Tennessee's only three losses have come against solid competition – Oklahoma State, LSU, and Memphis. Oklahoma State is the weakest of the three teams, with an RPI ranking of 82. Louisiana State is ranked 22nd in the RPI, despite the fact that RPI doesn't take into account margin of victory. LSU's losses have all been nail biters, including a tough defeat at UConn that came down to the last possession. Memphis, of course, is undoubtedly one of the top five teams in the country – no matter who you ask. The human polls and the computers all have the young Memphis squad in the top five in the nation. Tennessee's numbers aren't too shabby either. Ranked 4th in RPI and top 20 in both polls, the Volunteers have played the 10th most difficult schedule in the country, and have already accomplished a rare feat -- defeating two top ten squads in the same season.
In addition, the Vols seem to have all the momentum in the world. After their back-to-back losses to Memphis and LSU – both on the road – they have beaten Florida, MSU, and South Carolina to rise to the top of the SEC East.
The story of the Volunteers' season can't be explained by one or two key players – the biggest change between last year's miserable season and this year's success has been the installation of a new coach and a new system. The new system pushes the tempo to an extreme, emphasizing aggressiveness and speed over defense and shot selection – almost the exact opposite of Kevin Stallings' system at Vanderbilt. The statistics illustrate the differences.
So far this season, Tennessee has averaged 75.4 possessions per game – judged by that measure, they play a faster tempo then all but nine teams in the country. The Commodores are the exact opposite; Stallings' team averages fewer than 65 possessions per game, slower than 302 Division one teams. Control of the game's tempo will go a long way towards deciding what team is most comfortable in this game.
Tennessee's attack is led by guards C.J. Watson and Chris Lofton, who to this point in the season have been the SEC's best pair of guards. Watson and Lofton both average about 16 points and 3.5 rebounds per game. Dane Bradshaw has also made major contributions this year after an improbable transformation to the forward position. Bradshaw inexplicably leads the Volunteers in rebounding, despite being 6 inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter than fellow starter Major Wingate. Wingate at center and Andre Patterson at forward each average double figures in scoring. Keep in mind that the Volunteers' fast-paced tempo affects these scoring numbers – everybody on the floor has better ppg, rpg, and apg numbers when the tempo is faster, all else being equal.
Based on virtually all computer ranking systems, the game in Knoxville is by far the toughest remaining contest on Vanderbilt's schedule. According to most computer power rankings, Vanderbilt is about 10 points worse than Tennessee in Knoxville – their second toughest remaining game is at home against Florida, where the Dores would be a five point underdog were the game played today.
Vanderbilt's season has gone fairly well so far, but fans are disappointed due to the very high pre-season and mid-season expectations. The Dores' two signature wins this season were both on the road – first at Georgetown (RPI #25) and later at Kentucky (RPI #38). However, since the Kentucky win, Vanderbilt has gone on a 1-3 skid, losing away games to Arkansas and Florida and a home game against South Carolina.
Both teams will be operating on high energy because of the rivalry factor, if nothing else. Tennessee leads the all-time series between the two schools 102-65, but the Commodores have won three straight, including a blowout win in Knoxville last season. Vanderbilt feels some pressure to keep their conference record from dipping below .500 – they could excuse themselves based on the fact that their toughest games were quite frontloaded, but that is not the way that this confident Commodore team operates. They feel that they can compete with anybody, anywhere – even if facing two top-15 teams on the road in consecutive games.
Here are the starting lineups for the two squads, provided by Vanderbilt Athletics:
1 - Mario Moore, G, 5-11, 181, Sr., Nashville, Tenn. (6.7 ppg, 2.1 apg)
- Has started last six games for the Commodores.
32 - Shan Foster, G/F, 6-6, 200, So., Kenner, La. (15.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg)
- Has scored in double figures in 10 consecutive games.
4 - Derrick Byars, G/F, 6-7, 223, Jr.-Tr., Memphis, Tenn. (11.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.7 apg)
- Leads team in shooting (47.8 FG) and assists (3.7 per game).
22 - DeMarre Carroll, F, 6-7, 214, So., Birmingham, Ala. (10.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg)
- Leads team in shooting (58.7 FG%) and T-2nd in rebounding (6.5) in SEC play.
33 - Julian Terrell, F, 6-9, 248, Sr., Nashville, Tenn. (10.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 1.6 bpg)
- Has 107 career blocks, needing two to pass Chris Woods for 2nd in VU history.
