I will not complain about a win in Knoxville.
There was plenty of gnashing of teeth about it, but in hindsight, it's pretty easy to figure out what went wrong for Vanderbilt in December and the first part of January: The Commodores were not at full strength.
On November 25, Vanderbilt dropped a seven-point decision to Kansas -- which, you know, was recently ranked number one in the country -- on the heels of a 5-0 start that included obliterations of subpar competition (and an overtime win over Stony Brook, who's actually pretty good. Probably better than Tennessee now that I think about it.) Then Camron Justice got hurt and missed a month. A week later, Luke Kornet got hurt and was also out for a month, and both of them (to varying degrees) seemed to have trouble getting back into the swing of things. And then, shortly after Luke returned, Matthew Fisher-Davis got hurt and missed a couple of games.
If there was a flaw exposed by all of that, it's that Vanderbilt doesn't really have much depth after the top seven players. Josh Henderson is what he is, an occasionally useful backup, but not someone you want playing much more than ten minutes a night. Nolan Cressler looks like a decent mid-major player, but overmatched in the SEC. Joe Toye has shown flashes of potential, but isn't yet consistent enough to be reliable off the bench. Samir Sehic and Djery Baptiste are varying degrees of not ready for prime time. In retrospect, any injuries were going to be costly to this team. This may become less and less the case down the stretch if Toye gets better, but right now, things are pretty iffy after the first seven guys. That can be a fatal flaw, but it's hardly something that's unique to Vanderbilt.
So it was good to see the team return to something that looked like its November form, and of course, it was especially great to see that in Knoxville. Now, we just need to pray to whatever deity you pray to that there will be no more injuries.
As said, I'm not going to complain about a win in Knoxville... but even if I were, there isn't really much to complain about. You'd like to see better than 10-for-24 on two-pointers, particularly against a team with no starter taller than 6'5". But considering how well the Commodores were shooting from outside, you can live with that. Even turnovers were not a factor -- 12 turnovers in 78 possessions is something you can live with. Vandy also got to the line 39 times and hit their free throws. When you have all of those elements, you have a blowout. Yes, Tennessee did make a run late in the second half, but that just made the final score look more respectable. Before that, it looked like Vanderbilt was going to embarrass the Vols. On their home court.
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- I'm trying to imagine what that game would have looked like had Damian Jones stayed out of foul trouble and Riley LaChance been able to make a jump shot, but the porn-blocking filter in my brain will not allow it.
- While much of the focus was on Matthew Fisher-Davis and Camron Justice burying the Vols under an avalanche of threes in the first half, Wade Baldwin, Luke Kornet, and Jeff Roberson were all quietly playing great games. It's usually going to be enough when Vandy has three guys playing well. When five guys are playing well, you get, well, that.
- I don't really have much to say about the bench play (aside from Fisher-Davis and Justice), but it's worth noting that Nolan Cressler's minutes have dwindled of late. Cressler's gone from playing 15-20 minutes a night in December to playing 17 minutes, total, in the last three games. Most of those minutes have gone to returning players, but Cressler's own play has been a factor as well.
Vanderbilt heads into a crucial stretch starting at Kentucky on Saturday afternoon, followed by Florida (home), Texas (road), and Texas A&M (home.) All four opponents are currently in the RPI top 20, and Vanderbilt can do a lot to help its NCAA Tournament hopes by extending its three-game winning streak -- but, realistically, even splitting those four games would go a long way with five winnable games following that stretch. There's certainly work left to do, but the last three games have done a lot to get the season back on track.