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Tennessee-Vanderbilt Preview: What to watch for as the Commodores come to town

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

After skipping the mid-week game, Tennessee will return to action on Saturday evening against the Vanderbilt Commodores. This was supposed to be the second game of a back to back with Vandy, but COVID issues within the Commodores’ program forced the postponement of that contest on Tuesday.

As of right now — Friday morning — things are still a go for Saturday night in Knoxville. Of course, that’s subject to change, but we’re going to act like we’re going to play this game.

Tennessee, now at 9-1, is coming off of a win at Texas A&M last weekend. They were able to bounce back from their first loss of the season against Alabama, finding a win against Arkansas. The Volunteers are now 3-1 in conference play.

Vanderbilt is still looking for its first conference win. The Commodores have dropped games against Florida, Kentucky and Mississippi State, although they were competitive against the Wildcats and Bulldogs.

The Commodores are a bit of a one-man show right now, powered by Scotty Pippen Jr. and his 21.6 points per game. He also leads the team by a wide margin in assists, pouring in nearly six per game. The 6-1 sophomore is shooting 44.9 percent from the field and 36 percent from three-point range.

“He’s much, much, much improved,” Rick Barnes said of Pippen. “He’s responsible for about half of their points, in production offensively. I love the demeanor that he plays with.”

Pippen’s scoring is up nearly ten full points per game from last season. His field goal percentage is up from 39 percent to 44, as he’s currently handling 33 minutes per game.

“He is a guy that went in last year and had to learn on the job,” Barnes continued. “He had to stay out there. They needed him on the court. Just like I told our young freshman a year ago, Josiah James. He didn’t get a chance to sit on the bench when he wasn’t playing well. He had to stay out there when he knew he wasn’t playing up to the level he wanted to play to. People were probably getting down on him, but in some ways that’s what helps guys grow quicker than anything.”

Joining Pippen as Vandy’s second most productive player is Dylan Disu, a 6-9 sophomore forward that will likely draw the attention on Yves Pons. Disu has been hot in conference play, scoring 14, 16 and 18 points in three games so far. He’s hitting from three-point range at a 38.5 percent clip, but is shooting 55 percent from long range in his last two games.

Tennessee utilizes a more balanced attack. It was Santiago Vescovi who beat Texas A&M after catching fire from three-point range. We’ve seen Jaden Springer take over a game or two, while John Fulkerson is always a legitimate offensive threat in the post. Victor Bailey, Keon Johnson and Josiah James from a stout rotation, each more than capable of taking over a game.

The starting lineup for Tennessee is ever changing, as is the rotation. The Vols are still sort of learning themselves on the fly, as Barnes pointed out this week.

“I tell them this — If they want to stay in the rotation, and there’s not a set rotation — it’s going to be based on what they do in practice every day,” Barnes said of his team. “That’s where they build confidence, not only for themselves, but for us. When games start out, we have an idea, sometimes of what we’re going to do for the first couple of subs. Depending on foul trouble, that can change. In my mind, we’ve got 10 guys, 11 guys that are ready to play.”

The thing to watch on Saturday night will be how the Volunteers handle Pippen — who will Barnes throw at him? Both Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer have earned starts in recent games, so that will likely be what Tennessee goes with first.

As a team, Vanderbilt ranks 138th in the KenPom efficiency rankings. Tennessee, on the other hand, is up to sixth in the country. Vegas has yet to release a line on this game, but for reference, Tennessee was favored by 13 points on the road on Tuesday night.

The Volunteers and Commodores are set for a 6 p.m. ET time tip-off in Knoxville — again, pending any COVID developments.