After visiting Vanderbilt tonight, the Vols host Mississippi State on Saturday, visit South Carolina on March 3 and host Kentucky on March 6. Given the fact Tennessee is 9-11 in the last 20 games after a 7-0 start, it really needs to finish with a flourish to lock down an invitation to The Dance.
"Basically, this is just all or nothing," Vol freshman Tobias Harris said. "We're going to see how tough we are during this stretch because everybody on our team wants it, so you're really going to see how tough we are these last few games."
Tennessee better be at its toughest tonight because Vandy is a prohibitive favorite. The Dores dominated the first half and should've won the earlier meeting at Knoxville. They rolled to an early 30-13 lead only to let Tennessee chip away and prevail 67-64 in overtime.
"The earlier Vanderbilt game was probably one of our best wins of the year," head coach Bruce Pearl recalled. "We held them to 42-percent shooting and turned them over 21 times. Vanderbilt averages about 10 turnovers per game in SEC play if you take those 21 turnovers out."
That win was supposed to be a turning point for the Vols but it wasn't. They've split 10 games since then, winning five and losing five.
"It's a difficult to sit there right now and be 16-11," Pearl said. "It's not something we're very happy about. Yet, we're still in position to do what we want to do - and that is get to the NCAA Tournament.
"We still feel like we can compete with anybody in the SEC but we need a push over the top here down the stretch."
The Vols may need more than a push tonight; they may need a miracle. Vanderbilt is 14-1 and almost invincible at home this year. One reason is its knack for getting to the free-throw line. In last year's game at Nashville Tennessee made two more field goals (26 to 24) but the Dores made 37 of 43 foul shots to the Vols' 13 of 21. The 2011 Commodores have made 499 of 666 free throws, their opponents just 311 of 450.
"Going up against Vanderbilt, one of the great challenges is keeping them off the foul line," Pearl noted. "Vanderbilt has made more free throws than their opponents have attempted."
Even on the road the Dores score a lot of points from the foul line. In the earlier meeting at Knoxville, for instance, they were 17 of 22 and Tennessee just 11 of 13.
"That's part of their game plan, part of the reason they try to get the ball to the rim and draw contact," Pearl said. "We've got to do a good job of preventing them from doing that without fouling them."
GAME NOTES: Vanderbilt's projected starters are 6-11, 255-pound Festus Ezeli (12.4 points, 6.2 rebounds per game), 6-9, 215-pound Rod Odom (4.5 points, 3.0 rebounds), 6-7, 225-pound Jeffery Taylor (14.5 points, 5.7 rebounds), 6-4, 214-pound John Jenkins (19.9 points) and 6-3, 210-pound Brad Tinsley (10.8 points, 4.4 assists).... Tonight will mark Pearl's 200th game as the Vols' coach.... Tennessee's Brian Williams has recorded 10 assists in the past two games.... The Vols are in trouble if tonight's game turns into a long-range shooting contest. Vandy hits 39.3 percent from 3, Tennessee just 32.2.... Tip-off is set for 8:05 Central Time with national TV coverage provided by ESPN.