Second-Time Scouting Report: Tennessee
On one hand, just how much does this Saturday's reunion with Tennessee mean to the Vanderbilt Commodores? VU has acquitted itself well against Kentucky, gained the split with Florida, won on Senior Night, and tucked away a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament. Yes, it's Tennessee, but local hatreds aside, just how much does this game matter?
It's unusual to say such a thing before the last non-elimination contest of the season, but the lack of suffocating pressure in this contest is part of what makes it such a defining moment for Vanderbilt. Can this team win not because of the stakes involved, but because it can find motivation from within? Can this team win not because of the name on its opponent's jersey, but because of the pride it takes in playing the game the right way, with a requisite amount of intensity and inner fire? Can Vanderbilt deliver haymakers against an inferior opponent or, if not that, stay the course long enough to prevail in crunch time?
Consider this point: In a season when so many of the No. 11 and No. 12 seeds in the NCAA Tournament have profiles consistent with NIT teams, Vanderbilt will essentially be playing an NIT team one and a half weeks before it opens in the Big Dance against an 11 or 12 seed (VU will probably land in the 5 or 6 seed range once again unless it wins the SEC Tournament, in which case it could be a 4 seed). Reasonable minds can disagree, but for a team that couldn't solve Bud Walton Arena or Rupp Arena or the Stephen O'Connell Center, grabbing at least one win in a really hostile SEC building (I don't know if Coleman Coliseum rises to that level…) should mean a lot when the round of 64 comes around on March 15 or 16. It's only one person's opinion, but the verdict here is that if Vanderbilt is going to advance in the NCAA Tournament, this game will offer a strong indication of the Dores' readiness, for better or worse. Sure, motivation matters in competitive athletics, but when a season reaches its final weeks, great teams win not primarily because they're more motivated, but because they allow their skills to do the talking. Can Vanderbilt allow its skills to spill out in full flower against an inferior foe, but one that works extremely hard from opening tip to final horn? That's likely to be the challenge on day one of the NCAA Tournament, and it's DEFINITELY going to be the challenge against the Tennessee Volunteers.
Let's see if Vanderbilt can stand and deliver… not to show the country anything, not to make a national statement, but to show to itself that it can beat inferior teams in March. This is a prodigiously gifted team, as seen against the Kentuckys and Floridas of the world. It's time to let those gifts shine forth every time on the court, especially when the opponent doesn't have anything approaching the skill set of a Kentucky or Florida.
On the first day of February, the Tennessee Volunteers were 10-13, 2-5 in the SEC, drifting along without a strong sense of hope. Yes, the SEC hasn't been particularly strong this season, but even with the vulnerability of the league (sans Kentucky), Tennessee faced a long road to both respectability and a postseason tournament of any kind. Road trips to Florida and LSU didn't seem like good opportunities for wins, but the Vols conquered Gainesville and Baton Rouge. They also took care of business at home against lower-tier foes, displaying the high-level consistency that had been so markedly elusive for the first two and a half months of the year. Head coach Cuonzo Martin, Gene Keady disciple that he is, has managed to successfully instill a defense-first mentality into the minds of his players, getting "buy-in" at a time in a season when it's not easy for coaches to command respect. Precisely when Tennessee's season was flagging, the Vols – up and down their roster – could have bailed on Martin, but they've chosen the better path and gained a great deal of respect from the rest of the SEC in the process. Amazingly, Tennessee is very much in the mix for a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament, something that no soul would have dared to dream of one month ago.
Tennessee is therefore a team that exists on the opposite side of the tracks when compared to Vanderbilt. The Vols entered this season with an unstable situation and lots of youth, whereas the Commodores were a senior-laden team with a stable structure. Tennessee doesn't possess an imposing skill level, whereas VU is immensely talented at multiple positions on the floor. The Vols should consider themselves fortunate and happy to be a sure thing for the NIT, whereas Vanderbilt won't be satisfied if it loses in the NCAA Tournament's round of 64. The identity of the Vols – like the journey that has shaped it – makes this game such a manhood-making (or breaking) moment for VU. If Tennessee wins, the headlines will say, "Grit Trumps Talent." If Vanderbilt wins, the opposite will be said. The key insight, though, is that Vanderbilt needs its grit – which was on display against Kentucky and Florida over the past week – to resurface one more time. Being able to pull out a defensive grinder against a defense-first opponent would enable Vanderbilt to gain that much more mental armor for the defining weeks that lie ahead.
BONUS SECTION: STATISTICAL PROFILE
-- Tennessee sits outside the top 90 in rebounding (36.1 rebounds per game) and outside the top 115 teams in the country in three other categories: field goal shooting percentage (.447), points per game (69), and assists (13).
-- K allows only 65.2 points per game, roughly two points below the national average of 67.1.
-- Tennessee averages 13.9 turnovers per game, 11th in the SEC.
-- Points per possession scored: 1.01 (fifth in the SEC).
-- Points per possession allowed: 0.97 (ninth in the SEC).
-- Effective field goal percentage (shooting percentage weighted to include three-point shots): 51.1, fifth in the SEC.
