Mario Moore is an enigma wrapped inside a conundrum. Some blame his early suspension and season-long inconsistency for much of this team's problems. Some credit his last second shot against Oregon as the only reason Vanderbilt can still talk about an NCAA bid. Mario ranks fifth on the team in per-game scoring, with 6.2 ppg. However, with 126 shots and only 117 points on the season, he is the only Commodore on scholarship to have fewer points than shot attempts this season. Despite the fact that he is not listed as a "probable starter" by Vanderbilt media relations, it seems likely that he will start on Senior Night alongside Julian Terrell. Moore's contribution of 7 points off of 6 shots in 17 minutes of play against Ole Miss was a fundamentally good performance for the point guard, showing signs of recovery from his season-long woes. Vanderbilt fans would like nothing better than to see "Super Mario" triumph and return to his sophomore or junior form, leading Vanderbilt to victory over their archrival.
These two seniors will be greatly missed by all Commodore fans, and they will always hold a special place in Vanderbilt history as two talented, native-born athletes who chose to become hometown heroes at Vanderbilt, representing the University with excellence throughout their four year careers.
Tennessee also features a senior at point guard and one in the post. C.J. Watson leads the Volunteers with 5.2 apg this season, and also averages over 15 points per contest. He has been an efficient and steady presence at the point guard position, and has done an admirable job of leading the Volunteers' transition into Bruce Pearl's offensive and defensive schemes. Against the Commodores in Knoxville this season, Watson scored 11 points on 11 shots, and he collected 5 assists with zero turnovers.
The Volunteer senior in the post is Andre Patterson. Patterson, who will be faced by Vanderbilt's DeMarre Carroll at the start of the contest, leads Tennessee in rebounding with 6.6 rpg – junior Dane Bradshaw is second for the Vols with 5.8 rpg. Patterson, much like Carroll, is very physical for his size, and contributes very solidly within Tennessee's flex offense. Patterson is tough and physical enough to set very effective screens on the baseline to open up flex-cut opportunities, but also quick and agile enough to be a good offensive threat running off the screen of another player. His physical conditioning has improved since prior seasons, making him an integral part of Bruce Pearl's high-tempo strategy.
Chris Lofton joins C.J. Watson to form one of the highest-scoring two-man backcourts in college basketball. The two combine for 32.4 ppg, and Lofton's numbers put him among the most elite three point shooters in the nation. Lofton's 17+ ppg make him the Volunteers' leading scorer, but Vanderbilt limited him to 7 points off of 2-for-8 shooting in their prior matchup this season.
The storylines going into this contest are various and compelling. For the ‘Dores, an NCAA at-large bid is no longer a possibility if they lose this game. The same was said before their last two contests (@ South Carolina and @ Ole Miss), and Vanderbilt was able to win both road games and survive. Meanwhile, Tennessee has locked up the SEC East title despite their current two game losing streak. Vanderbilt has finally started to play their best basketball of the season, while Tennessee is looking vulnerable in the late season.
Some attribute UT's drop in performance to the very unusual nature of Pearl's system. As SEC coaches have had more exposure to the imported system, their rate of success has increased. Others, including Coach Pearl himself, note that the fast-paced nature of the system has started to wear out some Tennessee players. Fatigue could easily become an issue, especially for players like Patterson, Bradshaw, Lofton, Watson, and Smith – five players who each played over 27 minutes against the Commodores earlier this season. If either of these hypotheses are true, then Vanderbilt should have a much better chance against UT today than they had on February first.
A statistical comparison between Vanderbilt and Tennessee yields interesting results. While the difference between the teams' field goal percentages is less than half of one percent, Tennessee's FG% allowed is 47.5% to Vanderbilt's 43.7%. This is a significant difference, indicating that the Vols give up more "easy baskets" than the stingy Commodore defense. The second group of notable statistics involve turnovers. Vanderbilt and Tennessee average 12.6 and 12.8 turnovers per game, respectively. However, Tennessee forces 18.8 turnovers from their opponents per game, while Vanderbilt collects only an average of 14.1. This is where UT makes up for those easy baskets they allow – their defensive aggression creates 4.7 extra turnovers per game. Most of that turnover gap is due to steals – the Vols average 3.7 extra steals per game relative to the Dores.
