Will: When Tennessee won at Vanderbilt on January 14, it was an entertaining night that broke a three-game losing streak and made the future look bright. Then the Vols made the future the present by turning that win into five-of-six to play their way onto the bubble, where they remain with four games to play.
The primary argument for Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament? It’s pretty similar to Vanderbilt’s all of a sudden. The Commodores are third in strength of schedule and that number should only go up: Vandy is at Kentucky and home against Florida next week to close the regular season. In quality wins, Vanderbilt will see our win over Kentucky in Knoxville and raise with a victory over Florida in Gainesville. They likewise followed up with a home win over a probable NCAA team from the Big 12 by beating Iowa State. And like Tennessee they lack the consistency to solidify themselves in this conversation, losing at home to Ole Miss on February 4, then shockingly falling by 20 at Missouri on February 11. Still, here they are: 49 to Tennessee’s 51 in RPI, lurking at 56 in KenPom.
How have they done it? We turn to our resident dual citizen:
Volundore: If you’ll permit me to mix my basketball metaphors, early this season, the Grizzlies were beset by injuries. On a roster of 15 players, they had a stretch with only 9 available bodies, which is almost unheard of in the NBA (at least since last year when the Grizzlies did the same thing). They dubbed themselves the Nasty Nine and pulled off a string of close, improbable wins.
I make that point only because in the transition from Kevin Stallings (currently frustrating Pitt fans with wildly inconsistent basketball) to Bryce Drew (not just a March Madness highlight from 1997 anymore), the Dores are down to 9 players, each of whom was recruited by Stallings. Vandy fans still don’t really know how Drew wants to play, because he’s had to adapt his style over the course of the season to fit the players on the roster.
And what do Stallings’ players like to do? Shoot 3’s. In conference play, Vandy takes 27.4 3’s and makes 10.2 of ‘em (both 1st in the SEC).
You know the names by now, and because of the lack of depth, you’ll see them for between 28 and 33 minutes. Matthew Fisher-Davis scores 15.3 a night and shoots 39.5% from deep. Luke Kornet scores 13.3 and shoots 35.2% from outside. And Riley LaChance, after a woeful sophomore year, scores 10.1 each time out, bolstered by 49.1% (!) shooting from behind the line.
The Four Factors really do a great job explaining Vandy’s performance. They don’t have a lot of size or a true PG; consequently, they tend to lose when they turn it over a lot and get blasted on the boards. If they keep those in check, shoot well, and get to the line (they shoot 77.1% there, 13th best in the country), they can be dangerous.
In the end, the Dores and the Vols have had very similar seasons. They played a tough non-conference schedule, but didn’t get any big wins. They got off to a somewhat surprising start in SEC play before going through a rough patch. A home victory in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge has helped spur a push to the finish that could end in the postseason because the metrics look good.
It’s a big game for both teams, and the winner will feel like they’ve got a legitimate shot at making it to March Madness. In early January, I’m not sure I would’ve thought that possible by either squad.
Will: While Vanderbilt’s schedule allows for those additional opportunities next week, this is as close to must-win as it gets for Tennessee right now. They beat Vanderbilt once behind what is clearly their best offensive performance of the season: a season-high 58.6% from the floor featuring 18 assists to only five turnovers, 8-of-15 from the arc, and 11-of-14 at the free throw line. That’ll beat just about anybody, including Vanderbilt shooting 53.1% in their own building. Last time Tennessee chased Vandy away from the three point line more than they wanted (only 14 attempts, still made six of them) and basically won the game by out-big-shotting the Commodores.
Will one or both of these two teams cool off tonight? Will we see a different strategy from the Vols in dealing with Vanderbilt’s three-point love affair? I have no idea, but here’s a h-u-g-e rivalry game in Knoxville with real NCAA Tournament implications in late February. We’re well ahead of schedule on that one.
6:30 PM ET, SEC Network. Big, big game. Go Vols.