The matchup couldn't be much worse for Tennessee. The Vols are going on the road, where they've won just once this season, without their leading scorer to face a Vanderbilt team that is on fire of late and possesses the length and athleticism to make this game a rout early.
Rick Barnes' squad is set to face a Commodore team that has won six of its last eight games, including victories over then-No. 8 Texas A&M and No. 16 Kentucky to vault themselves back into the NCAA Tournament picture at just the right time. Tennessee's task will be stopping its rival that is Top 35 in both Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency ratings.
"The inside-outside combination, they've got length that they take advantage of inside and they've got players who can play over the top of us," Barnes said. "They have the ability, as we know, they'll make a bunch of threes on you. You know, you love it when you've got that kind of combination. That's something that every team, every coach would like to have, that inside-outside presence."
While Vanderbilt heats up, Tennessee has slowed to a grind as it finishes out the regular season fighting attrition. Kevin Punter, the team's leading scorer with 22 points per game, will miss his fourth consecutive game Tuesday. Paired with Punter on the bench could be Robert Hubbs, who is battling a knee injury and did not play in a loss to Arkansas Saturday. The two injuries have forced Tennessee's young players into starting roles, including three freshmen starters Saturday in Admiral Schofield, Kyle Alexander and Shembari Phillips. It was the most freshmen Tennessee has started since 2007.
"Because of injuries, those young guys have had a chance to play," Barnes said. "When you think of Robert not playing at all in the Arkansas game, they've all gotten some quality minutes. I think what they're going to learn, or what they should be learning right now is how hard it is to do this for a long period of time."
Tenneseee is hoping for a much different outcome than the teams' first matchup in Knoxville. The Commodores pulled out an 88-74 victory that was much worse than the final score indicated.
"The game here at Vandy was, I still think the worst game that we've played all year, and they had a lot to do with that," Barnes said. "It looks like they're playing arguably the best basketball in the league right now. It looks like, too, that they've kind of cut back their bench."
Vanderbilt has found its rotation and is leaning heavily on it with six players averaging more than 25 minutes per game. Kevin Stallings' team is led by Damian Jones and Wade Baldwin IV, each of whom average 14 points per game, and will be a big test for a Tennessee team that struggles mightily defensively on the road. Barnes is hoping he'll get a consistent effort from his young corps and players off the bench, something he's yet to fully see night-in and night-out.
"We've all proven it that they can compete, but we just haven't had enough guys be as consistent as they have to be with it," Barnes said. "This time of year that shouldn't be an issue, but it really still is. We're a team where, if we don't compete, we're not going to have much of a chance. We have to do that at a very, very high level."