Well, this is where these articles get a little tougher. Tennessee has outperformed expectations this season, even without handgun enthusiast Tyler Smith. Vanderbilt fans know that when the team rolls into Knoxville, Bruce Pearl will be ready for the Commodores with a tight gameplan and hideous suit jacket . Tennessee has beaten Vandy four straight years at home, with the closest defeat being a seven point loss. The average margin of victory in those games has been over 18 points.
Tennessee is the first opponent this week without a "bad" loss, having only dropped games to RPI top 75 teams. This made this article a little bit more difficult to write, but not nearly as bad as the next one may be. This column for the Kentucky game Saturday might just be a picture of a dog listening to a clarinet for the first time, head cocked with a confused look in his eyes, full of both hope and despair. Other suggestions are welcome in the comments.
Tennessee (15-3, AP #8 #14, Coaches #8 #14)
Other Losses: at Southern California, vs. Purdue (neutral site)
The Volunteers' out-of-conference schedule has been heavy both at the top and bottom, with games against RPI #2 Kansas and #12 Purdue accompanying nine games against teams ranked #136 or higher. The team has gone 5-1 since Tyler Smith's departure, including the team's biggest win to date over Kansas. They topped Alabama by seven and beat a ranked Mississippi squad at home in overtime to earn their current ranking.
Tennessee (RPI #15, KenPom #17) will host Vanderbilt on the heels of a 15 point beating to previously winless-in-the-SEC Georgia. Until this weekend, UT's worst loss had been to an overachieving USC team with no chance at a postseason, where they were also beaten soundly. Tennessee started out flat against Georgia and never got back into the game, trailing by as much as 24 late into the second half.
Key to destruction: Georgia came out hot and stayed that way, while Tennessee was completely unable to find a rhythm against them. The Vols couldn't get anything going against UGA's zone defense, failing to either out-pass it or out-shoot it (3-16 from three point range). Wayne Chism was the only player to show up on the glass for the Vols, who got out-rebounded 34-22. Georgia's leading rebounder was 6'4" guard Travis Leslie, who flirted with a triple-double in the win. Leslie's all-around game canceled out the offense of Scotty Hopson, who finished with 19 points but failed to actively engage his teammates offensively.
Georgia was so hot from the outside that they were able to use the threat of the deep ball to create holes in Tennessee's interior defense. The result was lots of easy layups/dunks and 56% shooting from inside the arc. While Vanderbilt can't rely on the same level of outside shooting to start the game that Georgia had, shooters like Brad Tinsley, Jermaine Beal, and especially John Jenkins have the tools to stretch the Volunteers' defense past its breaking point.
As has been the case in most SEC games so far, the Commodores will have the advantage in the interior against a squad with no true center. Wayne Chism will draw the task of defending A.J. Ogilvy, but the team lacks an experienced big man behind him should he be ineffective or find foul trouble. This is a weakness that the 'Dores need to exploit in order to be successful - see Saturday's second half vs. Auburn for evidence.
Keys to the game:
- Take it at Wayne Chism whenever possible - the longer he's on the bench, through fouls or fatigue, the better the chance the Commodores have of winning.
- Crash the boards - Huge rebounding deficits were common factors against USC and UGA. The Vols don't have any dominant rebounders on their squad, so this could be a game where Andre Walker silently puts up close to a triple double thanks to his work on the glass.
- Keep shooting threes - Georgia used them to break down Tennessee's zone. Vanderbilt uses its outside shooting much more effectively than the Bulldogs. Give the shooters the green light, even if it looks like Beal is more occupied with the point spread than his shooting mechanics.