Vanderbilt missed a huge opportunity to earn a season-defining win when they fell to #1 Florida on Tuesday night. Their consolation prize? A chance to knock their arch rivals off the NCAA Tournament's list of invitees.
Tennessee will host the Commodores on Saturday trailing this season's series by a 1-0 margin after a 64-60 Vandy win back in January. That defeat put the Vols squarely on the tournament bubble, and losses to Missouri and Texas A&M since them have not helped their cause. Another Vanderbilt victory this weekend could resign UT to the NIT for good, barring an exceptional run through the SEC Tournament.
The Commodores are in the midst of a turbulent season, and their only expectation for Saturday is to defeat the team they hate the most. They can do that if they follow Texas A&M's lead. The Aggies have found a way to upset the Vols twice this season, with their most recent win coming in overtime at home. Let's take a closer look as see if A&M poked any holes in UT's game that the 'Dores can exploit.
Tennessee (17-11, 8-7 SEC, unranked in the Coaches' Poll, #26 in the Pomeroy Rankings)
Other Losses: vs. UTEP, vs. NC State, at Xavier, at Kentucky, at Wichita State, at Florida, at Vanderbilt, vs. Florida, at Missouri
Key to Destruction: Pressing Tennessee's guards into bad decisions. Stokes and Maymon combined for 32 points on a 13-19 shooting performance, but the rest of UT's roster made only 28 percent of their field goal attempts. While the Aggies had no answer for the Volunteers' bulk up front, they were able to make up the difference with high-intensity defense that cut off Tennessee's outside scoring. Four different Vol guards put up a goose egg from the floor, which gave A&M the room they needed to squeeze out a win.
Vanderbilt will have more success stopping Maymon and Stokes as long as Damian Jones and Rod Odom can avoid foul trouble up front. However, they can still benefit greatly to A&M's strategy thanks to an active backcourt that held Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier to just six field goals in their 57-54 loss on Tuesday. Dai-Jon Parker and Kyle Fuller have been tasked with playing ironman basketball lately, but their defense has not suffered as a result. If they can put the clamps on Jordan McRae and Josh Richardson, they can lure Tennessee into the kind of sloppy, slow-paced game in which the Commodores thrive.
Keys to the Game:
- Slow the game down. Vanderbilt can't win a shootout unless they get a tremendous offensive effort, but they can find several different ways to win a slopfest. In order to get there, they'll need to glean the most production they can out of a backcourt pairing that will probably combine for more than 75 minutes on the floor. To get Parker and Fuller at their best, the 'Dores will have to be deliberate with the ball like they were against Florida. That way, OGKF will be fully charged for his 1-on-4 fast break layups.
- Avoid forcing shots inside. Maymon and Stokes have the body control to avoid fouling smaller players at the rim. Stokes in particular has done a tremendous job of cutting down his foul rate as he's gained SEC experience. That duo combined for just five fouls - and three free throws - against A&M. The pair is unlikely to foul out against Vandy, but the Commodores' big men could end up in trouble on the other end. Rod Odom finished the last matchup between these teams with four fouls, while Damian Jones finished the game on the bench with five. Driving into bad shots and offensive fouls could be a quick way for Vandy to unravel on Saturday.
- Limit turnovers. This is an obvious one, but while A&M gave up extra possessions thanks to UT's offensive rebounding, they were stingy when it came to turning the ball over, giving the Vols just eight extra possessions over 45 minutes of play. That helped the Aggies put up more overall shots despite losing the rebounding war by a significant margin. Vanderbilt will have to get better with the ball quickly - they committed 16 turnovers against Florida's press on Tuesday, and many of those were unforced.
Vanderbilt can rebound from a tough loss in a big way by leaving Thompson-Boling Arena with a win. A second loss to the 'Dores would cripple Tennessee's NCAA Tournament hopes and move Vandy another step closer to finishing out a +.500 season. Visiting UT on the road is another in a string of increasingly-important games for the Commodores as the season wears on, and a win Saturday would go a long way in making a tough road easier.