Second Basketball Scouting Report: Tennessee
Vanderbilt just keeps trying, pushing, and fighting through adversity. The Commodores' effort level remains through the roof, the team's perseverance far more durable than anyone outside the inner circle of this program had every right to expect. It's hard to think of a season in which a 7-8 SEC record drew as much admiration as this one has. The SEC is just not that good a conference this year, so a losing record in the league should convey a profound sense of disappointment. Yet, that just isn't the case with Vanderbilt. It can't be – not now, not ever. As March arrives and the regular season winds down, it's quite encouraging to consider what the 2014-2015 season can be like if the Commodores catch a few breaks within the realm of game play while avoiding bad luck in terms of injuries, suspensions and departures.
On one hand, it could be that a narrow loss to Florida will leave this team mentally drained, but the good news for Vanderbilt is that the Gators defeated them on a Tuesday and not a Wednesday or Thursday, leaving the Dores plenty of turnaround time in which to regroup. Moreover, the prospect of throwing a monkey wrench into Tennessee's NCAA tournament plans should give the Dores all the motivation they need.
The Volunteers still have a very realistic chance of making the NCAA tournament, but if they're going to have a small amount of suspense on Selection Sunday, that's probably going to be for negative reasons rather than positive ones. Here's the explanation of that statement:
The main concern for coach Cuonzo Martin's team is that it has no assurance that it will get one more crack at Florida or Kentucky in the SEC Tournament. That kind of encounter would give Tennessee a chance to truly improve its portfolio. Without a game against Big Blue or Florida, Tennessee won't have a chance to move up on the board as an at-large candidate. The Vols are basically in "loss avoidance mode" for the next two weeks, and any slip-up before the SEC semifinals could be costly. If Tennessee loses twice before the SEC semifinals, it will very likely go to the NIT. Tennessee is in a position where it has to stay in the conversation as long as possible. Any loss shortens the conversation as far as the Vols are concerned. This was true heading into the start of this week, but it's far more true now that Arkansas has – by the estimates of most bracketologists – leapt ahead of the Volunteers as far as SEC bubble teams are concerned. Tennessee might need Arkansas to lose twice in the coming weeks (while also winning four or five games in a row) if it wants to make the NCAA tournament.
How does this set the stage for Saturday's late-morning game in Knoxville? On one hand, Tennessee should display a tremendous amount of energy, coming at Vanderbilt in waves and going full-tilt on the offensive glass, where it demolished the Dores in the first meeting between these two. It was remarkable that Vanderbilt defeated Tennessee in that first matchup, primarily because the Dores were obliterated on the offensive boards, 16-7 (not counting loose-ball team rebounds that went off Vanderbilt out of bounds), with Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon combining for 12 of those offensive rebounds. Tennessee attempted 15 more field goals (61 to 46) and turned the ball over only eight times. Those numbers should have pointed to a Tennessee win, but the Vols couldn't finish near the rim. Stokes was just 3-of-8 (and it's remarkable that he attempted only eight shots). Maymon went 4-of-11.
This brings up the biggest issue for the Vols, which could really be seen as the second, third, fourth, and fifth problem for this team as well: It just. Can't. Shoot. Jordan McRae is the exception, but everyone else on this team just can't put the ball in the bucket with appreciable consistency. Foul shooting is a part of this problem, as shown when Stokes – given one foul shot to beat Texas A&M a week ago – missed in the final second of regulation, enabling the Aggies to survive into overtime and beat Tennessee for the second time in 2014. Tennessee's lack of reliable offensive production is what has kept this team from reaching its goals.
Forward – Jarnell Stokes – Junior, 6-8, 260; 2013-14: 14.4 points per game, 10.4 rebounds per game
The key to containing Stokes is to make sure that if he gets an offensive rebound, he doesn't have a chance for an easy putback layup or dunk. If he gets the board right near the rim, he'll finish, but if the ball bounces four or five feet away from the basket and a defender is there to body him up, he has to work for his shot, and as long as that happens, Stokes struggles to score.
Forward – Jeronne Maymon – Senior, 6-8, 260; 2013-14: 10.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg
Maymon's assist-to-turnover ratio is 0.5. He's been the source of a flood of turnovers this season, a big reason why the Vols have fallen short. A big man needs good hands in the low post, and Maymon doesn't. The Vols' bigs just don't punish opponents enough with midrange jumpers or a skill set that is sufficiently diverse. The limitations of Stokes and Maymon are conspicuous, despite their evident raw power.
Guard – Antonio Barton – Freshman, 6-5, 181; 2013-14: 3.1 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 2.7 apg
Barton hasn't always been the starter this season. Darius Thompson, who averages just 2.7 points per game, used to be a starter for a brief period of time. Barton is just one of many Vols who must play better down the stretch if this team is going to make the NCAAs.
Guard – Josh Richardson – Senior, 6-6, 196; 2013-14: 9.5 ppg, 2.9 rpg
Richardson's shooting numbers don't look bad – 46.2 percent overall, 40.3 percent from three-point range – but he doesn't hit shots often enough to take pressure off McRae. Tennessee doesn't get perimeter shooting from enough non-McRae sources to be effective on offense. That's a simple reality about the 2013-2014 Vols.
Guard – Jordan McRae – Senior, 6-6, 185; 2013-14: 19.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.7 apg
McRae simply has to do too much by himself on this team. He's the only reliable volume shooter, the only player who can score from all spots on the floor at all body angles. The absence of real help from the rest of the roster makes Vanderbilt's plan simpler.
In addition to Thompson, guards Derek Reese and Armani Moore will try to provide a measure of production for the Vols, but neither player leaves much of a mark other than Reese's 3.2 rebounds per game.
Keys to the Game
1) Make the putbacks hard for Stokes and Maymon. As mentioned above, Stokes will hurt Vanderbilt if he gets easy putbacks. If his putbacks are challenged, he can be contained.
2) Run McRae off the three-point line. This is hard to do when McRae is shooting from 25 feet, but you get the point. McRae can't get clean catch-and-shoot looks right behind the arc. If he gets those straightforward, uncontested shots, he'll bury them. Vanderbilt needs to make sure that if McRae does shoot a three, it's a contested, off-balance shot. Nothing can come easy for McRae from three-point range.
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