Although three starters (Brendan Plavich, Brian Thornton, Chuck Moore) were sick during the day, the Vanderbilt Commodores played well against the Mississippi Rebels and stayed in close contention almost to the end, before losing 73-61. Down by six points at half-time, the Commodores came back, and the lead was swapped several times during the second half. However, missed free throws and easy close-in shots by the Commodores, combined with several Rebel three-pointers in the closing minutes, settled the issue.
The Commodores are now 3-4 in conference play, the same record as the Tennessee Volunteers. The Vols have won their last two games, over Auburn 82-59 at home and LSU 61-58 on the road.
Tennessee has an overall record of 10-10. In non-conference play, the Vols defeated Tennessee Tech, Alaska-Anchorage, Appalachian, SMU, Radford, Syracuse, annd Middle Tennessee, while losing to Marquette, St. John's, Memphis, Louisville, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Four of those losses were extremely close, the games literally not being settled until the last minute. In conference play, before winning their last two games, the Vols defeated Mississippi (82-76) and lost to Florida (104-100 in overtime), Georgia (73-70), Mississippi State (92-91), and South Carolina (94-60).
The Vols are very different under Coach Buzz Peterson from the ill-disciplined, but talented, teams of Jerry Green. However, many of the faces are familiar.
The leading point-producer and rebounder is 6'7" senior Vincent Yarbrough (18.3 ppg, 7.3 rebounds). He takes more three-point shots than anyone else on the team, making about 38%. With 6'8" junior Ron Slay out for the season, he is the best known holdover from the Green era, still an extremely dangerous scorer and less erratic in his shot selection, but leads the team in turnovers by a large margin.
Slay was averaging 14.8 ppg and grabbing 6.5 rebounds when he went down with a torn ACL after 14 games. Despite his absence, the Vols do not lack size and strength in the front line.
6'10" junior Marcus Haislip has developed into the second leading scorer at 15.8 ppg, and grabs 6.6 rebounds. He is a high-leaper who averages about two blocks per game.
6'10" redshirt freshman Brandon Crump has moved into the starting lineup, to replace Slay. He scores 7.6 ppg and pulls off 4.2 rebounds. 6'8" freshman Elgrace Wilburn (3.6 ppg, 3.4 rebounds) backs up Crump and Haislip, but did not play against LSU.
Steady Jon Higgins, 6'3" junior, runs the team. He leads in assists (about 4.5 per game), while scoring 7.5 ppg, and gets more rebounds than Crump (average 4.7). Higgins takes about four three-points per game, making 37% of them.
6'0" junior Thaydeus Holden was starting at the shooting guard position, but lately has been supplanted by 6'2" senior Jenis Grindstaff. Holden also backs up Higgins, so he still plays plenty of minutes in each game, averaging 7.4. Grindstaff, who is scoring 5.7 ppg, is a good shooter (45.1% from the field and 83.8% from the free throw line).
These seven players get the lion's share of the minutes but two others, 6'6" freshman Derek Stribling and 6'5" senior Del Baker, see limited action. Baker can hit the outside shot.
Overall, Tennessee is not as good an outside shooting team as in recent years, averaging about 35% (18-6). But they are quick and have experience, with five of the top six players being juniors and seniors. Their size and leaping ability will give the Commodores a tough test on the boards. Also, they are playing better defense than did Green's teams.
Last year, the Commodores shot rather poorly in their home game with the Vols, and lost 78-70. This time, the team is playing with a lot more confidence and a noisy capacity crowd is expected to be present. Vanderbilt should win, and must win if the team is to stay in outside contention for an NCAA berth. However, victory is not likely to come easily.