Vanderbilt helped knock Missouri onto the NCAA Tournament bubble with an upset win back in January. Can the Commodores help knock arch-rival Tennessee off that bubble with a home win on Wednesday?
The 'Dores have been riding high behind the senior leadership of Rod Odom and Kyle Fuller, who have stepped up to lead a team that has only seven scholarship players available on a given night. The duo has led Vandy to a 4-4 SEC record despite playing ironman minutes since the start of conference play. Now, they'll have their hands full when it comes to containing Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae as the Volunteers look to avoid a resume-depleting loss to the underrated Commodores.
Stokes and McRae have helped drive Tennessee to the NCAA Tournament bubble on the strength of a 14-7 record. That includes quality wins over Virginia and Xavier, but is also balanced out be a bad loss to Texas A&M at home. A defeat against Vanderbilt, currently ranked 71st in the CBS RPI, wouldn't smash their postseason hopes, but it could certainly give the Selection Committee a reason to vote against the Vols come tournament time.
So how can Vanderbilt make UT's March extra uncomfortable? By following A&M's path to a big victory on Wednesday. Let's take a closer look at Tennessee's worst loss of the season.
Tennessee (14-7, 5-3 SEC, unranked in the Coaches' Poll, #22 in the Pomeroy Rankings)
Worst Loss: vs. Texas A&M (12-9, #166 KenPom,#142CBS RPI), 56-57 Other Losses: vs. UTEP, vs. NC State, at Xavier, at Kentucky, at Wichita State, at Florida
And yet, the Aggies still found a way to leave Thompson-Boling Arena with a win. Tennessee fell victim to A&M's 3-0 start in league play thanks to Antwan Space's game-winning three-pointer with 4.4 seconds left on the clock. Jarnell Stokes was limited to just six points and five rebounds in the loss and Tennessee's big men combined for eight turnovers.
Key to Destruction: That Damian Jones/Jarnell Stokes matchup. Jones has been one of the brightest spots of a tough season for the Commodores. The emerging freshman has shown a gentle touch around the basket to compliment his bruising style inside. However, he has yet to go up against a center with the strength, toughness, and skill that Stokes has. Stokes has been on a bender lately, averaging 17 points and 13.3 rebounds over his last three games. However, A&M was able to contain him despite starting just one player who qualifies as legitimate big man - forward Kourtney Roberson.
If Vanderbilt can contain Stokes with Jones and a rotating cast of help defenders, they'll take away the engine behind the Volunteers' recent resurgence. That means players like Odom and James Siakam will have to step up, but the pressure will rest mostly on Damian Jones's big shoulders. If the freshman can shut down Stokes on Wednesday, he'll put together the most impressive performance of his young career.
Keys to the Game:
Use help defense to fluster UT's big men. Tennessee's bigs combined to turn the ball over eight times against a pesky, undersized TAMU team. That was a huge factor behind A&M earning more scoring opportunities (50 FGA to 44) despite getting out-rebounded 36-27. Unfortunately, Vanderbilt hasn't been ultra successful when it comes to creating turnovers this year. The 'Dores are only forcing 10.9 of them a game, meaning that this team will have to put together a monster effort to keep the ball out of the hands of UT's forwards and onto the hardwood.
Limit second chances. A&M couldn't do this on the boards, and that resulted in 11 extra UT possessions thanks to offensive rebounds. However, the Aggies were able to mitigate that through turnovers, something Vandy may not be able to replicate. Vanderbilt will be better than TAMU was at preventing extended possessions because they'll have more size on the court. That means that Odom, Siakam, Jones, and Luke Kornet will have to be vigilant when it comes to crashing the boards and boxing out sneaky, wide-bodied rebounders like Stokes and Jeronne Maymon.
Shoot from long range. Tennessee's three-point defense is a major weakness in 2014. The Vols are allowing opponents to make nearly 36 percent of their shots from long range, and A&M exploited that en route to a 8-15 showing from deep. Vanderbilt has the shooters to make UT pay, and as long as they can get a few second chances by keeping rebounds out of Stokes' and Maymon's hands, they'll have the opportunity to find the offense they'll need to win.
Vanderbilt will be a home underdog to the Volunteers, but they're also riding a three-game win streak and will be playing with confidence in their newfound seven-man rotation. It will take a big effort up front on the defensive end and some timely scoring from behind the arc to get there, but a win over arch-rival Tennessee is certainly manageable for the Commodores. While getting to 5-4 in conference play doesn't sound like much, it would be a major accomplishment for a team that's been rocked by off-court distractions over the past year - especially coming against UT.