Commodores Host #1 Vols

Saturday set the stage. Vanderbilt used a 49-point second half to pound Georgia and push its winning streak to six games. Later that night, Tennessee handed Memphis its first loss of the season, usurping the Tigers' #1 ranking. Now, in front of a sold-out Memorial Gym and a national television audience, the Commdores and Volunteers will renew their rivalry in the biggest SEC game of the year.


After a first-half performance that Shan Foster described as "lackadaisical," the Commodores upped their intensity on both ends, putting on an impressive offensive exhibition while refusing to let the Bulldogs keep up.  The ‘Dores shot 63.0 percent in the second half, including 7-of-12 from three-point range, while the Dawgs managed just 45.5 percent and 2-of-11 from distance.  Shan Foster showed versatility Vanderbilt hasn't seen since Derrick Byars graduated, shooting 8-of-9 from inside the arc on a flurry of floaters and pull-up jumpers.  He led all scorers with 29 points.  Meanwhile, Alex Gordon picked up the slack from beyond the arc, shooting 7-of-9 on three-point attempts en route to a season-high 23 points.

Vanderbilt continued to play under control, committing just six turnovers while assisting 17 of 30 field goals.  The ‘Dores displayed tremendous offensive balance; as Gordon torched the Bulldogs from outside and Shan Foster attacked in the mid-range, A.J. Ogilvy and Ross Neltner provided some punch in the post, combining for 25 points.

Defensively, the ‘Dores did a much better job containing the Bulldog big men, holding Bliss, Price, and Jackson to 42.9 percent shooting after the three combined to shoot 64.3 percent in Athens.  On the perimeter, the Georgia shooters were able to find good looks in the first half and knocked down 6-of-9 three-point attempts.  The Commodore guards made the necessary adjustments, though, and held the Dawgs to 2-of-11 from beyond the arc in the second half.  Such tenacious perimeter defense will go a long way against a Tennessee squad armed with plenty of shooters.

The Volunteers (25-2, 11-1) enter Tuesday's game coming off of arguably the biggest win in school history, outlasting undefeated Memphis to win by four in a hostile environment.  They return to conference play with their first ever #1 ranking.  In SEC play, the Vols have been at the top of their game.  They boast the league's top scoring offense (81.0 ppg) and scoring margin, beating conference opponents by an average of 11.3 points per game.  Since routing Vanderbilt back in January, Tennessee has won 10 of 11, but they haven't been as dominant as the record suggests, losing to Kentucky and barely escaping ugly losses at LSU and Georgia.

Senior guard Chris Lofton has put a forgettable non-conference season behind him, and though he hasn't completely regained his All-American form from a year ago, the 6-2 sharpshooter has played much better against SEC foes.  Lofton leads the Vols in scoring with 16.6 points per game, and he has certainly found his touch from long distance.  His 45 trifectas in SEC play lead the league, and he's shooting them at a league-best 46.4 percent clip.  Out of Tennessee's 12 conference games, Lofton has drained at least four triples in eight.  While the Vols' top scorer remains deadly from three-point land, he's lost some of his versatility.  Almost 68 percent of his points have come from three-pointers in conference play, compared to just 49.3 percent last season.  The emergence of Tyler Smith and J.P. Prince has allowed Lofton to linger on the perimeter more often, but the senior has become a one-sided scorer as a result.  His field goal percentage, free throws, and points per shot are all down from last season, and at times he's struggled to find a defined role in a more balanced Tennessee squad.  Against Vanderbilt, Lofton managed just 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting, but the Vols didn't need much from their senior leader to obliterate the Commodores.  In Nashville, the game should be closer, making Lofton's shooting a crucial factor.  If he's on, he could push Tennessee to a win, but if the ‘Dores can force him into taking questionable shots, he could shoot the Vols out of it.

Fellow senior JaJuan Smith has been as dangerous as Lofton in SEC play, albeit a bit less consistent.  The 6-2 guard is averaging 14.3 points per game in conference, good for second on the team.  Smith ranks ninth with 29 three-pointers in league games and 39.2 percent shooting from long range.  Though he can be one of the best scorers in the conference at times, Smith also has the propensity to completely disappear at others.  Over the past ten games, he's scored in single digits five times and double digits five times, ranging from a 9-of-13, 32-point performance in a blowout of Arkansas to a 1-of-7, two-point disappointment in a slim win over cellar-dweller Georgia.  Perhaps Tennessee's most volatile player, Smith can be rattled in hostile environments.  He averages just 10.5 points per game on the road compared to 18.0 in Knoxville.  Case in point: He's scored a combined 13 points in three career games in Memorial.  The senior also offers a much improved passing game, dishing out a career-high 2.4 assists per game, and he is the Vols' best perimeter defender (1.8 spg).  However, if he's not scoring, the rest of his game can fall apart, too.  If the Commodores can throttle JaJuan in the first ten minutes, they could shut down a key cog in the Tennessee offense.

