So far, my favorite part of this one has been the complaining from some Vanderbilt fans that a 13 loss team doesn't deserve to finish second in the SEC. I do so enjoy it when rival fans confuse the SEC standings with the AP poll. The good news with the word "deserve" is we'll figure out exactly who does in just a few hours on the floor in Knoxville.
When last we met, it was ugly. Vandy led by as many as 27 and won by 18 on January 24, which feels like a lifetime ago for Tennessee Basketball. Should the Dores come to Knoxville overconfident, I'll take it. But there are a few other obvious things we can take from the first meeting:
- Take care of the basketball. The Vols turned it over a season high 25 times in Nashville, which very much contributed to the blowout. UT's season average is 14, second worst in the SEC. To no surprise, in UT's biggest wins that number has been down: 13 against Florida, 10 against UConn, 13 at Florida. In this run of seven wins in eight games, the Vols have averaged, surprise, 14 turnovers per game. So we can win at our average. We're not beating Vanderbilt at 20+, let alone 25. What's been troubling is the play of our point guard of late: Trae Golden is still fourth in the SEC at 4.6 assists per game. But he's now second in the SEC in turnovers per game at 3.1. It's okay to a degree, because players who handle the ball more are always going to turn it over more (see: Lin, Jeremy), but since the win at Florida Golden has 24 turnovers in five games, and has turned it over six times in three of the last four games; before then he'd never turned it over more than five times per game. It wasn't him in Nashville, as Golden was credited with just one turnover...but it can't be him in Knoxville either. Take care of the basketball or enjoy Thursday in New Orleans.
- Our best players are in the post. Tennessee finally figured this out in Baton Rouge, where Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon led the way with 32 combined points. In Nashville, Maymon, Stokes, and Yemi Makanjuola combined for 28 on 11 of 19 shooting. Festus Ezeli is a good defender, but there's only one of him and two of Stokes/Maymon. As always without Kenny Hall, the Vols have to avoid foul trouble...but they also need to emphasize getting the ball inside to their bigs, finishing at the rim, and getting to the free throw line.
- Harass Vandy's three point shooters. Which basically means, "Harass everyone not named Festus Ezeli." This is the eighth best three point shooting team in the country at 40.2%. While the Vols did their usual defensive thing in Nashville from inside the arc, from outside it was same old same old for the Dores: 8 for 18, 44.4%. This is a huge defensive game for all of Tennessee's perimeter players. John Jenkins has an especially quick release, and he (20.1) and Jeffery Taylor (17.4) are still 1-2 in the conference in scoring. We won't stop them. But we can harass them.
Four factors and additional notes after the jump...
Vanderbilt is just a weird team to me, because everything about them suggests they should be better than they actually are. Their record is deceiving because they have three overtime losses. They're one of the most dynamic teams in the nation with the basketball: 13th in offensive efficiency, 11th in effective FG%. The Vols are strong on the other end, of course, but this is one where you can't play around and get down double digits and expect to make the same sort of comeback. Tennessee almost completely shut LSU out in the final eight minutes on Wednesday, but there's no shutting this Vanderbilt team out for an extended period of time.
However, what Tennessee has done in Knoxville in SEC play has been amazing. The Vols lost to Kentucky 65-62, as close as any team has played the Wildcats in league play. The Vols are 6-0 in their other SEC games in Knoxville, and won every one of them by at least nine points. Throw in the January 21 win over UConn, and this team has been lights out at home since the calendar turned to January 1. And lights out is what it will take to beat this bunch.
If we assume that Vandy's perimeter players and Tennessee's post players are going to do their thing, this game becomes about x-factors. That's been Jordan McRae of late. McRae saw a serious reduction in minutes and productivity in January, ending with no points in six minutes at Rupp Arena. But since then? 11.8 points per game off the bench. This is a conversation for a different day, but McRae could be an NBA player with about 15-20 pounds of muscle and this level of consistency in the future.
Also of note: in Tennessee's biggest SEC wins, the Vols have been extremely disciplined about shooting threes: 5 of 10 vs Florida, 5 of 11 at Florida, 5 of 9 at LSU. You cannot let Vandy seduce you into an up-tempo shooting spree (and we didn't last time...but 1 for 10 wasn't really helpful). Be patient, work the post, take good shots.
This is the most complete defensive challenge we will face, because this team is so dangerous from so many places. But it's a fitting way to end this run in Cuonzo's first year: it will take our greatest defensive effort to get it done, but that's what we've come to expect.
Wear orange. Let's get it done. Go Vols.