Ultimately, though, the Commodores' 31 percent shooting from inside the arc, which included several missed lay-ups, did them in.
Losing a conference opener, especially to a team regarded as one of the league's worst, can kill a team's momentum and confidence. Fortunately for the ‘Dores, Wednesday night presents a chance to get it all back. Vanderbilt will have to bounce back from the Auburn loss quickly as Bruce Pearl's Tennessee Volunteers roll into Memorial.
Since losing two in a row to Butler and UNC in November, the Vols have won nine straight, including a rout of Memphis and close calls over Oklahoma State and Texas. Over that nine-game span, Pearl's squad has averaged just over 90 points per game to become the nation's 6th-leading scoring offense.
Most recently, Tennessee outlasted Mississippi State in their SEC opener, beating the Bulldogs by eight points after trailing for much of the second half. Four Volunteer starters scored in double figures, but Chris Lofton led the charge with 21 points.
At 22.2 points per game, Lofton leads the SEC in scoring. After 15 games, the 6-2 junior has been held to single-digit scoring just twice and fewer than 20 points just six times. His 55 3-point field goals lead the SEC, and his 46 percent shooting from beyond the arc is good for seventh in the conference. A preseason All-SEC first teamer, Lofton has made a Redick-like leap in his third year in orange. Ever the deadly shooter, he has improved his ability to drive to the rim and get to the free throw line. At the charity stripe, he's third in the conference in percentage (82.4) and free throws made (70). Last season at Memorial, Lofton led the Vols with 21 points, though he shot just 2-for-11 from deep. Clearly, the Commodores must limit his looks from the perimeter if they hope to contain the junior.
Lofton's classmate and backcourt mate has also begun to make a name for himself. JaJuan Smith, a 6-2 swingman, averages 15.2 points and four rebounds per game. Second in the SEC with 39 3-point field goals, Smith's sharp shooting has opened up more looks for Lofton. The former walk-on is also a key cog in the Volunteer pressure defense, leading the team with 2.3 steals per contest. The pair of junior guards makes Tennessee very difficult to guard on the perimeter; even if you can corral Lofton, Smith may still torch you.
The man setting up the junior wings is freshman point guard Ramar Smith. The Detroit native is second on the team with 3.1 assists per game. Averaging 7.5 points per game, he put up 16 points and nine assists against Texas. Most recently, though, Ramar opened SEC play with 13 points, seven assists, and six rebounds against Mississippi State. To keep the game at a slower pace, Vanderbilt must get some sort of backcourt pressure on the freshman.
The other freshman in the Volunteer starting lineup is 6-7 forward Duke Crews. Averaging almost 11 points per game, the heralded recruit has scored in double figures in four of the last five games, including an 18-point effort in the Vols' win over Mississippi State. Crews' six rebounds per contest lead the team; at 233 pounds, the freshman is a bear in the post. Already one of the most athletic big men in the conference, he can impact a game defensively as well. Where Vanderbilt must worry about Crews most is on the offensive glass; 47 of his 90 rebounds have been off of Tennessee missed shots.
Rounding out Tennessee's starting lineup is the lone senior, 6-4 forward Dane Bradshaw. The definition of "glue guy," Bradshaw is not a great scorer or dominant physical specimen, but he always finds ways to help his team. His 4.7 assists per game lead the Vols and indicate his ability to handle point forward duties on the Tennessee fast break. While he's not an outstanding shooter, the senior can step out and hit the outside jumper. What confounds opponents most, though, is his ability to mix it up in the paint. The Volunteers have better shooters, better rebounders, and better athletes, but Vanderbilt will be best served keeping an eye on Bradshaw; as he showed with a pair of 3-point daggers in Memorial last season, the senior can change a game.
Coming off the bench to bolster the Volunteer front line is 6-9 freshman Wayne Chism. The five-star recruit is fourth on the team with 8.5 points per game, and his 5.4 rebounds per game are good for second. Hailing from Bolivar, Tennessee, Chism's size and talent inside are complemented by his ability to play facing the basket. With 11 3-point field goals in 33 attempts, the freshman big man has shown that he can draw his defender away from the rim.
