Basketball Scouting Report: Tennessee
The past two weeks have been highly fruitful for academic powerhouses with limited rosters. Vanderbilt and Northwestern both take the court knowing that they can't play games in the mid-60s or higher if they expect to win. Yet, both programs keep locking down the fort, enough to the extent that they can overcome various constraints on offense. Other teams across the country aren't as bereft of depth (Vanderbilt's case) or talent (Northwestern), but they often win with defense as well. Wichita State and Virginia are two particularly good examples this season. There are many paths to the winner's circle in college basketball. Vanderbilt is one of several teams that knows where its strength lies. It is simultaneously aware that unlike the Wichita States of the world, it can win in one and only one way. Playing at a faster pace or (on a more value-negative note) surviving a poor defensive effort aren't realistic options. Can VU continue to impose its defense-first identity on Tennessee?
This game should be close, but Tennessee has the 1-2 combination that could turn a tense defensive standoff into a blowout. This is Vanderbilt's toughest test until the late February gauntlet of Missouri followed closely by Florida. If VU can pull out a win here, the next three games – home against Arkansas, at South Carolina, home against Texas A&M – would give Vanderbilt a shot at an 8-4 SEC record and, with it, a legitimate shot at an NIT bid in a conference that should have plenty of candidates.
In a "normal" year, Vanderbilt would – and should – have no interest in an NIT ticket. This, of course, is anything but a normal year. Getting to the NIT would be a fantastic achievement-cum-reward for these players. It would give Kevin Stallings a world of optimism for the 2014-2015 season. This Tennessee game feels, in many ways, like a hinge point of the season with respect to the goal of making the NIT. Let's see what the Dores can do on their home floor.
The Volunteers seemed to be dead in terms of the NCAA tournament chase in early February of last year, but they made a late charge and might have cracked the field of 68 had they been able to beat Alabama in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. This year, Tennessee has snuck up on other teams in a different way: Its resume has gotten better over the course of time, due to events elsewhere in the country. Tennessee's split with Xavier didn't look as good in late November as it does now. Xavier is a bubble team, so getting a split with a decent opponent helps more than it hurts. UTEP, a team that beat Tennessee early in the season, has risen to the top three of Conference USA, minimizing the damage from that setback. The Vols also lost to Wichita State, a team that is currently on the one line and will probably finish with a top-two seed in March. The Vols' only really bad loss came to Texas A&M, and their ability to beat LSU on the road and Ole Miss at home has definitely strengthened their case for a Big Dance invite.
The main concern for coach Cuonzo Martin's team is that it won't have a lot of chances to gain quality wins the rest of the way. Two games against Missouri and a home date with Florida are the only high-value contests for the Vols until the SEC Tournament. The other games on the slate are ones they have to win in order to avoid absorbing a resume hit. Vanderbilt's recent winning streak means that a loss to VU won't be as crippling as it would have been three weeks ago, but a failure to triumph in Memorial Gym would still put the Vols a lot closer to the bubble, making it that much more important for them to win their biggest remaining confrontations.
Looking at Tennessee's season to date, one detail jumps off the page: This is a bipolar team. It scored 87 points against Virginia, one of the better defensive squads in the country. It scored only 56 against Texas A&M. It scored 81 against Arkansas on Jan. 22 and then 41 against Florida on Jan. 25. The full collection of results for this team shows that Tennessee doesn't play the same kind of game, win or lose. This team either flourishes when at its best or comes to a halt when things don't work well. There's a minimal in-between space for this team; it's a pendulum that keeps swinging from one extreme to the other. This reinforces the point made above: This feels like a close game, but if Tennessee's two best players perform at their best, the Vols could run away with this game.
Forward – Jarnell Stokes – Junior, 6-8, 260; 2013-14: 14 points per game, 10.2 rebounds per game
The 1-2 punch referred to above includes Stokes, the Vols' main man in the low post. Vanderbilt (and for that matter, anyone in the SEC outside of Knoxville) won't see very many power forwards who average a double-double. Stokes is a beast. He's bulky, but his bulk is an asset – it doesn't slow him down or make him clunky. Stokes is agile; he was the only Vol who played reasonably well in the team's 67-41 loss to Florida in late January. He could be a huge problem, and Vanderbilt will almost certainly have to double-team him from time to time.
Forward – Jeronne Maymon – Senior, 6-8, 260; 2013-14: 11.1 ppg, 8 rpg
Vanderbilt has 260 more pounds to deal with here. Stokes will have to get more attention, meaning that Maymon has to be handled one-on-one. He's not as powerful or overwhelming as Stokes, but if he snaps down 8 boards while Stokes is gobbling up 10, he's obviously more than capable of influencing a game. Vanderbilt, by coming to terms with its own limitations, will be happy to accept the following scenario: Stokes and Maymon control the defensive glass for Tennessee… but don't get any second-chance points off putbacks. As long as Vanderbilt can protect its own backboard, it should be quite satisfied.
Guard – Darius Thompson – Freshman, 6-5, 181; 2013-14: 3.1 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 2.7 apg
Thompson hasn't always been the starter this season. Antonio Barton used to be a starter as recently as the middle of January. The one thing Thompson does particularly well is that he facilitates the Vols' offense, giving his teammates the rock. He also averages one steal per game, so he has to be taken seriously as a defender.
Guard – Josh Richardson – Senior, 6-6, 196; 2013-14: 9 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.4 apg
Richardson's presence in the starting five is meaningful for Tennessee, to the extent that he can play off the Vols' elite backcourt performer, whom we'll talk about right now:
Guard – Jordan McRae – Senior, 6-6, 185; 2013-14: 19.2 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.8 apg
McRae is the Vols' elite scorer, the perimeter yin to Stokes's interior yang. He can toss in shots from any spot on the floor and therefore demands not just constant attention, but extended defensive pressure. Vanderbilt has to run him off the three-point line and prevent him from getting to the charity stripe. Making McRae shoot long or difficult twos has to be the approach for the Dores. What will be tricky about this game is that Vanderbilt can't always double-team McRae, because if McRae is able to release a shot, Stokes could get position on the glass (Maymon, too). Vanderbilt has to pick its spots in terms of containing both McRae and Stokes, but the chances are that it will have to devote more manpower to Stokes. Countering McRae is more a matter of switching smoothly and going over screens (not under them) on the perimeter.
Guard Robert Hubbs III is out for the season with a shoulder injury that required surgery. Guards Antonio Barton, A.J. Davis, and Armani Moore will try to provide a measure of production for the Vols. Barton, mentioned earlier, used to be a starter on this team. He averages 7.5 points per game, but he played only 12 minutes in Tennessee's most recent contest against Alabama this past Saturday.
Keys to the Game
1) Give up the right things, not the wrong ones. Allowing long twos to McRae; open jumpers to Richardson; and single coverage to Maymon represent smart, rational concessions on Vanderbilt's part. Giving up threes to McRae; fouling McRae; and double-teaming McRae at the expense of leaving Stokes alone on the offensive glass are not smart ways of limiting Tennessee's offense. Defending the Vols will require a delicate balance from the Commodores. This game will be one unending 40-minute process of making wise decisions.
2) Protect the defensive glass. This is definitely an "easy to say, hard to do" priority for VU. Fending off Stokes and Maymon on the boards will require considerable strength and focus, but Vanderbilt simply can't get eaten up in terms of second-chance points. That and a McRae explosion represent the two obvious ways in which Vanderbilt's streak of holding opponents under 60 points could come to a loud and crashing end.
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