Forward – Jeronne Maymon – Junior, 6-7, 265 2011-12: 12.6 ppg, 7.9 rpg
Maymon might come across as a player of modest to slightly above average ability, given his scoring and rebounding totals, but in his last four games, he's been much better than that. Maymon has been a beast in his last four games, averaging 16.5 points and giving the Volunteers an absolutely unfathomable – yet undeniable – shot at the No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament.
Forward – Jarnell Stokes – Freshman, 6-8, 250; 2011-12: 9 ppg, 7 rpg
Stokes isn't hitting the proverbial freshman wall, but there's a really good reason for that: He didn't start playing on a regular basis until the beginning of January. Stokes is finishing his second full month of competition this season with a relatively fresh pair of legs. He is continuing to rebound well and provide the interior defense that is largely responsible for the Vols' resurgence. He was stifled in January when these teams first met, but he will likely play a lot stronger this time around. Vanderbilt needs to adjust accordingly and bring an even bigger effort to the trench warfare that awaits in the paint.
Guard – Cameron Tatum – Senior, 6-7, 193; 2011-12: 7.7 ppg, 4 rpg
Tatum isn't becoming more of a factor at the offensive end of the floor for the Vols, but under Martin's tutelage, he's remained a significant defensive presence and has contributed to this team's rise up the SEC standings. Tatum's length is bothersome for opposing offenses, and as a result, it will be important to either beat him with dribble penetration or screens. Getting Tatum into positions when he has to switch with one of his fellow guards will be important for the larger workings of Vanderbilt's offense.
Guard – Skylar McBee – Junior, 6-3, 199; 2011-12: 6.6 ppg, 1.2 rpg
McBee might be the starter in the Vols' current rotation, but he played only 19 minutes in Tennessee's overtime win over LSU last Wednesday. McBee gives way to teammate Jordan McRae, who comes off the bench but has been getting over 30 minutes of playing time over the past three weeks. McRae posted 16 points and 6 rebounds on Feb. 22 against Ole Miss, and he followed up that sparkling performance with a 16-point, 8-rebound gem against South Carolina on Feb. 25. McRae averages 9.2 points and 2.8 rebounds per game, and with his 6-5 frame, he's a much better perimeter defender than McBee is. Vanderbilt needs to devote more of its scouting report to McRae than McBee for this Saturday's showdown.
Guard – Trae Golden – Sophomore, 6-1, 209; 2011-12: 13.3 ppg, 4.6 apg, 2.9 rpg
Golden is shouldering a lot of the scoring load for the Volunteers. He's finished in double figures in each of the team's last five games, proving to be an instrumental part of a team whose performance in February has taken much of the SEC by surprise. The point of opportunity for Vanderbilt is that Golden's assist-to-turnover ratio is basically 1:1. Golden might average 4.6 dimes per game, but he's committed at least four turnovers in four of his last five outings and at least six in three of four contests. Sustained ball pressure on Golden should generate some fast-break opportunities for the Commodores. They'll need to collect some cheap buckets in order to win this game, so attacking Golden at the defensive end will be a priority on Saturday afternoon.
In addition to McRae, who comes on in support of McBee, Tennessee looks to 6-6 freshman guard Josh Richardson, primarily in a defensive capacity. Outside of Richardson, no one else on the Vols' bench (other than the aforementioned McRae, of course) has been averaging at least 10 minutes a game over the past five games. Center Yemi Makanjuola and forward Dwight Miller get some spot minutes, but nothing more. Forward Kenny Hall was suspended by Martin two weeks ago for conduct detrimental to the team, shortening the Vols' bench but evidently improving team chemistry. Vanderbilt won't disrupt the Vols' chemistry, but it can certainly wear down Tennessee with its superior frontcourt depth.
Keys to the Game
1) Rebounding. Ruggedness. Resolve. The key from the first meeting between these two teams remains in place for the rematch. Vanderbilt punched Tennessee in the mouth over a month ago in Nashville, but the Commodores have had a tough time doing the same thing in Knoxville. VU has to be able to walk into Thompson-Boling Arena and be the aggressor for 40 minutes, outmuscling the Vols on the glass early, often, and especially late. Tennessee's successes this season have been based on elbow grease and not too much else. Vanderbilt needs to get its hands dirty, especially in battles for 50-50 balls, if it wants to win this reputation-making contest. The Dores are more talented. They're deeper. They're facing a Tennessee team that, while commendably gritty, is not imposing in any discernible sense. If Vanderbilt plays with supreme passion (supplemented by just enough poise and intelligence), it should definitely walk away with the No. 2 seed in the SEC (assuming, of course, that Kentucky puts away Florida on Sunday).
2) Taylor-made crisis management. There will likely come a time on Saturday afternoon when Vanderbilt encounters a moment of urgency, a point in the proceedings when a Tennessee run needs to be stopped and the Knoxville crowd needs to be hushed. It is in these moments that a John Jenkins jumper can come in handy, but with all due respect to VU's supreme sniper, it's Jeffery Taylor who must get the rock in such situations. Taylor can break defenses down on the dribble, and he's powerful enough to absorb body contact yet finish near the tin. Taylor can't shy away from physical play in this game; he also can't shy away from the occasion itself. If Taylor carries himself with a confident air and a swaggering strut against the Vols, his teammates will follow him to the finish line. It is so important for Taylor to be a tone-setter and crisis manager for the Dores in this game.
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