At 8-8, there’s no real way to know just what this Vanderbilt basketball team is. Are they the hot-shooting warriors that rocketed out to a 2-0 start in SEC play, or the defense-deficient goofs who allowed Alabama to come back from a 14-point second half deficit and failed to stop Kentucky even once in the final three minutes of play?
No matter who they are, there’s no surefire way to boost their estimation in the eyes of Commodore fans; beating Tennessee.
The Volunteers come to Memorial Gym Saturday night for an in-state showdown between two typically sturdy SEC programs in limbo. While Vanderbilt searches for its identity under first-year head coach Bryce Drew, Rick Barnes is trying to build a home on the Indian burial site left behind by Bruce Pearl.
At 8-8 themselves, the Tennessee is set to miss the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in six seasons since firing the embattled Pearl. Cuonzo Martin appeared to have the pieces in place for a revival, but local factors eventually scared him away to Cal, where he’s on pace for a 24-win season. He gave way to Donnie Tyndall, who proved to be the human personification of a men’s room floor in his one year with the team.
That left Barnes to deal with the shell of a program hollowed out by mismanagement. He’s on track to improve on last year’s 15-19 year, and a front-loaded SEC schedule leaves room for the program to build some steam as the season wears down. This winter could be a key building point for the Vols.
Vanderbilt can keep their rivals stuck in neutral by blowing them off their home court Saturday night. So what’s the plan of attack? Here’s what the team can learn from Chattanooga, who lit up the Volunteers at Thompson-Boling Arena back in November.
Tennessee (8-8, 1-3 SEC, ranked No. 66 in Ken Pomeroy's ratings)
Worst Loss: A 13-point home loss to UT-Chattanooga.
Other Losses: at Florida, vs. Oregon, vs. Gonzaga, at UNC, at South Carolina, vs. Arkansas, vs. Wisconsin
Barnes set himself an ambitious schedule in 2016-17. Every team he’s lost to projects as an NCAA Tournament team midway through January -- except the Mocs, who embarrassed UT in Knoxville to open the season.
Keegan Bell’s old team trailed early, but spread a 13-2 run over two halves to build a comfortable lead in an uncomfortable environment. The Vols shot just 32.8 percent from the field in a game marred by whistles; the two teams combined to shoot 73 free throws that evening.
Point of Emphasis: Crash the boards. Vanderbilt’s propensity to give up offensive rebounds has been frustrating, even with a new head coach at the helm. That’s one of the few areas Tennessee was proficient against the Mocs. UT pulled down 19 of their own misses and scored 13 second-chance points as a result.
The Vols will make plenty of mistakes and take bad shots. Vanderbilt can’t afford to give them a re-do when that happens.
Keys to the Game:
Force mistakes. One thing I noticed in tracking down UT’s offensive rebounds from that night was how many were followed by turnovers. The Vols gave Chattanooga 18 extra possessions that game, thanks in part to nine steals. The Mocs played hungrier basketball and badgered Tennessee into the mistakes that helped seal their fate. While the Commodores don’t really have a true pickpocket in the lineup, a heady defensive effort could erase several Volunteer scoring opportunities.
Let the Vols shoot from deep. Tennessee has no chance to match Vandy’s firepower from behind the arc. They have just one reliable shooter now that Detrick Mostella has been dismissed; Lamonte Turner. That pair combined to go 0-7 from three-point range against the Mocs as the team shot just 6.3 percent as a whole. Turner has made just 25% of his threes over his last five games.
Protect this rim. This is last Tuesday’s shot chart against Kentucky.
It looks like a child smeared blue fingerpaint around the Vandy basket, because the Wildcats were able to finish at the rim with aplomb. Tennessee doesn’t have the size and athleticism Kentucky does, and that should
a) make them easier to defend, and
b) keep VU out of the foul trouble that made Luke Kornet and D’Jery Baptiste softer than tissue paper in the second half.
More importantly, the Vols don’t really have any big men of note on their roster. Only one player stands taller than 6’7, and he averages just 3.6 points per game. A handful of athletic guards will try to slash their way into the paint, but the Commodores have the length to swallow them up — as long as Kornet and Baptiste can avoid foul trouble Saturday.