In his first year as a Vol, sophomore forward Tyler Smith has already become an All-SEC caliber player.  A consistent threat in the post and in the mid-range, Smith is averaging 14.0 points per game in conference play.  Tennessee's most efficient scorer and best athlete, the 6-7 Smith nets 1.5 points per shot.  He ranks fifth in the league in field-goal shooting, converting at a 54.7 percent rate in conference, and sixth in free throw shooting (73.8%).  Such efficiency makes for a potentially devastating scorer, and when you mix in his other skills, you've got a future SEC Player of the Year candidate.  The sophomore leads his team and ranks fifth in the SEC with 4.3 assists per game, and his 7.5 rebounds per contest place him first and eighth, respectively.  He's especially effective on the offensive glass – averaging 3.5 offensive boards over his last eight games – where he could really hurt the Commodores.

Wayne Chism, a 6-9 sophomore, joins Tyler in the Volunteer frontcourt.  Often criticized for spending too much time on the perimeter, Chism has resembled a post player more often as of late.  He's averaging 9.2 points and 7.3 rebounds per game in conference play.  When the sophomore stays on the low block, he can be one of the conference's more dangerous post threats.  Chism is shooting 51.4 percent from inside the arc in league play.  When he roams out on the perimeter looking for three-pointers, however, he becomes a far less effective player.  From beyond the arc, Chism is shooting just 31.3 percent.  His ability to knock down an open trifecta can stretch opposing defenses, but if he gets too eager, he can ruin a Tennessee possession in a hurry.  Chism had a career night in the first meeting with the Commodores, scoring 18 points and grabbing 18 rebounds, both season highs.  His match-up with Ogilvy will be one to watch closely on Tuesday.

Sophomore Ramar Smith has regained the starting point guard position he lost to Jordan Howell near the beginning of the season.  The third of three 6-2 guards and third of three Smiths in Tennessee's starting lineup, Ramar has averaged 6.4 points per game since taking the reigns from Howell.  He doesn't pose the same type of perimeter threat that Lofton and JaJuan Smith do, but he does have a quick first step and is perhaps the toughest finisher among Tennessee guards.  Smith has visited the charity stripe 99 times this season, second only to Tyler Smith.  More important than his scoring, though, has been his ability to distribute the ball.  He's second on the team and tenth in the conference with 3.6 assists per game in league play.  Though he wasn't a big factor in the first meeting, quick, physical guards like Ramar Smith have hurt the Commodores on more than one occasion this season.  Limiting his penetration will be crucial on Tuesday.

After a torrid mid-season start in which he averaged 14.0 points over his first four games as a Vol, sophomore J.P. Prince has cooled off a bit in SEC play.  The lanky, 6-7 swingman is scoring 6.8 points and grabbing 3.0 rebounds per game in conference.  His combination of size and perimeter skills gives the Vols a different look when he's in the backcourt, and he's capable of guarding any wing in the conference.  If Shan Foster gets off to a hot start, look for Bruce Pearl to try Prince on the Commodore senior.

Since returning to a backup role, senior Jordan Howell has averaged 3.0 points and 2.0 assists per game.  The 6-3 point guard gives the Volunteers a steady but unspectacular presence at the head of the offense.  Normally a solid three-point shooter, Howell has struggled lately, converting on just 2 of his last 17 attempts from beyond the arc.  Still, the senior has proven that he can make a difference with his outside shooting, and the Commodores must be aware of him when he's out on the perimeter.

After discovering a heart condition that kept him sidelined for nine games, sophomore forward Duke Crews returned to the court in a win over Georgia.  Since then, he's averaged 5.8 points and 4.7 rebounds in 14.8 minutes per game.  The 6-7, 233-pound Crews is a true post player with the strength to finish among the trees.  He poses a major threat to Vanderbilt on the offensive glass, where he's pulled down 2.6 boards per game.

