The rubber match between Vanderbilt and Tennessee is happening, and the stakes couldn't be higher. The loser goes home; probably until the 2015-16 season starts.
The Commodores and Volunteers will face off for the third time on Thursday in one of the marquee games of the SEC Tournament. These teams split the earlier two games in the series with a pair of attention grabbing games. Tennessee struck first when they upset Vandy at home. The Vols rallied back from a five point deficit in the final 15 seconds to pull out an eventual overtime win. That lit a spark under the 'Dores and especially point guard Wade Baldwin IV. Baldwin promised to come after Tennessee's players and fans when the two teams rematched in Knoxville and backed up that talk with a 13-point, six rebound, and six assist performance in a Vandy win.
The real fireworks came after the final whistle. Baldwin upset a UT assistant by clapping in Armani Moore's general direction. That assistant alerted Commodore coach Kevin Stallings, who then went nuclear on his freshman guard. Stallings yanked Baldwin out of the handshake line, forced him to apologize to Moore, and then audibly told his own player "I'll f---ing kill you." The clip went viral and took up a block of coverage on Sportscenter, but Stallings quickly apologized, Baldwin accepted, and no one has really thought too much of it since.
These two teams have been on very different trajectories since their first meeting. The Commodores are 6-1 since letting UT steal a win at Memorial Gym. The Volunteers have the exact opposite record over the same span. Only a surprising 15-point road rout of LSU has kept them from a seven-game losing streak.
Momentum is on Vanderbilt's side, but that never means that much in a rivalry game. Can the Vols ruin Vandy's winning streak and prevent them from a postseason run? Let's dig a little deeper into Thursday's matchup.
The Opponent: The "University" of Tennessee (15-15, 7-11 SEC)
KenPom Rankings: Tennessee is 95th. Vanderbilt is 40th.
Key Stat: 52%. That was Vanderbilt's final three-point conversion rate in their comeback win over UT in late February...and it doesn't even come close to accurately showing how hot the Commodores were in the second half. Vandy made nine of their 11 long-range attempts after halftime to run the Vols off their own court. Unfortunately, that kind of success isn't sustainable.
Vanderbilt was forced to keep shooting from outside in that game because they were having all sorts of trouble feeding the ball inside to Damian Jones and James Siakam. That backup plan worked out at Thompson-Boling Arena, but it's not something the Commodores can rely on every night. They'll have to find a way to feed their big men and take advantage of mismatches in the paint if they can't dial up the NBA Jam codes they'll need to shoot 82% from behind the arc vs. Tennessee for a second time.
Matchup to Watch: Damian Jones vs. Armani Moore. Jones won the battle of the Volunteer State big men in the last meeting, but neither player had a massive impact on the final outcome. Jones scored an efficient 13 points on six shots but was kept off the glass by Moore's wide-bodied box-outs. Moore shot just 2-10 from the field and picked up four fouls, but he also cleared a path for UT to pull down 19 offensive rebounds. Both players have had several opportunities to study their frontcourt foe in advance of Thursday's game. Will Jones's athletic post game win out, or will Moore's bruising style give the Vols another big advantage on the boards?
Starters and Rotation Players:
|G -||Wade Baldwin IV||8.8||4||4.4|
|G -||Riley LaChance||12.5||3.2||2.8|
|F -||Jeff Roberson||4.6||3.2||1.2|
|F -||James Siakam||9.1||5.9||0.7|
|C -||Damian Jones||14.3||6.2||0.7|
|F -||Luke Kornet||8.9||3.6||1|
|G/F -||Matthew Fisher-Davis||6.9||2.3||1.3|
|G -||Shelton Mitchell||4.2||2||3.3|
|G -||Josh Richardson||15.6||4.2||3.7|
|G -||Robert Hubbs III||6.9||2.9||0.8|
|G -||Kevin Punter||10.2||2.1||1.8|
|F -||Willie Carmichael III||3.1||2.3||0.4|
|F -||Armani Moore||10.8||6.8||2.3|
|G -||Devon Baulkman||4.4||2.2||0.6|
|F -||Derek Reese||6||5.2||0.8|
|F -||Tariq Owens