The space between the top five teams in the SEC East is almost non-existent - any separation is really about who knows how to win close games and who doesn't, who can win on the road and who can't. Take a look at the head-to-head games between Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt this season:
- Jan 8 - Georgia 77 Kentucky 70 (Athens)
- Jan 11 - Florida 81 Tennessee 75 (OT) (Knoxville)
- Jan 12 - Vanderbilt 73 Georgia 66 (Nashville)
- Jan 15 - Tennessee 67 Vanderbilt 64 (Knoxville)
- Jan 18 - Tennessee 59 Georgia 57 (Athens)
- Jan 25 - Florida 104 Georgia 91 (2OT) (Athens)
- Jan 29 - Kentucky 66 Georgia 60 (Lexington)
- Feb 1 - Florida 65 Vanderbilt 61 (OT) (Gainesville)
- Feb 5 - Florida 70 Kentucky 68 (Gainesville)
- Feb 8 - Kentucky 73 Tennessee 61 (Lexington)
- Feb 12 - Vanderbilt 81 Kentucky 77 (Nashville)
- Feb 12 - Florida 61 Tennessee 60 (Gainesville)
- Feb 16 - Vanderbilt 64 Georgia 56 (Athens)
- Feb 19 - Georgia 69 Tennessee 63 (Knoxville)
Half of those fourteen games were decided on the last possession or in overtime. Among the half that weren't, only Kentucky's win over Tennessee was a double digit affair, and you also have things like Georgia and Kentucky playing two games with two winners and a total point differential of one. The home team is 9-5 in those fourteen games, with all the road win games involving either Georgia or Tennessee. The Vols and Dawgs may find themselves at the back of the current pack in the division, but on the floor there has truly been little room between the front and the back all year with these five teams.
For this reason, even if for no other, we should expect another good game tonight.
Three things I can say for sure about Vanderbilt: they don't like Tennessee, they're still a little bit salty over blowing a seventeen point lead in our building earlier this year, and their fans will be ready for Bruce Pearl with a warm and personal reception tonight. The first paragraph in the game preview from Anchor of Gold sums it up nicely:
Unless Florida loses two of its three games between now and their trip to Memorial for Senior Day in Memorial Gym (and the end of the SEC regular season), I stand by my earlier proclamation that Tennessee's trip to Nashville is the biggest home game on Vandy's basketball schedule this season. Between the in-state hate, the juxtaposition in what most Commodore fans would consider "ethical differences" in the way each school's athletics departments are run, and general disdain between the coaches, not to mention the whole "Bruce Pearl situation" that has been told and retold more than any other collegiate scandal I can remember, the crowd's hostility at Memorial is probably going to reach an intensity not seen since Matt Walsh, Joakim Noah, or Renaldo Balkman. Don't be surprised if it easily surpasses those recent benchmarks. Hopefully it doesn't go full blown Dwayne Schintzius.
(Does Vanderbilt have an athletic department?)
As everyone in the East (save Carolina) is incredibly even this year, so too are the Vols and Commodores. I think the winner of this game will be the team that takes two out of three in the following categories, or can gain a decisive edge in any one:
Scotty/Tobias/Cameron OR Jenkins/Taylor/Tinsley
First meeting: Vols 43 - Vandy 47
It's advantage Vols right away here, as Brad Tinsley - the SEC's leading assist man - has thankfully proven that someone other than a Tennessee player can suffer a sprained ankle this year. He's listed as "probable", which means it's probable that you'll see him and probable that he won't be at 100%. That means freshman Kyle Fuller could see more minutes, and become a more important part of this equation.
Jenkins seems to be the favorite for SEC Player of the Year, and with good cause: he leads the conference in scoring and is averaging a ridiculous 22.5 in league play. He did his thing against the Vols in the first meeting, with 21 points on 6 of 10 shooting, including a pair of threes and 7 for 7 at the stripe. He won't be stopped.
This means Scotty Hopson can't be stopped either, if the Vols want to entertain victory. We're at a very interesting point with Mr. Hopson, who is on the best three game tear of his career while the Vols are collectively at the lowest point of his career. We need another big game from a guy who's given us reason to believe, now more than ever.
Tobias is consistent, so the other question here revolves around Jeffery Taylor and Cameron Tatum, who are both prone to impressive cold streaks. Taylor shot 2 for 18 at Georgia last week...and the Dores still won. Tennessee can't win when Tatum shoots a percentage like that - as Joel pointed out this morning, Tennessee's biggest wins, including Vandy, have come when four players score in double figures, and that foursome has always included Tatum.
You want your best players to play well in your biggest games. The Vols need all they can get from these three tonight - as we just saw against Georgia, just two won't cut it.
Brian Williams OR Festus Ezeli
First meeting: BWill 8 pts 12 rebs - Ezeli 9 pts 6 rebs
Tennessee and Vanderbilt both finished with 35 rebounds in the first meeting, but the Vols absolutely dominated the offensive glass, 16-8. It continues to be one of the real strengths for a team desperately seeking consistency, and it needs to be there again tonight.
Look for Vandy to go at Williams and try to get him in foul trouble, a situation he's usually willing to help contribute to. Whistles are friendliest in Rupp and Memorial, and the Vols - BWill especially - must remain composed when calls don't go their way. Tennessee isn't beating Vanderbilt or anyone of quality without winning the war inside. We need Brian Williams to win in there again tonight.
Bench vs. Bench
First meeting: Vols 18 - Vandy 8
Again, Tennessee wins big games when the big three of Scotty/Tobias/Cameron play well, AND they get something significant from one other player. The first time around, Skylar McBee was the person most responsible for Tennessee having a chance to win: 10 points, including a pair of threes and 4 for 4 at the line, along with three steals. McBee still isn't a great option on the defensive end against the league's best guards, but he has gotten a lot better at creating turnovers around the perimeter.
Will McBee come alive again tonight in Memorial? No idea. But what the Vols can't have is the total disappearing act that cost us against Georgia. Someone else has to step up. And someone will need to step up for Vandy too if this game is as even as it was the first time.
Just an overall point here as we close: this is as tense as it's been during Bruce Pearl's tenure here, we keep doing stupid things at the end of games we have a chance to win, and we screwed it up so bad in December that it feels like there's no room for error.
But keep in mind the strength of the at-large field as a whole. Even at 16-11 and 6-6 in the SEC, the Vols are currently 8 seeds in both Chris Dobbertean's bracket at SBNation, and Joe Lunardi's bracket at ESPN.com. The Bracket Matrix collects data from 66 different projections and averages them together, and right now the Vols are in every single one of those 66 fields. (We'll have Chris on our podcast tomorrow night at 9:00 PM to discuss this in greater detail.)
We shouldn't relax, but thanks to a weak at-large field and our strength of schedule, it's not time to panic just yet. There's still room between us and the Last Four Out.
So tonight shouldn't be treated as a must-win. It should be treated as an opportunity.
We're going to walk into an extremely hostile environment against a team that does not like us and has something to prove. Tennessee needs to come ready for war, mentally and physically. If we don't, we could get run out of the building, and then we'll deal with must-win the rest of the way home.
But if we do, I expect Tennessee to be there at the end. Again.