Having lost Major Wingate before the season began, Pearl and the Vols were desperate to find depth in the frontcourt beyond Crews and Chism. Sophomore Ryan Childress, who followed Pearl to Tennessee from Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has given more than expected. At 6-9, Childress averages 6.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game and provides Pearl with another big body to bang with the plethora of SEC behemoths.
Providing the same kind of depth in the backcourt are junior Jordan Howell and freshman Josh Tabb. At 6-3 and 6-4, respectively, Howell and Tabb each average just over three points per game, but their contributions are not contained to scoring. Tabb's athleticism has allowed him to become perhaps the best rebounding guard on the squad, while Howell spells Ramar Smith at the point guard spot and has posted a team-best 2.8-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
As Bruce Pearl's team established last year, the Vols love to run as much as any team in the country. Their aforementioned 6th-ranked scoring offense is evidence of that, as are the team's inflated rebounding numbers. Nearly every Tennessee rotation man averages at least three rebounds per game, and while that does reflect the athleticism of the Volunteer squad, it also points to the sheer number of shots Tennessee takes in a game. The Vols lead the SEC in field goal attempts and 3-point attempts.
To establish the hectic pace they use to rack up all those shot attempts, the Vols rely on consistent full-court pressure to force opponents into turnovers. Using both zone and man-to-man full-court presses, Tennessee has turned its opponent over an average of 20 times per game. Commodore fans remember all too well the double-digit scoring runs the Vols put together by harassing the Vanderbilt guards.
While the Volunteers do a great job of forcing their opponents to make mistakes, they have struggled with limiting their own turnovers. In the loss to Butler, Tennessee committed 21 turnovers, and East Tennessee State was able to hang with the Vols by turning them over 22 times.
A win over bitter rival Tennessee in front of a boisterous Memorial crowd could do wonders for the Commodores' confidence after a disappointing loss to Auburn. The Vols will bring their share of fans, though, and the squad from Knoxville will look to rattle Vandy in its own gym. To pull the upset over the 20th-ranked Volunteers, here are the keys to the game for the Commodores:
- Ball control: The old football adage applies here. If the ‘Dores can take care of the ball, work the shot clock, and limit their own turnovers, they can slow the Tennessee fast break and turn the tempo to Vanderbilt's advantage. The composure of Alex Gordon and Jermaine Beal is crucial, but don't overlook the importance of Shan Foster, Derrick Byars, and Dan Cage in breaking the Tennessee press. If the point guard is in trouble, the wings must be willing to handle the ball. In a close game situation, don't be surprised to see a lineup featuring both Vanderbilt point guards. If Tennessee can force over 15 turnovers, the Commodores are in for a long night.
- Post presence: Vanderbilt's loss to Auburn can be blamed at least in part on the complete lack of an inside game. Ross Neltner had perhaps his worst game as a Commodore, and Metcalfe, Skuchas, and Brown didn't fare much better. Unless they have their best shooting night of the year, the ‘Dores cannot rely on the three-pointer to beat Tennessee. Neltner and at least one of the other three big men must be active on the glass and aggressive with the ball, especially if they can get some early fouls on Crews and Chism. If Ross can give a 15-point effort, things will likely be looking good for Vandy.
- Secure the home court advantage: Maybe more than in any other sport, the home court really does matter in college basketball. More than a few Volunteer fans will be in the house, so the Vanderbilt faithful must be loud early and often to let Pearl and company know whose house they've entered. Not only will a raucous crowd give energy to the home team, but it could also rattle Ramar Smith, a freshman point guard, helping the Commodores to turn the Vols over. If they can win that battle as they did against Georgia Tech, the result will look very similar to the victory over the Jackets.
Prediction: This should be a fun one. Knoxvillians will be present and loud, as will Bruce Pearl's infamous orange blazer. The Volunteers have the edge on paper, but as the Commodores found out on Saturday, winning on the road in the SEC will be as hard as ever this year, and that rings especially true in Memorial Gym. Shan Foster, Derrick Byars, and the rest of the Vanderbilt squad certainly remembers coughing up a double digit second-half lead to this Tennessee team last year, and they will be eager to exact some revenge. If the team that turned Georgia Tech over 25 times shows up on Wednesday, that revenge may be in the cards. Look for intense defense from the Commodores early and a run from Tennessee late. Can Vandy withstand it this time? This preview says yes. Final score: Vanderbilt 72, Tennessee 70.