Commodores eye win in Knoxville

There's no love lost when Vanderbilt plays Tennessee. Yet, the reality of a bitter rivalry doesn't necessarily mean you can't identify what your enemy is going through. Tennessee is a team that has endured a lot of wrenching close-shave losses this season. Vanderbilt knows that it's not just possible, but actually quite commonplace, to play hard and not have the scoreboard result to show for it.


The Vanderbilt Commodores might have noticed that another academic powerhouse in college basketball is finding ways to win on the court.

The Northwestern Wildcats, which have never made the NCAA tournament, have suddenly won four straight conference games. The Wildcats have not done such a thing in 48 years – that’s right, not since 1967. People in and around the Northwestern program are marveling at how the light switch has finally gone on for a lot of young players. The sense of excitement surrounding the 2015-2016 is becoming quite palpable in and around that program.

The Dores know the feeling.

A mature, steady, and businesslike performance against Missouri – in short, an efficient effort that whacked a bad team while it was down – only serves to reinforce the notion that the 2015 Commodores are learning how to carry themselves on the court. Optimism in the midst of a non-NCAA tournament season is not exclusive to Evanston, Illinois. It’s becoming more and more real in Nashville, Tennessee, as well.

There’s no better time or place in which to test newfound maturity than in the crucible of a road-court rivalry game. Vanderbilt allowed Tennessee to slip away in Memorial Gym a few weeks ago. Tonight, the Commodores can see if they can not only play the Vols close, but make the final few plays that can finish off the Big Orange. A victory here would cast the past month’s worth of improvements in an even better and brighter light.

TENNESSEE AT-A-GLANCE

The Volunteers and head coach Donnie Tyndall encountered yet another moment of “what can we do?” frustration on Saturday evening in Oxford against Ole Miss. For the second time this season, Tyndall drew up a great play at the end of a game, only for a wide-open game-tying jumper to rattle out of the basket. This basic scenario had unfolded earlier in the season at Arkansas, when Tennessee – down by three points in the final seconds – got a wide-open look off a beautifully conceived play created by Tyndall. The shot in Bud Walton Arena just didn’t drop. It’s been a series of near-misses for Tennessee, made even worse by a few perplexingly awful performances at home against the likes of Alabama and Mississippi State. If Tennessee – which beat Butler in non-conference play and has shown at times how good a team it can be – had not tossed in those clunkers in SEC play, the Vols would have been on the bubble at the very least. Now, they’re assured of nothing better than the NIT.

For all its near misses, however, Tennessee can hold high the fact that it won a very close game against Vanderbilt, the Houdini act in Memorial Gym that punched Commodore fans in the gut. Vanderbilt held the knife to Tennessee’s throat but missed two foul shots in the closing seconds to give the Vols a chance to tie. A Robert Hubbs runner did just that, and Tennessee went on to win in overtime. Sure, Vanderbilt can relate to what the Vols are going through this season – teams that lose close games know what it feels like to be just one basket or one stop away from success. Yet, the fact that Tennessee bucked its bad-luck trend against Vanderbilt (that win is UT’s only win in its last six contests) should make the Dores ever more determined to strike back tonight in Knoxville.

Starting Lineup

Forward – Armani Moore –
Junior, 6-5, 215; 2014-15: 10.7 points per game, 6.9 rebounds per game, 2.2 assists per game

Moore played above his averages on Saturday at Ole Miss. He scored 15 points and pulled down 9 rebounds. He was the Volunteer who pulled his weight more than anyone else on the roster. For that reason alone, Vanderbilt needs to be able to contain him and send an early message to him in tonight’s game: Nothing’s going to come easily for you, Mr. Moore.

Forward – Willie Charmichael III – Freshman, 6-8, 210; 2014-15: 3.3 ppg, 2.3 rpg

Charmichael started on Saturday at Ole Miss. Yet, like teammate Tariq Owens, who has now been relegated to the bench, Charmichael is still ultimately a placeholder forward. Derek Reese remains the Vols’ main option at the other forward spot opposite Moore. One thing that was very noticeable about Tennessee’s loss at Ole Miss is that the Vols attempted only seven free throws, the product of only eight total fouls by the Rebels all game long. Tennessee settles for jump shots, and Vanderbilt wants to be able to make sure it can create that kind of game tonight, keeping Tennessee out of the painted area.

Guard – Kevin Punter – Junior, 6-4, 180; 2014-15: 10.7 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 1.8 apg

Punter is someone we talked about the last time as a player with a good three-point shooting stroke, but someone who didn’t look for his shot as much as he should. Well, on Saturday against Ole Miss, Punter went 4 for 8 from three-point range. He might be getting the hang of it in terms of being confident enough to pull the trigger. Vanderbilt cannot allow him to get comfortable as a three-point shooter.

Guard – Robert Hubbs III – Sophomore, 6-6, 206; 2014-15: 6.5 ppg, 3 rpg

Hubbs is the player who tied the game in Memorial Gym and sent it into overtime with a late runner. It’s not as though Hubbs was a dynamic player throughout that game (he wasn’t), but he made a timely contribution after Vanderbilt left the door open with its missed foul shots. Hubbs could very well enter this game with a great deal of confidence, mindful of what he did the last time these teams played each other.

Guard – Josh Richardson – Senior, 6-6, 200; 2014-15: 15.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.6 apg

Richardson was due for a big game when VU last played Tennessee, and sure enough, Richardson performed well. Yet, VU didn’t allow Richardson’s teammates to get involved. The Dores fundamentally played Tennessee the way they were supposed to play the Vols. There’s no reason to Kevin Stallings to deviate from that plan tonight: Allow Richardson to get his, but don’t allow him to get teammates involved or enable him to play in such a way that the whole Tennessee team can feed off anything else Richardson does.

Bench

On the Vols’ bench, guard Detrick Mostella averages 3.8 points per game. You read above that Tariq Owens is now on the bench, with Charmichael moved into a starting slot. The other main reserve is Devon Baulkman, who hit one three-point shot in 13 minutes against Ole Miss on Saturday. Baulkman averages 4.4 points and 2.2 rebounds per game.

Keys to the Game

1) Contain Richardson.
The key for VU when these teams first met each other should remain the primary key for the Dores in the rematch. VU executed its plan well; it just failed to finish that game at the foul line, as we all know.

2) Siakam in the spotlight. If this had been a home game, it might be easier to look to the bench or to underclassmen as sources of hoped-for production, but in a road rivalry game, the focus for Vanderbilt in terms of needing a big game from a particular player should fall upon a senior. James Siakam is not a part of this program’s future; he’s a part of this program’s present moment. This is the kind of environment in which a young team needs to get a big performance from a leader and can be inspired by that example. If Siakam sets the tone in this game, everyone else on the VU roster can follow his lead and demonstrate the composure needed to gain a season split with the Vols.

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