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#14 Tennessee vs. #21 Vanderbilt - Game Preview

After three weeks of really not knowing what to expect, and four nights removed from losing the surprise of a five game winning streak, Tennessee arrives at a very, very important week.  On one end of the spectrum are the rankings and bracketology:  if Tennessee truly is a top fifteen team worthy of a top tier seed, they should be able to hold serve at home against two good teams.  But on the other end is a dose of reality:  still depleted and perhaps no longer running on adrenaline, the Vols could easily fall to two teams that will exploit the weaknesses Georgia exposed, with zone defense and plenty of size.

Splitting the week would be okay.  And it may be that in seven days, reality shows us to be a 3-3 team in the SEC, and simply making the tournament becomes our primary objective.  But if these Vols are still as good as we hope they are, they'll take care of business at Thompson-Boling Arena against two teams that have never beaten Bruce Pearl in Knoxville.

It starts with Vanderbilt tomorrow night, as a pair of ranked 15-3 teams square off.  The orange blazer is 6-2 against our old friend Kevin Stallings, and many of the key players on both sides have seen each other before. 

The Veterans

Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince are well acquainted with A.J. Ogilvy and Jermaine Beal...and fortunately for us, Tennessee has come out on top in those matchups almost every time.

Chism, in particular, has been at his very best against Ogilvy on two occasions.  Two years ago, he put an 18-18 on the Commodores in an 80-60 UT win in Knoxville.  And last season, Chism dropped a 20-7 in just 26 minutes when the Vols ran away from Vandy in Nashville, 76-63.  In four career matchups, Chism is averaging 12.5 points and 8.5 rebounds against Ogilvy, while A.J. gets only 8.5 points and 4.0 rebounds against Wayne.  Advantage:  Wheezy.   

J.P. Prince and Jermaine Beal won't be directly against each other like Chism/Ogilvy, but the disparity in their play in this series is significant.  Prince almost got a triple-double against the 'Dores in Knoxville last season, finishing with an 8-10-7 (with 3 steals and 3 blocks) in UT's 69-50 win.  That came on the heels of his 16-5-4 performance in Nashville.  Say what you will about J.P., but against in-state foes, he brings the A game.

Meanwhile, one of the biggest factors in UT's succcess over Vandy has been Jermaine Beal's cold streak.  Beal averages 13.1 per game for Vandy this season, but in six career games against the Vols, Beal is a staggering 8 for 37 (21.6%) from the floor.  Last season in Vandy's two blowout losses to the Vols, Beal went 2 for 17.

Why might that change this year?  The arrival of freshman guard John Jenkins (the best three point shooter in the SEC at 48.3% from beyond the arc) and the continued growth of sophomore Jeffery Taylor (who leads Vandy in scoring at 14.3 ppg) will make the Vols responsible for more than just Beal outside the paint.  Any contribution from Beal will be an upgrade from what Vandy is used to getting in this series.

Being Smart against Vandy's "Defense"

If you like points, this matchup should be for you:  the Vols average 78.8 ppg, Vandy 79.2.  One key difference is Vanderbilt's defensive struggles...and I'm not even sure that's the best word to describe it.  At times it's been a total absence of anything resembling defense, but the 'Dores have been good enough offensively to surrender 87 to Florida and 79 to South Carolina and still win.  In turn, Tennessee still needs to be smart offensively - points will be easier to come by than they have been in the last three contests, but that shouldn't turn into the green light to jack more threes.

In the last two games, Scotty Hopson is 6 of 11 from beyond the arc...and the rest of the team is 0-15.  You can't have everybody be hot at the same time, but Tennessee has to have someone else who can knock down an outside shot if they want to have any chance in this game.  Hopefully the home rims restore the balance to this offense, and the Vols can run their offense effectively in transition and in the halfcourt, while knocking down the threes that are good looks.  If Vanderbilt wants to run all night, how willing will Tennessee be to follow?

Penetration and good looks will be key, especially if Vandy is hot on the other end.  And the Vols cannot be on the losing end of a wide rebounding margin again - both Ogilvy and Andre Walker will hit the glass for the 'Dores, and Tennessee will need help from beyond Chism and Kenny Hall to keep up.

Who starts fast?

Both teams have been terribly slow starters in SEC play.  Vanderbilt is 4-0 in conference despite falling behind by 7+ points in the first half in three of those games.  The Vols' only lead against Georgia was 4-2 before the Dawgs ran away, and the Vols' three SEC wins have also included slow starts:

  • Auburn:  down 34-22 with 5:47 left in first half
  • Ole Miss:  down 16-6 with 12:37 left in first half
  • Alabama:  down 9-3 with 15:30 left in first half

If either team starts fast on Wednesday, it'll be a new experience...which means both teams are also familiar with coming from behind.

This should be a good one, and I know it's an important one - right now both teams can still entertain thoughts of chasing down Kentucky (Vanderbilt goes to Rupp Arena over the weekend), but if the Cats do run away and hide, this game could help determine second place in the SEC East (and the other first round bye in the SEC Tournament).  Vanderbilt needs a win to continue its streak and validate itself on the national scene, which would build tremendous momentum heading to Lexington.  And Tennessee needs a win to bounce back, to prove that the Georgia loss was an aberration, not a sign of things to come. 

Pearl wants to see these Vols make progress and play better, and he's taken to Sabanspeak in detailing the importance of the process over the end result with this depleted roster.  And that's all well and good.  But I see no reason to let Kevin Stallings take down The Blazer in Knoxville. 

7:00 PM EST Wednesday, ESPNU.