Second Scouting Report: Tennessee
One's an accident, but two's a trend. If Vanderbilt can beat someone other than Arkansas on its home floor, it might be able to say with some degree of credibility that it is making substantial strides as a program, learning from all the gut punches of January and early February. Vanderbilt knows it should have beaten Tennessee in Knoxville a few weeks ago. Motivation needs to translate into not just inspiration, but play completion, in this rematch with the Sons of Smokey.
The Volunteers and Commodores have played three games apiece since their last meeting. Both teams lost home games they expected to win – Tennessee versus Georgia, Vanderbilt versus Alabama. Both teams played Arkansas, but Vanderbilt got the Jekyll-and-Hyde Hogs at home, while Tennessee faced the music in Bud Walton Arena, where VU and most SEC visitors do not get out alive. Three games offers a fairly limited sample size, a not-very-useful way to measure these teams' progress… or lack thereof. Moreover, the fact that Arkansas is so good at home and so bad on the road makes the Razorbacks a throwaway opponent of sorts. There's little reason to make grand or sweeping statements about the Vols and Commodores based on the past two weeks. If this game is anything other than the high-50s or low-60s defensive grinder that unfolded in Thompson-Boling Arena in late January, it would rate as a distinct surprise.
TENNESSEE STAT PACK – STATISTICAL HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWLIGHTS
Field goal shooting percentage: 42.9. Change: +0.1 percent compared to Jan. 29, the last time these two teams met (42.8).
Three-point field goal shooting percentage: 28.6. Change: -0.6 percent (29.2 on Jan. 29).
Possessions per 40 minutes: 65.6. Change: -0.6 possessions (66.2 on Jan. 29).
Assists per game: 10.3. Change: -0.3 assists (10.6 on Jan. 29).
Field goal percentage defense: 41.6. Change: +0.8 percent (40.8 on Jan. 29).
Three-point field goal percentage defense: 31.3. Change: +0.9 percent (30.4 on Jan. 29).
Forward/Guard – Jordan McRae – Junior, 6-5, 178 2012-13: 13.7 points per game, 3.2 rebounds per game, 1.8 assists per game
McRae's scoring is down one point from Jan. 29 (14.7 points per contest). His rebounding is unchanged, and he averages 0.2 fewer assists (2.0 when these teams last met). McRae's shooting – as is the case for his teammates – is not improving. On a team of bricklayers, McRae has not been able to change the script in the past three games since Tennessee and Vanderbilt last met. He's 7 of 28 for the field. He scored 17 points against Georgia on Feb. 6 because he was able to earn 11 foul shots and make nine of them. In these scouting reports, the primacy of winning the battle at the foul line has been emphasized in recent weeks. No Tennessee player illustrates the need for Vanderbilt to establish free throw-shooting supremacy more than McRae.
Forward – Jarnell Stokes – Sophomore, 6-8, 270; 2012-13: 12.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg
Stokes is definitely not the problem on a team that's failing to improve at all five positions on the floor. Stokes' scoring is up by 1.3 points per game since Jan. 29, when the sophomore averaged 11.2 points per contest. Stokes is rebounding better than he was on Jan. 29. His current average is up 0.4 rebounds (8.1 per game entering the Vols' previous meeting with VU). The most important thing to note about Stokes his that he powered the Vols to victory in their most recent road game at South Carolina this past Saturday, hammering the Gamecocks with a 20-point, 10-rebound masterpiece.
In any road game, Tennessee needs Stokes's constant energy on the glass. With respect to this upcoming clash in Nashville, a massive rebounding performance by Stokes will enable the Volunteers to control the tempo, quiet the Memorial Gym crowd, and prevent a mediocre Vanderbilt offense from snagging second-chance points, which are going to loom large for both sides in this game.
Forward – Kenny Hall – Senior, 6-9, 230; 2012-13: 6.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg
Hall's scoring is up just one-tenth of a point compared to Jan. 29 (6.1 points per game at the time). His rebounding has declined by 0.6 rebounds per game (5.5 per contest on Jan. 29). Tennessee does not go deep into its bench – not for extended minutes, at any rate. Therefore, a senior with Hall's length and overall build should be getting more work done for the Children of the Checkerboard. In the post-Bruce Pearl era, Hall's game has not developed to the extent the Vols hoped it would.
Guard – Josh Richardson – Sophomore, 6-6, 188; 2012-13: 8.2 ppg, 4.7 rpg
Richardson's stats have barely budged in the three games Tennessee has played since the Jan. 29 meeting with VU. His scoring is down one tenth of a point (from 8.3 per game), and his rebounding is exactly the same. In some situations on some teams, this would be called "admirable consistency." For Tennessee, a team that is not making appreciable progress in the Cuonzo Martin era, it's called "failing to register appreciable improvement." Richardson's body is a bit on the thin side, but it's still fair to say that at 6-6, he can play over the top of at least some defenders and create his own shot. He needs to become a more potent offensive player for a team that suffers far too much at the offensive end of the floor.
Guard – Armani Moore – Freshman, 6-5, 203; 2012-13: 2.3 ppg, 2.7 rpg
Moore is still the official starter for the Vols, but as was the case when these teams met on Jan. 29 in Knoxville, he's little more than a placeholder for Trae Golden, who is entrusted with this offense and receives 26.9 minutes per game. Moore, as a point of comparison, gets only 12.3 minutes per outing.
Golden's assists, at 3.8 per game, are slightly down – 0.3 assists – from where they were on Jan. 29 (4.1 per contest). Golden averages 10.3 points per game, but at great cost to Tennessee's offensive efficiency. A point guard who hits just 35.9 percent of all field goal attempts, and only 23.4 percent of his threes, needs to drop nine or more dimes per game in order to add value to his team's offense.
In what is still an eight-man rotation for the Vols (much as it was on Jan. 29), Skylar McBee joins Golden as a bench player who gains starter-level minutes (more than 23). Golden is essentially – though not officially – a starter, while McBee is Tennessee's true sixth man. Big guard Derek Reese has been slowed down by injuries this season, but he's still seventh on the team in playing time, ahead of Moore, the "starter" at point guard. Neither McBee nor Reese have been able to make any significant improvements in Tennessee's last three games, and that's part of why the Vols went 1-2 in those contests. Someone, anyone, other than Stokes needs to step up to the big-boy table and knock down some shots for this team. An unexpected breakthrough performance by a member of Tennessee's bench might be the only way this game climbs out of the 50s and into the 60s.
Keys to the Game
1) Stop Stokes. In some situations, it's wise to allow one player to get his points while wrapping up everyone else. Tennessee is not that kind of team. The Vols need Stokes, their heartbeat, to translate effort into production. Without strong stuff from Stokes, the Vols are largely lost. If Vanderbilt can throttle Stokes, it will win.
2) Foul shots, foul shots, foul shots. This should be yet another rugged and contentious tussle between two bitter rivals. Naturally, both teams will be intent on getting as many cheap points as they can while minimizing the same at the other end of the floor. On Jan. 29, this scouting report focused on the need to avoid the kinds of turnovers that lead to run-outs and easy transition baskets for Tennessee. In this game, the emphasis falls on free throws. The reasoning is simple: Vanderbilt might not always hit big field goals against Tennessee, but a pile of late-stage foul shots will be a tonic for the Commodores if their threes, wing jumpers, and six-foot half-hooks aren't falling.
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