Keeping It Interesting

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee demolished Vanderbilt by 38 points, displaying some of the best basketball of the Cuonzo Martin Era and ensuring they remained right in the thick of the bubble conversation.

There's the bubble and the coach and all that, but first let's just appreciate what happened in Thompson-Boling Arena on its own merit.  Vanderbilt may have seven scholarship players, but the Dores beat Tennessee in Nashville three weeks ago.  In the six games since Vandy won twice and lost three others by one possession to tournament contenders Arkansas, Missouri on the road, and most recently 57-54 against #1 Florida.  This team has played competitive basketball all year with just about anyone.

But not today.  Tennessee unleashed a 38 point thrasing, doubling down on Vanderbilt 76-38.  It is the fewest points an opponent has ever scored in Thompson-Boling Arena and the largest margin of Vol victory in the Tennessee-Vanderbilt rivalry.  Kevin Stallings spent the latter part of the week calling Tennessee fans idiots for complaining about the product this year, then led his team on a mission to prove it.

Vanderbilt was brutal:  22.4% from the floor, 14 turnovers, no players in double figures.  And Tennessee was efficient:  53.1% from the floor, 10 of 21 from the arc, 16 assists to only 8 turnovers.

Leading the charge was the Antonio Barton we all hoped we were signing up for:  21 points on 7 of 11 shooting, seven points better than anything he'd done in an orange uniform.  Also important:  his six assists, a season high for the man who reclaimed the starting point guard role this week and has now locked it up the rest of the way home.

One of the strange similarities in these huge UT wins:  Jordan McRae doesn't shoot much.  He fouled out laughing today, scoring nine points on five shots.  It mattered even less today because the Vols actually got 19 points from their bench (8 for Armani Moore, 6 for Darius Thompson, 5 for Derek Reese).  That's also huge.  It's simple to say but means a whole, whole lot to this team:  Tennessee is at its best when everyone contributes.  And when everyone contributes, Tennessee's best is good enough to beat anyone and embarrass many.

Tennessee has now won 18 games by an average of 20.5 points.  Today's win is just behind the 35 point beatdown of the ACC Champions in the line of Tennessee's best basketball; Cuonzo also has a 30 point win over Kentucky on his resume from last year.  How this team did all that and has still lost 11 games?  Who knows.

What I do know is this team isn't leaving the NCAA Tournament conversation just yet.  The Vols stay level in RPI at 52 but can improve that standing with wins at Auburn and vs Missouri to close the regular season next week.  Tennessee rises to 23rd in Ken Pomeroy's rankings, and is one of only 16 teams to have a Top 50 offensive and defensive ranking (17 offense, 49 defense).  The Vols also control their own destiny to earn a double bye in the SEC Tournament, moving to 9-7 in league play with Arkansas (and Ole Miss if they win tonight) and could pass 10-6 Georgia for third with one more UGA loss.  Finishing third puts you in Kentucky's bracket instead of Florida's so pick your poison there.

Today proved you can't give up on this team, not yet.  They could lose at Auburn Wednesday, as screwy as this thing is.  The way this season has gone they could lose the next two then win the SEC Tournament for all I know.  But doing what they did today also shows you can't give up on this team's best basketball just yet.  It was only Vanderbilt, but what the Vols did today provides a spark of hope to those who are looking for it that this team might still be capable of making noise in postseason play.

I have absolutely no idea what they're going to do next.  But I do know you can't quit watching them.  Not yet.

Go Vols.

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