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SEC Tournament: Tennessee vs Vanderbilt Preview

Round Three of the in-state rivalry takes place in Nashville tonight.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

If you took the first 20 games of Tennessee's season and the last 10 games of Vanderbilt's season, you would have a 21-9 (13-5) club looking to play their way into a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament this week.  Instead, you have a pair of teams that will need wins in Nashville just to make the NIT.  Such were the depths of despair in the first two-thirds of Vanderbilt's season and the last third-ish of Tennessee's season.  You know about the Vols' struggles; the reason Vanderbilt has caught so many people by surprise is they lost to Rutgers (10-21) and Georgia Tech (12-19) in the non-conference, then lost seven straight after opening SEC play with a win over Auburn.  Vanderbilt was 11-10 (1-7) when the calendar hit February.  Tennessee was 13-7 (5-3).

Today, Vanderbilt is 19-12.  The Dores have unleashed or unlocked one of the most efficient offenses in basketball:  17th in Ken Pomeroy's rankings, which has carried them to #40 overall in KenPom, fourth best among SEC teams.  Their list of victims in their now 8-2 stretch wasn't that impressive until they went to Oxford Saturday and put 86 on the Rebels in a game they controlled throughout.  They've been consistently hot from the field in the last ten games, shooting below 40% just once in the loss at Florida.  But in the last four games they've been the reincarnation of 2011 VCU from the three point line:

  • at Tennessee:  13 of 25, 52.0%
  • Alabama:  11 of 19, 57.9%
  • Mississippi State:  8 of 17, 47.1%
  • at Ole Miss:  13 of 23, 56.5%
  • LAST FOUR GAMES:  45 of 84, 53.5%
So hey, maybe we can feel a little bit better about our own defense?  That game in Knoxville was the turning point for the narrative of Tennessee's season, even though most of what we should have known about these Vols was there all along.  Tennessee has gone from feeling good about their NIT chances with 14 minutes to play in that game to probably needing a run to Sunday to get back on the board.  Vanderbilt, despite the 19-12 mark, enters the SEC Tournament with an RPI of 90 and is both no lock for the NIT and unlikely to make the NCAA Tournament without doing it the hard way on Sunday.

Having only seen Kentucky and Florida once this year and with Memphis still too good for us with their 10-8 record in the eighth best conference in the nation, the Vanderbilt rivalry has taken center stage at the moment.  Thanks are due in no small part to #ourstate, missed free throws, Robert Hubbs, Wade Baldwin, and of course, Kevin Stallings.  Both games have been entertaining and full of spurts, from the one the Vols made in the last thirty seconds in Nashville to the dueling runs in Knoxville ending with Vandy pulling away.  I would expect much of the same tonight, though I hope the Dores miss a three or two to get started so they don't get that old familiar feeling.

When we beat Vanderbilt the first time, the next day I put on my SB Nation SEC Power Poll ballot that Vanderbilt was a bubble team at worst next year, with one senior in James Siakam flanked by seven freshmen and sophomores among their top eight contributors.  But in this stretch they've been playing far better than a bubble team.  Their talent surge is one of many in this league which will make the climb even tougher for Tennessee in the next couple years.

The hill is plenty steep this week too.  The Vols are who they are, and will likely live and die, especially tonight and if we survive to see Arkansas, with their ability to create turnovers and just how hot the opposition is from the arc.  The Vols, still the best in the SEC and 13th nationally in steal percentage, had seven steals in Nashville, zero in Knoxville.  Tennessee remains last in the SEC and 329th (of 351) nationally in three point percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot 38% from the arc.  That would qualify as a bad day for Vanderbilt at this point.

The good news is the Vols have had some offensive success against Vanderbilt (and Arkansas), which is what makes this a more favorable draw for the big orange.  Here again, the Vols are who they are:  struggling to get inside looks with no true post player, can guys like Armani Moore create their own opportunities, and will the Vols knock down enough threes to stay in it without settling for the arc in general?

It's win or go home, and right now there's no one we'd rather beat than Vanderbilt.  Both team's seasons are on the line tonight at 7:00 PM ET.  Go Vols.