NCAA, NIT, or just an above-.500 season, Tennessee needs wins to finish off the successful season Donnie Tyndall and this young squad starting building back in December. The Vols have lost four of five, including a pair of just missed opportunities on the road at potential NCAA Tournament teams in Arkansas and Georgia. Tennessee is competing its butt off, but the results have turned to close losses instead of surprising wins.
Vanderbilt was 11-3 after an SEC opening win over Auburn. Then the Commodores lost a shocking seven games in a row, five on the road where they often looked bad and two close ones in Nashville to Georgia and LSU in overtime. Youth is the most obvious culprit: seven of Vanderbilt's eight top scorers are freshmen or sophomores. But nothing builds confidence like starting a game on a 15-0 run: they snapped the streak with a home win over Florida last week in which they never led by less than four after that initial spurt. Then they turned a 43-31 South Carolina lead with 12 minutes to play into a 15 point victory.
Memorial Gym is, as usual, Vanderbilt's friend. Baylor and Georgia won there by three and LSU by four in overtime, and that's it. Tennessee has been up to the challenge on the road, but this is a tough place to try to change your fortunes, especially when Vanderbilt is suddenly playing with confidence.
Vanderbilt is the best shooting team in the SEC, 46.8% on the year, but that number has cooled to 42.2% in league play. But more dangerously for Tennessee, the Commodores are 12th nationally in assist percentage, sharing the ball on 64% of their made baskets. Great ball movement can break Tennessee's zone the way Texas A&M was able to, especially if you've got guys who can knock down shots. The Vols are 12th nationally in steal percentage, so much of this game could be decided by which team creates the advantage when Vanderbilt is setting up their offense.
The Dores get much of their production from 6'10" sophomore center Damian Jones, who will enjoy playing Tennessee much more now that Jarnell Stokes is gone. Freshman guard and All-Name Team honorable mention Riley LaChance is the SEC Freshman of the Week, getting 12.8 points and 2.6 assists per game to go with guard Wade Baldwin's 4.3 assists per game and a +2.3 assist/turnover ratio. Anchor of Gold points to James Siakam, the lone senior in this mix, as the biggest reason for Vandy's two-game turnaround.
Shocking stat of the week: Tennessee, not Kentucky, leads the SEC in offensive rebounding percentage in league play. The Vols are getting it done very differently than the Stokes/Maymon regime, using Armani Moore and others on the backside and making the most of their shot attempts in the league's second slowest pace of play. What Tennessee also needs is more shots to fall, shooting just 41.2% in league play.
Specifically Devon Baulkman and Detrick Mostella have really struggled recently; Mostella is shooting just 30.8% from the arc and 30.2% overall, and while Baulkman is hitting 40.5% from the arc he doesn't take very many and struggles inside the arc, just 39.7% overall. Robert Hubbs continues to come along, scoring in double figures in four of Tennessee's last eight games after doing so only once in the non-conference. And I'd wager Josh Richardson is going to score more than two points this time.
Still, I think it comes down to this: if Tennessee can create turnovers they way they did at Georgia, they'll give themselves a chance to win. If they can't, Vanderbilt should be able to create opportunities to score against the Vols' zone, and Damian Jones could be the beneficiary there. There are no free wins left, but the Vols have to find them somewhere along the way to finish this thing the right way. Will they get one tonight?
We've got the late start again, 9:00 PM ET on the SEC Network. Go Vols.