Vanderbilt still led with four minutes to play, but almost everyone watching that game understood what was happening - Tennessee was going to do it again. With John Jenkins facing some of the best defense he's seen in his college career and his teammates mired in a funk, a sluggish Memorial Gym crowd had to have known how this one was going to end. By the time Lance Goulbourne clanked a pair of free throws off the rim with a minute remaining, that sinking feeling - something made familiar by January losses to South Carolina and UT - had settled in the stomachs of Commodore fans everywhere.
The Volunteers were once again the more resilient team, and Scotty Hopson proved that he might just be the most important player on this stretch of I-40.
Now that the due respect is over, let's talk about how flat this Vanderbilt team was. Whether it was failing to protect the ball, standing still on offense and failing to create opportunities for teammates, settling for bad shots early in the shot clock, or seemingly ignoring everything they previously knew about positioning for rebounds, the Commodores were almost universally miserable. Their points came off Tennessee miscues and carefully drawn plays coming from time-outs, leaving the team searching for answers when they had to come up with their own offense in the half-court set. Andre Walker's return did little to facilitate the offense, as players failed to utilize screens effectively to create open shots or fight through them to cut off drives on the other end of the court.
In the end, the team looked every bit as flat as they did against Arkansas in January, and if the Volunteers had a player catch fire like Rotnei Clarke did in Memorial Gym weeks earlier, the result would have been even uglier. Once Tennessee began using their possessions to get into the paint rather than settling for long, low-percentage jumpers, Vanderbilt was left with little in response. The Commodores attempts to get into the paint were fueled by lazy passes that were often tipped away, and drives to the hoop were met with double teams that led to UT possesions - the Vols recorded 15 steals on the night.
In short, Vandy's offense was stale and repetitive, and without a catalyst like Volunteer turnovers or Festus Ezeli blocks, Tennessee knew what to expect and how to stop it.
Was it an aberration? Probably. But the bizarre lack of energy and innovation for a home game against this team's biggest rival is disconcerting. Vanderbilt will have to bounce back big against LSU and then score wins over Kentucky and Florida to not only draw close to a bye in the SEC Tournament, but to re-inspire the confidence that came with the 'Dores previous five-game winning streak. With three important games left until the postseason, they've got the opportunity to show that Tuesday's loss was a product of temporary lapses and team complacency rather than the surfacing of a fatal flaw. To do that, though, they'll need to find the energy that gets them back on their toes and running through screens on the court.