The Vanderbilt Commodores got off to a great start in conference play Wednesday with a decisive 70-56 win over Alabama. Once again they unleashed a barrage of 3-pointers early in the game that had their opponents reeling. Vanderbilt led by 12 at halftime, increased the lead in the second half, and then withstood a charge by the Tide that narrowed the gap to 8 points, before pulling away again. Jason Holwerda had one of his finest games, as he scored 16 points, grabbed 7 rebounds, and made clutch plays. Also scoring in double digits were Mario Moore (16) and Shan Foster (12).
The Commodores have proven that they can defeat a strong conference opponent at home. Now they must show that they can go on the road and win, which they could not do in non-conference play. The Tennessee Volunteers provide a good opportunity to do just that; they are probably not one of the stronger teams in the conference, but not one of the weaker ones either.
The Vols (8-5) opened conference play Wednesday by beating the struggling Georgia Bulldogs in Athens, 72-65. Their two best non-conference victories were over Stanford (69-57 in the Maui Invitational) and Xavier (71-69 in Knoxville). Their losses have been to North Carolina and Texas (in Maui), New Mexico (on the road), and a pair of one-point decisions at home to Nebraska (62-61) and Chattanooga (69-68).
Head Coach Buzz Peterson is in his fourth season at the helm. In his first three years his Tennessee teams posted records of 15-16, 17-12, and 15-14, making the NIT twice. Before coming to Knoxville he had excellent success at Appalachian State (79-39 in four years); and at Tulsa, where his team went 26-11 in the one year he was there and won the NIT tournament. Peterson played basketball at North Carolina under Dean Smith, where he was famously the roommate of Michael Jordan. He was an assistant coach for a total of nine years at Appalachian State, East Tennessee, North Carolina State, and at Vanderbilt from 1993-96. He is affable and well-liked, but needs to have greater success at Tennessee in the next couple of years to maintain public confidence.
Tennessee seems to have the talent and experience to have a successful season. The Vols have settled down to a starting lineup of two seniors, two juniors, and a freshman, with at least four others coming off the bench to provide material help. The offense was expected to be potent before the season began, but has been inconsistent. The defense had two rocky games in Maui, where North Carolina and Texas scored 94 and 95 points, but has been steadier since.
The leading scorer, as he was last year, is 6-5 senior Scooter McFadgon. Playing on one of the wings, McFadgon is averaging 15.8 ppg and 4.5 rebounds, while playing 30 minutes per game. He takes a lot of three-point shots, but has hit just 34.4% of them. Probably his main problem is that he takes bad shots too frequently. He also drives to the basket and gets a lot of free throws, making 82.5%.
6-2 junior C.J. Watson runs the offense. He does just about everything well (12.1 ppg, 38.6% three-point shooting, a very good assist/turnover ratio, 73.4% on free throws, and 4.2 rebounds per game). He also leads the team in steals with nearly two per game. What he does not do is to provide much vocal leadership.
Center Brandon Crump (right, AP photo by Wade Payne), a 6-10, 250-pound senior, is scoring 12.1 ppg, significantly down from his 14.8 average of a year ago. He certainly doesn't miss many shots from the field, making over 60% of his efforts, but his rebounding (6.0 per game) is also down somewhat. He will have to become more effective for the Vols to reach their potential.
6-2 freshman Chris Lofton, Mr. Basketball in Kentucky last year, has started every game and is scoring 11.9 points per game. Maybe he should be taking more shots, because his 3-point average is a remarkable 59.3%. Another newcomer to the starting five is 6-7 redshirt junior Andre Patterson, a transfer from UCLA, who is scoring 8.2 points and snaring 5.8 rebounds per game. He is very quick and a good defender, but perhaps has not yet played up to his possibilities.
Tennessee has two good sophomore front-line players who saw a lot of action last season. They are 6-10 Major Wingate (a husky 250 pounds) and 6-8 Jemere Hendrix (220 pounds). They are scoring 3.8 and 3.1 points respectively and each see about 15 minutes of action per game.
The leading backcourt reserve is 6-4 sophomore Dane Bradshaw, a player with a lot of good points (self-confidence, heady play, good moves), but not a good outside shooter. He plays 13-14 minutes and is scoring just 2.0 ppg.
Rounding out the list of players who might see action are 6-3 redshirt freshman Jordan Howell, 6-1 freshman JaJuan Smith, and 6-5 junior Stanley Asumnu. Smith, who recently became eligible, may prove to be useful. Howell, mainly an outside shooter, hasn't yet found his old-time accuracy after his year out. Asumnu hasn't developed into a good player and probably never will.
They are big IF's... but IF the Commodores maintain the excellent defensive play that they have shown at home in recent games, especially against Alabama, and IF they continue to hit the threes, they are likely to win. They seem to have the defensive stoppers (especially Jason Holwerda, Corey Smith, Dan Cage) to hold McFadgon and Lofton in check. Tennessee has already lost two close ones at Thompson-Boling, also winning one. The prediction is for the Commodores to finally have a close game and win by two to five points.