SEC Tournament Preview: Vexing The Vols Again

The Vanderbilt Commodores should not be expected to play Kentucky in the final of the 2015 SEC Tournament on Sunday. That said, coach Kevin Stallings' team certainly has a chance. Tennessee, then Arkansas, then Ole Miss or Georgia -- if the recent version of Vanderbilt shows up, and the Dores' opponents are not in form, a run through the brackets is quite possible. Let's see what this team can do.


The Vanderbilt Commodores might not be surprising themselves, but they sure are surprising plenty of national pundits with their white-hot run of play. Ole Miss is still a probable NCAA tournament team, but the Dores made the Rebels look very “NIT-picky” last Saturday in Oxford, breezing by Andy Kennedy’s defense without the slightest bit of trouble. As difficult as January was, the past few weeks have been stuffed with successful showings, one after the other. The NIT isn’t much of a consolation prize for teams that feel they belong(ed) in the NCAA tournament, but for a group such as Vanderbilt, the NIT would be quite a reward for a solid season that has moved the program forward and positioned it for even better things ahead.

The Dores’ ball movement is what’s keying their surge. Yes, shotmaking has never been known to hurt, but sharing the ball in a crisp and fluid manner is what sets up players to make shots – it puts (and keeps) them in rhythm and enables them to feel truly comfortable on the court. Tennessee is going to try to disrupt that feeling of comfort, and so VU – while preferring to win with the seamless offensive execution Kevin Stallings loves – has to be ready to win a street fight on a neutral floor.

Since Tennessee is the first opponent in the SEC tournament, we’ll give you a standard preview of the Vols plus some added stats. We’ll then give some statistics for Arkansas, the team Vanderbilt would face on Friday if it gets by UT.

TENNESSEE AT-A-GLANCE

The Volunteers are a perplexing team, full stop. Tennessee went 7-0 at home in non-conference play, 1-3 on neutral courts. The Vols then went 2-7 at home in the SEC portion of the season. They won at Vanderbilt and LSU, however. What will neutral-site basketball do for this team? Your guess is as good as mine. VU and Tennessee, after winning on each other’s home floor, will get another chance to win away from home… and gain bragging rights by winning the rubber match in what has become a three-game season series.

A good point for Vanderbilt to absorb entering Thursday’s SEC tournament opener is that while UT looked awful against South Carolina this past Saturday, the Vols looked imposing against LSU in Baton Rouge. You never know whether you’re going to get the great version of a team or its body-snatched look-alike, but that’s part of the point of competition: Expect the best from your foe, but play well enough that you’ll force your opponent to play poorly.

TENNESSEE STAT PACK

Shooting percentage: 42.9 – 9th in the SEC, 208th in the nation.

Two-point shooting percentage: 47.9 – 9th in the SEC, 165th in the nation.

Three-point shooting percentage: 33.4 – 9th in the SEC, 215th in the nation.

Free-throw percentage: 68.5 – 10th in the SEC, 204th in the nation.

Points scored per possession: 1.005 – 9th in the SEC, 162nd in the nation.

Shooting percentage defense: 43.9 – 13th in the SEC, 203rd in the nation.

Two-point percentage defense: 48.5 – 13th in the SEC, 197th in the nation.

Three-point percentage defense: 37.8 – last in the SEC, 317th in the nation.

Points allowed per possession: 1.019 – 12th in the SEC, 211th in the nation.

Starting Lineup

Forward – Armani Moore –
Junior, 6-5, 215; 2014-15: 10.8 points per game, 6.8 rebounds per game, 2.3 assists per game

Tennessee is coming off a disastrous regular-season finale against South Carolina this past Saturday. The Vols did not come particularly close to beating the Gamecocks at home – when that happens, something has to be very wrong, and that something is an utter lack of frontcourt production. Moore is Tennessee’s best frontcourt player, and he scored only two points against South Carolina. Tennessee’s frontcourt – comprised of four forwards who gained minutes against South Carolina – combined to make a total of two field goals and score eight points versus the Gamecocks. The total court time for that frontcourt group on Saturday: 75 minutes. Eight points in 75 minutes – that is abysmal. It’s not as though rebounding was much better: The Vols’ frontcourt totaled 13 rebounds in those 75 minutes. In an immediate context, this is all horrible for Tennessee. However, the extent to which the Vols have struggled in the frontcourt means that in a tournament setting, these players might take the court with a renewed mentality, intent on trying to make a deep run in this tournament and steal and automatic bid (the same one Vanderbilt is shooting for). Vanderbilt certainly hopes Moore and the rest of the UT frontcourt will struggle… but it MUST expect the Vols to play well, and be ready to play even better.

