Scouting Report: Tennessee
So, the Vanderbilt Commodores seem destined to lose virtually every excruciatingly close game they play in. Xavier slipped away in the final minutes, as did Louisville. The Commodores' biggest wins this season haven't been close: Marquette was the mother of all blowouts, Alabama quite decisive in its own right. Vandy handled Auburn, South Carolina, and Georgia in SEC play, but by golly, as soon as a nail-biter came along again, the VU crew came up short. It wasn't so much a matter of structural deficiencies, but of failing to make that one… last… play – you know, the one play not made against Murray State or Richmond, the one play the Dores can't produce in the cauldron of SEC Tournament pressure each and every March. Vanderbilt basketball has to be able to finalize and fulfill itself when main-event moments and career-shaping crucibles come calling. Former NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer always told his players to "Focus and finish!" That's really what it's come to for coach Kevin Stallings's club.
What better team to challenge the shaken Commodores – following their agonizing loss to Mississippi State – than Tennessee? The Vols might be on the south side of the .500 mark, but they just outfought the defending national champions from Connecticut this past Saturday. Vanderbilt needs to put on its boxing gloves and get ready to stand in the ring for 40 minutes… and five more, if necessary.
The Volunteers don't have the imposing, all-court talent they possessed when they took Michigan State to the limit in the 2010 Midwest Regional final in St. Louis. This is a thinner, less dynamic, less explosive Tennessee team with a more buttoned-down coach – Cuonzo Martin – and a quieter off-court profile thanks to the departure of walking controversy and violation magnet Bruce Pearl. The Vols don't blind anyone with talent, but they are definitely learning how to grind thanks to the tutelage of Martin, a man who learned how to play bruising, blue-collar ball from an elite teacher, Gene Keady of Purdue. Interestingly enough, Martin's most painful loss as a collegiate basketball player came in Thompson-Boling Arena on the University of Tennessee campus. On a March Saturday in 1994, Martin's top-seeded Purdue team – the best Keady ever had in West Lafayette, Indiana – lost to second-seeded Duke in the Southeast Regional final. Martin has been through the wars as a player, and he's passing on the lessons he's learned to his players.
The results are evident.
After a 3-6 start filled with losses to mediocre teams such as Austin Peay, the Vols have gotten their act together. They did recently stub their toes at Georgia, but their 1-3 SEC record is very deceiving. Tennessee nearly won at Mississippi State and almost took down Kentucky at home. The Vols whacked Florida at home (something Vandy will be hard-pressed to do) and then beat the defending champions from New England this past weekend in Knoxville. The Vols do it with defense, because they can't win any other way. Unceasing energy at the defensive end of the floor is enabling Martin's men to keep Kentucky in the mid-60s and UConn in the high 50s. Vanderbilt needs to be ready to work for each and every bucket in this game. The Dores – if they want to start winning close games instead of losing them – need to bring their lunch pails (or dinner pails, as it were) to Memorial Gym.
Forward – Jeronne Maymon – Junior, 6-7, 265 2011-12: 11.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg
He's not anything like Arnett Moultrie of Mississippi State, but Maymon does have a nose for the ball and a feel for how to crash the boards. Maymon is a stocky, sturdy type, the bearer of brawn in contrast to Moultrie's lean and long-limbed body. He gets rebounds not with his leaping ability (he doesn't get off the ground), but with his bulk. He is what Boston Celtics (and former CBS) announcer Tom Heinsohn would call a "widebody." Vanderbilt needs to body-up against him in this tilt.
Forward – Jarnell Stokes – Freshman, 6-8, 250; 2011-12: 12 ppg and 8 rpg in three games played
Stokes hadn't even turned 18 until Jan. 7. On Jan. 14, he was given his first on-court action as a collegiate basketball player against Kentucky… and flourished, scoring nine points and pulling down four rebounds in 17 high-impact minutes. The thing to realize about Stokes – who then dropped a "16 and 12" on Connecticut this past Saturday – is that he has fresh legs as a result of not playing any ball in November or December. He's going to be a load for Vanderbilt, despite his lack of experience. Pure energy is usually an asset in basketball. Stokes's motor has clearly contributed to the Vols' impressive January improvement.
Guard – Cameron Tatum – Senior, 6-7, 193; 2011-12: 9.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg
Tatum was one of many contributors on Tennessee's 2010 team. He was a threat in part because he had players named Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince surrounding him. Now, Tatum is more isolated on a team that lacks the armada of slasher-shooter-scorers the Vols turned to in the past. Tatum's numbers are therefore fairly pedestrian, but the senior does hit 41 percent of his threes and is skilled enough to produce a fat stat line. All it takes is a confident shooting hand; Vanderbilt has to close down on that shooting hand all night long.
Guard – Josh Richardson – Freshman, 6-6, 186; 2011-12: 3 ppg, 1.3 rpg
The fact that Richardson is a starter for this team – albeit a starter who does not play north of even 18 minutes per game (he averages 16.3 per contest) – magnifies the Vols' limitations. Richardson could be a factor at the offensive end of the floor with his length, because he should be able to shoot over the top of smaller defenders, but for now, Richardson's value is only as a defensive stopper. He definitely does contribute to Tennessee's defensive effort, but until he makes himself a formidable two-way performer, the Vols will continue to starve for buckets in meaningful situations.
Guard – Trae Golden – Sophomore, 6-1, 209; 2011-12: 13.6 ppg, 5.2 apg, 2.9 rpg
The brightest ray of Big Orange sunshine this season has been Golden, a terrifically productive point guard who has been able to keep this team at least somewhat cohesive at the offensive end. Golden's combination of quickness, court sense, and passing ability has given Tennessee what little potency it owns. His development at the point has been a profoundly unifying aspect of the Vols' season, the event which – if removed from the Tennessee narrative – would leave this team floundering to a far greater extent than it already has. The Vols would be a five-win team if Golden had not stepped up his game this year.
Martin's insertion of Stokes into the starting lineup has relegated Renaldo Woolridge to the bench for meager and not very meaningful minutes. The core players on Tennessee's bench are forward Kenny Hall and guards Skylar McBee and Jordan McRae. Hall is an unpolished but considerably strong low-post player whom Vanderbilt must counteract with vigorous defense and airtight positioning on rebounds. McBee is Tennessee's one true pure shooter, the sniper who comes off the bench looking to pick off a few threes in transition. McRae averages nine points per game in 20 minutes of playing time, so he definitely has to have the Dores' attention when he walks onto the Memorial Gym floor from the Vols' baseline bench.
Keys to the Game
1) Rebounding. Ruggedness. Resolve. Remember last year's loss in Knoxville? It occurred because the Commodores simply weren't tough enough on the boards or fast enough to 50-50 balls. If VU wins those battles on Tuesday, it should prevail. Period.
2) Stokes and Golden in the crosshairs. Stokes is the freshest player on the court due to his lack of extended minutes. Golden is the source of Tennessee's offense. Lock down those two players and Vanderbilt runs away with this game. Don't make this contest any more complicated than it needs to be.
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