32 - C.J. Watson, G, 6-2, 176, Sr., Las Vegas, Nev. (15.8 ppg, 4.2 apg, 3.3 rpg)
- Ranks third in the SEC with a 2.37 assist-to-turnover ratio for the season.
5 - Chris Lofton, G, 6-2, 197, So., Maysville, Ky. (16.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.1 apg)
- Netted a game-high 23 points, 7-of-15 FGs, 5-of-5 FTs vs. South Carolina.
23 - Dane Bradshaw, F, 6-4, 200, Jr., Memphis, Tenn. (7.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg)
- Leads the team in rebounding (6.4) and assists (4.2).
22 - Andre Patterson, F, 6-7, 217, Sr., Los Angeles, Calif. (10.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg)
- Posted 13 points and 12 rebounds against South Carolina.
1 - Major Wingate, C, 6-10, 250, Jr., Florence, S.C. (11.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg)
- Has scored in double figures in 11 of 17 games this season.
Notice that Ted Skuchas is not listed in the starting lineup. The game against Florida was the first time this season that Skuchas did not start for the Commodores – he has been replaced by DeMarre Carroll, who has proven to be a valuable asset in many ways. His ability to break down a zone defense, as well has his physical play and energy, prove that he has filled his role on the team beautifully and earned a starting spot. Ted Skuchas will still be critical for the Commodores if they are able to force UT to score from the half-court set, because Skuchas brings unselfish defensive and rebounding play to the table – he is the only Commodore who can honestly list low-post defense as one of his strongest points.
The keys to this game are a bit different than for any other Vanderbilt game so far this season:
(1) The Commodores need to slow the game down, and to achieve a level of comfort in their set offense. UT will try to force turnovers, challenge every pass, and pressure the ballhandler. Florida used a high-intensity defense throughout the second half of Saturday's game, and the Commodores were unable to cope on the offensive end of the ball. Vanderbilt simply cannot win this game if the Volunteers are able to create too many turnovers and get the Dores out of an offensive rhythm.
(2) Vanderbilt needs to contain the dribble-penetration of Watson and Lofton. They are the best set of guards in the SEC, and Vanderbilt's vulnerability to dribble penetration is well documented. Derrick Byars will have a featured role on the defense, as will Vanderbilt's point guard duo of Moore and Gordon, but helpside defense in the post will really be critical. Julian Terrell averages 1.6 blocks per game and has 107 in his career – his ability to help stop Tennessee's guards from getting easy layups without completely abandoning his own defensive mark will be crucial, especially if Skuchas' and Davis Nwankwo's playing time is limited.
(3) Coach Stallings needs to approach this game differently than he has approached many games this season. Coaches such as Dean Smith have often argued that mental mistakes like bad passes are "part of the process", and that it can be detrimental to bench a player for a mental lapse as long as he is playing unselfishly and with great effort. Stallings is in a different camp – he requires great discipline from his players and does not tolerate mental errors. Against Tennessee's fast-paced pressure defense, Vanderbilt will perform best if the players have the unconditional confidence of their Coach. Stallings can let the team know that they have his confidence by loosening the reins a little bit. This key to the game can be summed up as follows – Vanderbilt's players need to be willing and confident to take smart risks when Tennessee's defense presents a good opportunity.
It is hard to pick Vanderbilt to win this game when everything seems to be rolling in UT's favor. However, the Commodores might as well have been designed to upset this Volunteer team. DeMarre Carroll is the perfect player to help defend against UT's flex offense, and Julian Terrell understands the kind of physicality that will be needed to throw off Tennessee's offensive rhythm. Meanwhile, given Tennessee's penchant for playing poor defense in a half-court set, Vanderbilt's slow-down strategy has a great chance to wind down the shot clock, take Tennessee further out of their rhythm, take the Volunteer crowd out of the game, and still get Moore, Foster, or Byars a good-looking shot at the end of the possession. The outcome will have a lot to do with the comfort level of both teams, which will be greatly influenced by the style and tempo of the game. Good shooting and some offensive rebounds for the Commodores will allow them to slow down the pace of the game and still be offensively lethal.
Vanderbilt 74, Tennessee 73
Vanderbilt MVP: Derrick Byars
Tennessee MVP: C.J. Watson
Oklahoma State guard Byron Eaton tries to block the shot of Tennessee guard Chris Lofton in the second half of The All-College Basketball Classic, Thursday , Dec. 22, 2005 in Oklahoma City, Okla. Oklahoma State won 89-73. (AP Photo/Ty Russell)