As Coach Stallings draws up his gameplan, he will base much of it on what worked and what didn't work during the Dores' last meeting with the Vols. The other key component to the gameplan will involve anticipating and short-circuiting Coach Pearl's adjustments since the two teams last met. Here is a relatively thorough list of what Vanderbilt should focus on in order to win this game.
(1) Containing Watson and Lofton. Vanderbilt held the two star Volunteers to relatively low point totals in Knoxville, especially excluding freethrow attempts. Tennessee lacks a large number of potent scorers, so forcing an "off" night from eithr or both of these players needs to again be a priority.
(2) Avoiding turnovers while retaining confidence in fast break offense. The stats bear it out – when Tennessee doesn't get turnovers, they allow too many easy shots. Alex Gordon will be critical in setting up the fast break – in the first game against UT, he only played 11 minutes while Mario Moore played 28. Alex's ability to remain confident even in the face of occasional turnovers will determine the effectiveness of Vandy's fast break attack.
(3) Making open shots. Vanderbilt was only 4-for-20 from behind the arc in their last contest against Tennessee, including an uncharacteristic 1-for-7 effort by Shan Foster and a regrettable 0-for-6 performance on the part of Mario Moore. Vanderbilt needs to make more than 20% of their three point shots this time.
(4) Avoiding foul trouble. In Knoxville, the officiating crew of Doug Shows, Doug Sirmons, and Brian Forte raised many eyebrows with their foul calls and non-calls. Vanderbilt fouled Tennessee 23 times, while the Vols were only called for 12. Vanderbilt attempted five freethrows; Tennessee attempted 32. Derrick Byars and Julian Terrell fouled out; no Volunteer had more than three fouls. Terrell, in particular, has 12 points and 10 rebounds in 19 minutes before he fouled out. Whether the onus is on the officials to call a fair game or on the Vanderbilt players to simply not foul as often (or both), Vanderbilt cannot afford this kind of foul trouble. Julian Terrell and Derrick Byars were two of Vandy's top three scorers in the game despite finishing 6th and 4th (respectively) on the team in minutes played. If they are not in foul trouble, they will be difference-makers this afternoon.
(6) Reasserting their strengths. In Knoxville, Vanderbilt looked great in almost every stat besides points scored – the only one that matters. Vanderbilt collected 10 more rebounds (with a higher offensive rebounding percentage than Tennessee). Their field goal percentage was 15% higher with the same amount of attempts. Vanderbilt must out-rebound and out-shoot Tennessee again this afternoon. It would be an added bonus if they could correct their only non-foul-related statistical shortcoming of that game: turnovers. Vanderbilt had 8 more turnovers than the Volunteers. However, if the rebounding and shooting advantages remain for the Commodores, the shift in home court advantage and the motivation provided by late-season desperation could be enough to give Vanderbilt the victory.
In the final analysis, it is unfair to expect the Vanderbilt defense to contain Watson and Lofton as effectively as they did in the first contest between the two teams. However, expect Julian Terrell to avoid foul trouble and contribute heavily in the post, magnifying the Vanderbilt rebounding edge. Alan Metcalfe will also be a good replacement for Ted Skuchas, who had zero points on two shots and three personal fouls in the eight minutes he played against Tennessee. The Vanderbilt improvements in the post should balance against Tennessee's increased productivity from the perimeter.
The difference in the game will be twofold. First, don't expect Tennessee to once again attempt 27 more freethrows than Vanderbilt or be called for 11 fewer personal fouls. Whether through the magic of not being in East Tennessee or through the overwhelming improbability of such a statistical oddity repeating itself, the Commodores will almost certainly not give up that much of an edge for the Commodores. Secondly, just as Watson and Lofton will probably be more productive, the same holds true for Shan Foster. Foster had arguably his worst night of the season against UT, with only 7 points on 12 shots, including 1-for-7 shooting from behind the arc. Shan's efficiency and total scoring are likely to improve.
The score of the last VU-UT game was 62-69. Make each team's shooters more effective, and you can expect a higher-scoring game. With more second-chance opportunities for Vanderbilt off of offensive rebounds, and fewer points for Tennessee off of questionable fouls, the Commodores will pull off the home-court upset against their rival on Senior Night. The entire team has been fired up throughout the week's practices, and the intensity level will be high – Vanderbilt's emotion and home court advantage will seal the deal against Tennessee.
Vanderbilt 72, Tennessee 69
Vanderbilt MVP: Julian Terrell
Tennessee MVP: Chris Lofton