Sitting at 6-3 in the conference and a mere half-game behind second-place Kentucky, Vandy has a chance on Saturday to overtake the Wildcats and further solidify a spot in the NCAA tournament. To do so, they must beat Bruce Pearl and the Tennessee Volunteers in a rematch of the most thrilling game of the Commodores' season.
The Vols have lost three out of their last five games after star guard Chris Lofton, the SEC's leading scorer, injured an ankle in a win over South Carolina. After his team was routed by Ole Miss, Kentucky, and Florida, Lofton returned to the lineup in Tuesday's game against LSU. Though the junior standout scored just eight points in his return, the Volunteers beat the Tigers in front of the home crowd to move within a half-game of Georgia. Now, Lofton and company will be eager to grab another win over the rival ‘Dores.
Though Lofton's injury clearly limited his minutes and effectiveness in the LSU game, his long-range shooting makes him a threat no matter what condition he's in. Before he was hurt, the junior was averaging just over 21 points per game, good for tops in the conference. His 46 percent shooting from behind the arc leads the team, and his overall mark of 50 percent shows his ability to score from all over the court. His penetration will likely be limited by his ankle, but as he showed in the Vols' loss to Vandy, he can hurt opponents simply by launching from distance. Lofton led all scorers in Nashville with 29 points on 11-of-15 shooting and 6-of-7 from three-point land, including a 35-foot bomb just before halftime. Though he won't be 100 percent healthy, the ‘Dores must keep constant pressure on the Vol sharpshooter.
The other Volunteer guard who had a sensational showing in the one-point loss to Vandy was freshman Ramar Smith. The point guard chipped in 17 points and three assists while turning the ball over just once in front of a hostile Memorial crowd. Smith also added a clutch three-pointer from the corner to give the Volunteers a lead with 1:18 left to play. The freshman is averaging 10.3 points and three assists per game, and he's shown a knack for good on-ball defense when he puts his mind to it. Though he's shooting just 30 percent from beyond the arc, Ramar has shown lately that he can be counted on to hit a big shot. In a win over Georgia, Smith scored 21 points on a spotless 8-of-11 shooting, including 3-for-4 from distance. Considering how well the freshman played against Vanderbilt in January, Jermaine Beal may have earned himself more minutes with his defense against the Bulldog guards.
The third member of the talented Tennessee backcourt did not play well in the Vols' first meeting with the Commodores. Junior JaJuan Smith averages 15.7 points per game on the season, yet he managed just six points on a dismal 2-of-11 from the field in Memorial. In the last five games, however, the 6-2 junior has picked up his scoring in Lofton's absence. He's averaged 20 points per contest over that stretch, and he hit five three-pointers in both the Kentucky and Georgia games. Though he gave a poor performance in Nashville, JaJuan shoots 36 percent from beyond the arc (second on the team) and can be a threat on the offensive glass. If Lofton can't contribute to the best of his ability, expect Smith to try to take up some of the slack – Vandy cannot let him and Lofton both hurt them from the perimeter.
Though he didn't make a big impact with his scoring (he hasn't all season), senior Dane Bradshaw did the little things to give Tennessee a chance to win in Nashville. The team leader in assists (4.7 apg), Bradshaw dished out eight against just one turnover in Memorial. His assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.6-to-1 rivals Alex Gordon's as one of the best in the SEC, an indication of his ability as a top-notch "glue guy." Bradshaw shoots a poor percentage from the floor, but he rebounds well, plays tough man-to-man defense (especially on bigger players), and is an especially deft passer. To limit his productiveness as an assist man, Vanderbilt must recognize that Bradshaw rarely shoots of off drives, almost always kicking it out to a perimeter shooter.
The starting big man for the Vols is 6-7 freshman Duke Crews. Leading Tennessee in rebounding (5.5 rpg), Crews grabbed a team-best six boards to go along with 10 points in the loss to Vandy. Along with fellow freshman Wayne Chism, he provides offensive punch in the post as well as a hyper-athletic rebounding presence. Crews' 51 percent shooting leads the team, as his athleticism and skilled post moves allow him to get looks from the paint. As he did in an effective first effort against the Commodores, the quick freshman should prove to be a challenge for Vanderbilt's front line.
While Crews' minutes have decreased slightly over the past few games, Wayne Chism has seen his playing time spike. Inconsistent throughout the season, the 6-9 freshman has the potential to really hurt opponents on the offensive end. Like Crews, Chism is quick to the basket, but he also possesses a decent perimeter shot, allowing him to face up against his defender. His nine points complemented Crews' solid effort against the Commodores.
Adding depth in the backcourt for the Vols are Jordan Howell and Josh Tabb. While Tabb, a freshman, has seen plenty of playing time all year due to his disruptive defense in the press, the junior Howell saw an increase in minutes coming off the injury to Lofton. With his star still hobbled, look for Pearl to give Howell some minutes. When he's in, the junior can light it up from the outside, so the ‘Dores must give him attention as a perimeter weapon.
The last game between the in-state rivals was one for the ages. The teams traded runs and overall good play, with players from both squads stepping up at crucial times. In the end, it was Neltner's pass, Byars' drive, and Foster's tip-in that spelled victory for the Commodores. On Saturday, expect the Vols to come out not only fired up for revenge, but also hungry for a win that could put them back on track to the Big Dance. To get the sweep of their bitter rival and all but lock up a tournament bid, here are the keys to the game for the Commodores:
- Punch Back: The Volunteers need this win both for pride and for momentum. If Pearl's squad has any say over the tempo, this game will be physical and fast-paced. They will use intense backcourt pressure to try to get out to an early lead and get the crowd into the game. The Commodores have shown, though, that they are more than comfortable playing at a high tempo, so they don't have to slow the game down against these Vols. Instead, they must stand up to Tennessee's physicality and limit turnovers the way they did in their first meeting. The ‘Dores committed just eight turnovers against Georgia, and nine against Florida. Coughing it up a few more times against the Vols' frantic defense won't hurt too much, but don't push it.
- Find the Touch: Since halftime of the Florida game, the Commodores have struggled from beyond the arc, going just 8-of-23 against Georgia. Though Dan Cage caught fire in the second half against the Bulldogs, Vandy only shot 39 percent from the field in that game. They'll need to come much closer to the 50 percent they shot in the win over Tennessee to scalp the Vols in Knoxville. Byars, one of the leading candidates for SEC Player of the Year, will get his points, but look for Foster to rebound from a disappointing couple of games. If he does, give Vanderbilt the edge in this one.
- Lock Down Lofton: Chris Lofton torched the ‘Dores in Nashville. Even after knocking down shot after shot, Lofton was allowed space enough to keep firing. No matter how immobile the junior seems, he's a smart enough player to be in the right spot on the court at all times. To prevent him from going for another 25-point performance, the Commodores must not only have a defender in those spots, but that defender shouldn't even let Lofton see the basket.
Prediction: While this one isn't as important for Vandy in regards to making the Big Dance, getting a sweep of RPI darling Tennessee would give the ‘Dores an opportunity to grab a higher seed, not to mention bragging rights over the folks in Knoxville. Even though Lofton might not be at 100 percent, the intensity of the rivalry and the importance of the game to Tennessee will keep it close throughout. Look for dueling scoring runs once again, as both teams can get out and score in a hurry. In the end, watch for Foster and Ramar Smith to come up big for their respective squads; whoever makes the final big play will win this one. Final score: Vanderbilt 78, Tennessee 75.