Rounding out the Tennessee rotation and adding some depth in the post is freshman Brian Williams.  At 6-10 and 267 pounds, Williams is a load in the paint and is a change of pace from the smaller, more athletic Smith, Chism, and Crews.  The freshman is shooting 54.5 percent and pulling down 3.0 rebounds per game in SEC play, but he was a non-factor in the first meeting with the Commodores.  Though he is effective when he catches the ball close to the basket, he's not yet agile enough to defend Vanderbilt's freshman center, A.J. Ogilvy.

The Volunteers are on an absolute roll, partly because they haven't had to rely solely on their high-powered offense to win games.  Tennessee ranks fifth in the league in scoring defense, allowing 69.7 points per game in SEC play and just 63.8 points over their last five games.  Pearl's squad ranks second in the conference in steals with 8.2 per game, contributing to their league-high 17.4 forced turnovers per game.  With elite athletes all over the court, the Vols don't have to put on a full-court press to create tremendous pressure.  Their half-court defense has been stifling, as they showed when they held Vanderbilt to just 60 points in Knoxville.

The defensive improvements have allowed the Volunteers to play at different tempos.  They average just over 73 possessions per game, putting them in the top 20 nationally in tempo, but they haven't lost composure when forced into a grind-it-out, half-court game.  LSU and Georgia were able to put a scare into Tennessee by playing physical perimeter defense, limiting production from JaJuan and Ramar Smith, and forcing Chris Lofton to take a lot of shots to get his points.

For the second straight year, Vanderbilt will host the number one team in the nation.  Last season, the ‘Dores stopped the top-ranked Florida Gators' 17-game winning streak.  On Tuesday, the Vols will have been #1 for just two days.  To make it a short stay at the top and pick up a résumé-boosting win, here are the keys for the Commodores:

  • Ball Control:  Forcing turnovers is Tennessee's bread and butter.  The Vols are 8th-best in the country at creating turnovers, forcing opponents to cough it up on 26.0 percent of possessions.  Vanderbilt has been better at limiting turnovers lately, averaging just 8.8 over the last five games.  However, the ‘Dores committed 21 in Knoxville.  If they approach 20 turnovers again, Tennessee will have a huge advantage, because the Vols won't give it back.  According to Pomeroy, they are in the top 25 nationally in limiting turnovers, losing the ball on just 17.9 percent of possessions.  Jermaine Beal is the SEC's leader in assist-to-turnover ratio, so the burden rests on Foster and Gordon, and to some extent Neltner, to keep those turnovers to a minimum.
  • Keep It Moving:  Tennessee is one of the best teams in the country at defending against the three-pointer, allowing opponents to shoot just 29.1 percent from downtown.  However, the Vols are susceptible to good ball movement, as almost 55 percent of opponents' field goals have been assisted.  Meanwhile, the Commodores are among the nation's best when it comes to ball movement, assisting over 65 percent of made baskets.  The Volunteers will try to deny passes around the perimeter and keep Shan Foster from catching the ball cleanly.  If the ‘Dores can maintain their composure and make the crisp, smart passes they've been making so often lately, they can exploit Tennessee's aggressiveness.
  • Revenge Factor:  The Commodores' pride is on the line in this one.  Tennessee humiliated Vanderbilt in Knoxville, as the ‘Dores shot just 3-of-21 from three-point land and couldn't do anything on the offensive end for most of the game.  Shan Foster went just 1-for-11 from downtown, and A.J. Ogilvy was vastly outplayed by Wayne Chism.  In Memorial, the Commodores have a chance for payback.  Barring a third game in the SEC tournament, the seniors will be playing their hated rivals for the last time, and with Foster and Gordon on fire, they'll be aiming for a big game in front of a raucous crowd.  Don't expect a repeat of the last time these teams met.

Prediction:  Back in January, the Commodores entered the game with Tennessee coming off of their first loss of the season, a deflating double-overtime defeat at the hands of Kentucky.  This time, the ‘Dores have significantly more momentum, having won six in a row and playing their best ball of the year.  Tennessee is rolling, too, though.  The Vols have won nine in a row and just defeated the top-ranked team in the nation to become #1.  If the ‘Dores continue to play the disciplined basketball we've become accustomed to over the past month, they'll be able to hang with the Vols.  And you do remember what happened last time #1 visited Memorial, don't you?  Final score:  Vanderbilt 79, Tennessee 76.


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