It’s pick your pleasure between a pair of 8-8 teams with a nearly identical KenPom rating and a recent history owned by Vanderbilt in the regular season but Tennessee in the SEC Tournament. Last year the Commodores won by 14 in Knoxville and 17 on their home floor. Nine days later, Wade Baldwin couldn’t beat the buzzer and the Vols bounced Vandy from the SEC Tournament for the second year in a row.
Baldwin and Damian Jones are gone, as is our old friend Kevin Stallings. In his place is Bryce Drew, and the rest of last year’s supporting cast is back: Matthew Fisher-Davis, Luke Kornet, Jeff Roberson, and Riley LaChance, all the names you know and love.
The opponents aren’t quite as sexy (Tennessee’s strength of schedule is #3 in KenPom, Vandy’s #17) but Vanderbilt had about as much fun in the non-conference as we did: Marquette, Bucknell, Butler, Minnesota, Middle Tennessee, and Dayton all got the best of them. A rebound at the start of SEC play with wins over LSU and Auburn was quieted by a 14-point blown lead in a loss at Alabama and the close-but-not-enough loss so many teams in this league take to Kentucky.
The Commodores clearly miss Damian Jones inside the arc, just 288th nationally in two-point field goal percentage. But they’re trying their best to make up for it elsewhere, shooting 39.4% from three and 76.8% at the line. LaChance only averages 3.8 threes attempted per game, but makes an absurd 55.7% of them.
Tennessee will just be happy to not be playing South Carolina after Wednesday’s loss, which we need not speak of for the sake of basketball. But though the Vols may not be as good defending the ball as the Gamecocks are (and few teams in college basketball are right now), they might be good enough to take advantage of Vanderbilt. The Commodores are 209th nationally in turnover rate and 308th in opponent turnover rate. If Tennessee can speed them up and make Vanderbilt play their game, the Vols will have a chance to steal a road win. The Vols can’t let Vandy get the kind of looks from three Florida got, but hopefully Vandy’s struggles from inside the arc will permit the Vols to pay more attention to the three ball.
All these freshmen and all these close calls are bound to take their toll. Rick Barnes is fond of saying he likes this team, and that they just need to listen, and those are good things. As Tennessee gets a chance to play a team more on their level, which will happen first: the Vols listen and continue to grow, or freshmen hit a wall and this season gets off the rails?
We’ll find out Saturday in Nashville at 8:30 PM ET on the SEC Network.