 53 shots on the night. Vanderbilt is built for a low-tempo game like the one that UT and UVA played back in December, and the Vols have shown that they can be lured into that style of play. A big part of slowing the game down for Vandy will be controlling the ball and limiting their turnovers. This Commodore team is heavy on ballhandling guards and wings, but has fared poorly against defensive pressure in the past. If they can move the ball efficiently in the halfcourt then they'll have the chance to drag Tennessee into the kind of low-scoring affair that benefits this young team.