Tennessee is having a weird season. Despite being 1-3 since Bruce Pearl's return to the bench in SEC play, dropping four of their last five, and boasting 11 losses, their overall profile still has them pegged as a NCAA Tournament team. Part of this is thanks to some high-end wins (over Pittsburgh, Villanova, and ...Vanderbilt), while some is due to the strong midseason performances from the teams that have beaten the Volunteers. Of their 11 defeats, only one loss is to a team that definitively falls outside of the top 100. Solid play from schools like the College of Charleston (13-2 in conference play) and Oakland (15-1), along with a slate of losses to talented teams inside the SEC and out have given the Vols a great chance to go dancing despite what appears to be a pedestrian record at first glance.
Vanderbilt, on the other hand, is on a roll, winning their last five games and moving closer and closer to "lock" status when it comes to a NCAA Tournament bid. However, this upperclassman-heavy team must know how empty this season will feel if they go through it without beating Tennessee at least once. After UT pulled off a gutsy win at TBA in January, these 'Dores have to be hungry for a win in the Volunteer State's best rivalry game.
South Carolina beat the 'Dores in a similar manner early in the season away from Memorial Gym, and Vanderbilt responded with an 18 point beatdown in the return game. Can the Commodores do the same when Bruce Pearl brings his squad of quasi-legally recruited players to Nashville on Tuesday? Or can the Volunteers send Vandy crashing down the SEC East standings and essentially eliminate the team's chance at a regular season Southeastern Conference title? A look at UT's loss to Arkansas (familiar!) could help predict the outcome.
Tennessee (16-11 (6-6 SEC), unranked)
Arkansas only has five wins in the SEC, but three are over quality teams - Alabama, Vanderbilt, and Tennessee. Rotnei Clarke scored an efficient 15 points on seven shots as the Razorbacks won a slow-paced 67-64 decision over the Volunteers. Despite Bruce Pearl's absence, the Vols were able to climb back from a nine-point deficit with 3:36 left in the game, giving them a have a chance to tie the game at the buzzer. Unfortunately for the fans in Knoxville, Tobias Harris's last-ditch three-pointer failed to connect, giving the 'Hogs the game.
Key to Destruction: Control the Momentum. Arkansas trailed just once in the second half - by one point, and with over 19 minutes left in the game. From that point on, they rode their crowd's energy, got defensive stops, and scored in spurts to keep the Volunteers from getting back into the game until there were only a few seconds left on the clock. Tennessee did a good job of coming back from as many as 13 points down to make a game out of it, but Arkansas stayed strong until the very end of the game, using a pair of big and-1 plays to keep their lead intact and their crowd alive. However, Arkansas's 2-4 shooting from the line over the game's final 30 seconds was nearly their undoing, as it gave UT the opportunity to send the game to overtime.
Keys to the Game:
- Stop Cameron Tatum - Tennessee is just 1-5 in games where Tatum has been held to 6 points or less, including a goose egg against Arkansas in January. Tatum only scored 12 points against the Commodores in the teams' first meeting, but eight of those came in the second half - including a dagger three to give the Vols their first lead of the second half. Tatum is a rangy, inefficient wing who can do several things well but not excel at any one thing consistently - but with Vandy's deficiencies in covering opposing guards, he could be dangerous in Memorial Gym.
- Crash the boards - Arkansas somehow won despite getting out-rebounded 37-20 against Tennessee, using turnovers to limit the Vols to just 56 shots on the night. However, UT was successful in creating second chances behind the strength of 17 offensive boards. In fact, if the Volunteers had been slightly more successful in converting these tip-ins and resets, this probably would have gone in the books as an Arkansas loss. Vanderbilt can't allow this to happen against a motivated Tennessee team that is hungrier than ever for a win. Festus Ezeli, Jeffery Taylor, Lance Goulbourne, and (hopefully) a relatively healthy Andre Walker need to clean up the defensive glass and win the possession game against the Vols Tuesday night.
Remember who these guys are - Tennessee is undoubtedly talented, but plagued by mental issues and their inability to come together as a team. They win games that they shouldn't win, lose games that they shouldn't lose, and alternate between Sweet Sixteen and NIT status on what seems like a bi-weekly status. Unfortunately, they're 1-0 against the 'Dores this year, showing the resolve needed to come back from a sloppy first half to topple Vandy at Thompson-Boling Arena.
However, that should motivate the hell out of a VU team that would have risked overlooking a similar opponent at this point in a five game win streak. Jeffery Taylor responded to the team's first revenge game against South Carolina by shutting down Bruce Ellington and putting up 17 and 8. Festus Ezeli came back with the same stat line in a blowout. Now, these two need to remember that Scotty Hopson and Brian Williams punked them a month ago in Knoxville. This is a revenge game against their bitter rivals at home; the intensity level should reflect that.