At this point, the Vols aren't afraid of anybody. But Memorial will be a different animal for a team that's yet to win a true road game. The Vols faced hostile environments in Oakland, Charleston, Memphis, and Starkville (plus Duke and Memphis in Maui and plenty of good seats still available in Athens). But victory has eluded them each time. Vanderbilt is as good or better than all of those teams, and the environment will be even more hostile. Home wins over Florida and UConn were huge. If this team is capable of taking a next step this season, this would be it.
It's been a strange couple of years for our in-state rivalry. Last year the Vols struggled mightily but swept the Commodores, one for Bruce Pearl and one for Tony Jones (shameless plug for the alma mater: Alcoa is 15-0 in the state of Tennessee under Jones this season). The most successful Tennessee team in program history was swept by the Commodores in 2010 by a combined 28 points. And another struggling UT squad swept the Commodores in 2009 by a combined 32 points.
So the trend suggests we're due for a Vanderbilt sweep this year, an outcome that wouldn't surprise the experts. Vandy is a nine point favorite tonight; Ken Pomeroy gives them an 83% chance of victory. The Commodores had won eight straight before Mississippi State beat them in overtime on Saturday in Nashville. It was their third overtime loss of the season (Xavier and Louisville), a thin line between 14-5 and 17-2. At full strength, where they've been since Festus Ezeli returned, this team is as good and as deep as anyone in this league.
But Tennessee is now good enough to play with anyone in this league. Vanderbilt is certainly in the same category with all of the ranked teams we've faced this month, and the Vols have been there in the end against all of them, beating Florida and UConn and suffering close losses to Mississippi State and Kentucky. Can Tennessee take the good basketball they've been playing on the road and come away with a win?
No surprise, the opponent is once again much better at getting to the free throw line than we are. The Vols followed up a 7 of 14 performance in Athens with 10 of 21 against UConn. How long until teams just start fouling Jarnell Stokes every time?
Vanderbilt has a clear advantage in offensive effective FG%, but in SEC play the Vols are second in the conference in eFG% defense, and are first in the SEC in defensive efficiency. Translation: these guys are very dangerous with the basketball, but in the last five games no one has been more difficult to score on than us.
As is becoming a trend, this game may come down to how efficient the Vols are when they have the ball. If the Vols are great on defense again, can they just be good enough on offense to get it done?
You know all the names for Vanderbilt. John Jenkins leads the league in scoring at 19.8 per game and is shooting 45.3% from the arc. Jeffery Taylor is right behind him at 17.1 per game, and just ahead at 46.4% from the arc. The good news here is, the only SEC team that shoots the three better than Vanderbilt (40.5%) is Florida (40.7%), and we made it very difficult for them. Tennessee's gameplan against the Gators - again, without Stokes - was to do everything they could to challenge three point shots, and hope Patric Young couldn't win the battle inside one-on-one. Young had 12, but the Gators shot just 31.8% from the arc...and it was more than enough.
Is Ezeli better than Young? Even if you think so, Tennessee is even more intimidating inside now that size 20 shoes are down there. So if Tennessee's perimeter defenders bring a similar effort against Vandy's shooters, we have the blueprint.
Another key to watch: who is the better distributor tonight, Trae Golden or Brad Tinsley? Golden leads the SEC with 5.1 assists per game, Tinsley is third with 4.4. Tinsley's assist/turnover ratio is slightly better, 2.2 to 1.8. Golden still leads Tennessee in scoring, but more and more we are becoming a team that needs Golden to create for others and get it inside more than we need his points. See the UConn game, where Trae's only points came at the free throw line (where he should've had more than two).
And as always, Tennessee's rotation is a bit of a mystery. Against UConn we had the double whammy of a Wes Washpun and Dwight Miller sighting. Renaldo Woolridge is a work in progress going from the five to the three. If Cameron Tatum stays on the roller coaster, he'll have a down game after 15 against the Huskies. We all keep waiting for Jordan McRae's minutes to decrease, but he keeps contributing. It's going to take a long time for Cuonzo to get exactly what he wants with the pleasant addition of Stokes. But can he dial up what he needs in Nashville?
This is a strange place to be in, because part of me feels like I should expect defeat tonight and be okay with it. Vanderbilt is very good, Tennessee hasn't won on the road, and the Vols' best basketball is still down the road. But part of me feels like we have a real chance to win this game if defense continues to be our identity, and knows we need to win it for Cuonzo's Vols to take the next step. So maybe it's a good place to be in: little to lose, much to gain tonight.
Should be a good one. Even more so, because the ESPNU commercial breaks start shortly after 7:00 PM ET.