This article wasn't designed to capitalize on Tennessee's failures, but I'll be damned if this isn't where The SEC's Worst Losses is a viking.
The Volunteers have turned two middle fingers up to consistency this season, beating revered teams like Pittsburgh and Villanova while losing to stalwarts such as the College of Charleston, Charlotte, and Oakland. It's been a roller coaster season for UT so far, and the league-imposed suspension of Bruce Pearl seems to have hit at the worst possible time. Without their charismatic (and poorly dressed) coach on the sideline, the Vols have gone 0-2 in conference play, losing to Arkansas and Florida.
Those defeats have made Saturday's rivalry game against Vanderbilt one of the biggest games of the season for Tennessee. There's a good chance that we'll look back at this game after the season is over and either identify it as the point where the Volunteers turned their season around, or the game that drained the hope from their fanbase. With the exception of a March showdown with Kentucky, the Vandy matchup this weekend represents the biggest game of the season to be played at Rocky Top.
However, the 'Dores wouldn't be the first team to win in Knoxville this season. Let's take a look at Tennessee's worst loss and see how Vanderbilt can take advantage of the Vols' missteps.
Tennessee (10-6, Unranked)
Judging strictly by the basis of RPI rankings, Tennessee's loss at Charlotte, an 8-8 team with losses to Gardner-Webb and Coastal Carolina, is the worst of the bunch. However, a one-point loss on foreign soil stings less than a double-digit beating at home, so we'll save the game against the 49ers for February's preview. Charleston came to Knoxville and slapped the Volunteers (KenPom #53, CBS RPI #46) around right when it looked like they might be getting their act together. Tennessee had strung together a pair of tight wins after a three-game skid, and needed to beat up on the Cougars to send a message that they were still a force to be reckoned with. Instead, Charleston came out hot, opening up a huge early lead and never looking back en route to a 13 point victory.
Key to Destruction: Savvy guard play and blocking out Rocky Top. The College of Charleston started the game about as poorly as they could have, airballing a three-pointer and giving up an easy layup on the other end to open the first minute of play. Though Thompson-Boling Arena didn't have a crowd that will anything remotely like the fanatics that come out Saturday for College Gameday, the UT faithful still let the Cougars hear it.
If the hostile environment of Tennessee's home court was supposed to rattle the mid-major CofC team after that start, they clearly didn't understand the concept. Charleston came back with a seven-of-seven shooting streak that put the team up by 10 and gave them a lead they wouldn't relinquish. Tennessee never trailed by less than five points as the Cougars went on to post their only win of the season against a major conference team.
Charleston's backcourt duo of Donavan Monroe and Andrew Goudelock shot the lights out in Knoxville, combining for 58 points and almost singlehandedly keeping Tennessee from making a comeback. The duo did their damage from either the charity stripe or from beyond the arc, as 44 of their points came from either free throws or three pointers. As a whole, the Cougars were efficient when it came to drawing contact on their shots, and the end result was a buttload (scientific term) of points - the most hung on the Vols this season.
Keys to the Game:
- Bombs away. Charleston pulled away by putting on a shooting clinic, especially from long range. The Cougars finished with 14 three-pointers in 21 attempts from their starters. While numbers like that are certainly the exception rather than the rule against Tennessee, it shows the Vols' vulnerability on the perimeter. Vanderbilt is stocked with shooters, including one who is capable of putting up a 14 for 21 night of his own. Expect John Jenkins to get the green light to put up some bombs against UT, and look for lots of passes deep into the shot clock to find the open man behind the arc - a Kevin Stallings specialty.
- Make Bobby Knight proud: Use your shot fake. Charleston squeezed 34 free throws on just 22 fouls for the game, taking advantage of Tennessee's sloppiness and defenders' willingness to leave their feet. UT's rotation players generally avoid foul trouble for the most part (with the exception of Brian Williams and occasionally Melvin Goins), so using the bonus like the 'Dores did against Georgia could be tough. However, without Bruce Pearl on the sideline and emotions running high, Vandy should still be able to get to the line with patient play and shot fakes. If Vanderbilt can squeeze 20+ free throws out of Tennessee on Saturday, they'll be in great shape to pick up the win.
- Drown out Rocky Top. College Gameday will be in town as Vandy's men's and women's basketball are scheduled to take on the Volunteers in the state's biggest rivalry. Despite the early start, the fans at Boling-Thompson will be loud, belligerent, loud, vicious, and loud. UT's passionate fanbase is desperate for a big home win and the Volunteers need to pull off the upset Saturday in order to keep pace in the SEC East. Needless to say, things are going to be tense, and the orange-clad faithful in Knoxville can often be enough to spur rallies or stop opposing momentum all on their own. Teams like Oakland, Southern Cal, Charleston, and Florida have been able to ignore the fans and execute their game plans. For Vanderbilt to be successful, guys like John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor, and Festus Ezeli will have to keep their emotions in check and drown out the eastern Tennessee cacophony.
Charleston beat Tennessee with a barrage from the three-point line and the free throw line. Vanderbilt has the talent to do the same - but also a stronger defense to keep the Vols at bay. Still, UT has a very talented team with a very significant chance to win Saturday afternoon. If the Vols can play cohesive basketball like they did against Pittsburgh, then Vanderbilt will be in trouble. If they continue playing as though each player on the court is his own separate satellite, then the fans in Knoxville could be in for a long day.