Forward – Tariq Owens – Freshman, 6-10, 205; 2014-15: 1 ppg, 1.1 rpg

Owens continues to flip-flop starting slots with teammate Willie Charmichael III. Meanwhile, Derek Reese remains the Vols’ second-best forward. Reese comes off the bench and gets far more minutes than Owens or Charmichael. Coach Donnie Tyndall has clearly struggled to play his frontcourt players in combinations that will work for him and the Vols.

Guard – Kevin Punter – Junior, 6-4, 180; 2014-15: 10.2 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.8 apg

Punter remains a three-point threat, someone the Dores can’t leave open. A general point to make about the Vols’ backcourt is that everyone in that backcourt unit feels a lot of pressure to score since the frontcourt has been doing so little. Vanderbilt needs to be attuned to the ways in which the Vols balance each other out… or fail to do so. If, for instance, Tennessee’s frontcourt struggles in the opening 10 minutes of this next game, VU has to be ready to expect Punter to take more shots to compensate.

Guard – Robert Hubbs III – Sophomore, 6-6, 206; 2014-15: 6.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg

Hubbs went 5-of-11 from the field against South Carolina on Saturday, playing the most efficient game of any Tennessee player. If there’s a non-Josh Richardson threat VU must pay attention to, it’s Hubbs.

Guard – Josh Richardson – Senior, 6-6, 200; 2014-15: 15.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.7 apg

Richardson is the leader of this team, as everyone knows. This is something to pay attention to at any point in a season, but especially in March. Richardson, as a senior, doesn’t want his season to end at the hands of VU. Therefore, the Dores should expect Richardson to take matters into his own hands and must therefore be ready to make him work especially hard for shots. Richardson is going to work especially hard to win one more game against Tennessee’s in-state rival, so the challenge is plain for Vanderbilt on Thursday.

Bench

The Vols need guard Detrick Mostella, who averages 3.6 points per game, to do a lot more, but the freshman might not yet be ready. Main reserve Devon Baulkman also has to raise his game – he scored only four points in 24 minutes against South Carolina on Saturday.

Keys to the Game

1) Get the ball out of Richardson’s hands, save for certain situations.
This is a boring and unoriginal game key, but this is not a time of year when a team must reinvent the wheel or try to be something it’s not. Moreover, Vanderbilt is in such a good groove that sticking with a simple plan is the best thing to do. One of the few times when prying the ball out of Richardson’s hands won’t be recommended: Late in a game with a two-point lead and Richardson driving to the paint. If Punter is open for a three, VU must stay on punter and allow Richardson to be the one to make a play. In most cases, though, Vanderbilt needs to make other Vols win this game.

2) Jonesing for a big performance. Vanderbilt got hot from three-point range in its win over the Vols in Knoxville. Can VU expect to shoot as well in this game? It’s possible, but the Dores need to be ready to mash Tennessee’s frontcourt in this contest – that’s a surer path to victory. Damian Jones needs to impose himself on Tennessee’s struggling low-post players. If he can, that would set up VU’s perimeter guys for the Arkansas game… assuming the Dores can get there.

ARKANSAS STAT PACK: A LOOK AHEAD TO THE QUARTERFINALS IF VANDERBILT GETS THERE

Shooting percentage: 45 – 4th in the SEC, 95th in the nation.

Two-point shooting percentage: 49.4 – 6th in the SEC, 97th in the nation.

Three-point shooting percentage: 35.6 – 2nd in the SEC, 114th in the nation.

Free-throw percentage: 71.9 – 3rd in the SEC, 77th in the nation.

Points scored per possession: 1.086 – 2nd in the SEC, 30th in the nation.

Shooting percentage defense: 43.5 – 12th in the SEC, 181st in the nation.

Two-point percentage defense: 47.5 – 11th in the SEC, 160th in the nation.

Three-point percentage defense: 34.9 – 12th in the SEC, 202nd in the nation.

Points allowed per possession: 0.965 – 7th in the SEC, 98th in the nation.

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