"We play best when everybody contributes," head coach Bruce Pearl said recently. "When we have four guys score in double-digits we've won 85 percent of our games. When three guys score in double-digits the percentage is still pretty good."
The Vols will need that kind of balanced attack tonight at 8 Central Time when they visit a Vanderbilt team that ranks No. 1 nationally in field-goal defense at 36.6 percent. Interestingly enough, Tennessee allows opponents to shoot 36.6 percent from 3-point range (worst in the SEC).
Here's another coincidence for you: The Commodores shoot 44.4 percent from the field; the Vols allow opponents to shoot 44.4 percent from the field (also worst in the SEC).
Although Tennessee's defense is the conference's worst statistically, the Vols showed signs of improvement in last Saturday's 82-79 defeat of South Carolina.
"I thought we did a pretty good job with South Carolina in the sense that this was the third time that we defended like we defended Georgetown and Marquette," Pearl noted. "We played some zone. We made them shoot over us. (Devan) Downey still got to the rim and we still got behind the post a few times. But I felt like this was the defensive blueprint we're going to have to go with."
Historically, playing zone against Vanderbilt is suicidal. The Commodores typically field a team full of 3-point bombers who thrive against zone defenses. This is not a typical Vandy team, however. The 2008-09 Commodores rank ninth among SEC squads in 3-point shooting at just 32.7 percent.
Both teams are struggling heading into tonight's game. Vandy is 12-5 overall and 1-2 in league play. Tennessee is 11-5 and 2-1 but has lost three of its last five outings. Still, Pearl was encouraged by what he saw in the defeat of South Carolina.
"I thought the guys really tried to understand where we're at and do something about it," the coach said. "The only way we're going to feel better about ourselves is to play well and win."
Like Tennessee, Vanderbilt fields a very young lineup. The starting wings are freshmen – 6-7 210-pound Jeffery Taylor (12.6 points, 6.1 rebounds per game) and 6-3, 210-pound Brad Tinsley (10.2 points per game). The Commodores also start two sophomores – 6-11, 250-pound A.J. Ogilvy (15.6 points, 6.9 rebounds) and 6-9, 240-pound Darshawn McClellan (3.0 points, 2.8 rebounds) – along with 6-3, 205-pound junior Jermaine Beal (12.1 points, 3.2 assists).
Naturally, Kevin Stallings' team is experiencing some growing pains. Pearl can relate. His youthful Vols are making progress but the progress is slow.
The coach recently summed up the situation in five words:
"There's so much to learn."