Vandy's Last Game
Poor perimeter shooting plagued the Commodores for the third straight game, and this time their defense couldn't save them. Vanderbilt made just five of 18 attempts from three-point range, missing a number of open shots in the process. The offense had its bright spots; led by Jeff Taylor's 18 points, four ‘Dores scored in double figures. Taylor had success from both the perimeter and off the dribble, and A.J. Ogilvy mostly had his way in the post, but ultimately Vanderbilt couldn't get enough from long range or the free throw line to win. The ‘Dores attempted only eight free throws, making five, while the Bulldogs went 18-for-22 from the stripe.
Though the Commodores were able to keep Jarvis Varnado in check, Mississippi State's guards beat the visitors with three-point shooting and dribble penetration. Ravern Johnson knocked down four of his six three-point attempts en route to 18 points, while freshman point guard Dee Bost was able to get into the lane at will and scored half of his 16 from the free throw line.
The Volunteers (11-5, 2-1) have failed to live up to early expectations thus far, though a brutal non-conference schedule has been partly to blame. Bruce Pearl's team beat Georgetown and Marquette on neutral floors, but the Vols lost to Gonzaga twice, Kansas, and Temple in non-conference play.
The preseason favorite in the SEC, Tennessee has not exhibited the dominance some expected from them. The Volunteers needed a second-half comeback to beat Georgia, and they were nearly the victims of such a comeback in a close win over South Carolina. In between, the Vols were routed by Kentucky and Jodie Meeks' 54 points.
As has become the norm under Pearl, Tennessee plays at one of the nation's fastest tempos. The loss of Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith has robbed the Vols of the perimeter shooting they boasted last season; the team shoots just 30.3 percent from beyond the arc this season. The ascendance of Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism has given Tennessee an inside game to rival any in the conference, though, and the Vols are converting 53.5 percent of their two-point attempts as a result.
One area of concern for the Volunteers has been their failure to force turnovers with their trapping style and half-court pressure. Tennessee's opponents have averaged 15.4 turnovers, good for sixth in the SEC but a relatively low number considering the speed at which the Vols like to play. Despite their size and length, the loss of backcourt speed has hurt the Tennessee defense.
Tyler Smith – Junior, 6-7, 215 lbs. – Smith is the Volunteers' leading scorer and all-around best player. Averaging 17.9 points per game, the combo forward might be the conference's most versatile scorer. The former Iowa Hawkeye is a handful in the post, where his unique combination of size, quickness, and strength cause fits for both bigger and smaller defenders. Smith is also a threat off the dribble or in the mid-range, where he hits the 15-foot jumper with regularity. Though he can step back and hit the three on occasion, opponents are usually happy to see him shoot from the perimeter; Smith is a 26.7 percent three-point shooter this season. The junior may also be Tennessee's best passer, as he averages a team-best 3.9 assists from the forward spot.
Wayne Chism – Junior, 6-9, 242 lbs. – While he still hasn't become the consistent offensive presence Tennessee needs him to be, Chism has developed enough of a true post game to make him the Vols' secondary scorer. Averaging 12.0 points per game, the junior still favors the three-pointer a bit too much; he's shooting 23.4 percent on 47 attempts this season. When he focuses on establishing himself in the lane, Chism can wreak havoc. He's shooting 61.8 percent from inside the arc, and he showed off his inside abilities in a 26-point outburst against Marquette in which he made just two trifectas. Chism is Tennessee's best rebounder (9.0 rpg), and as the only starter taller than 6-7, his production on the glass is vital. Though he averages a double-double against Vanderbilt in Knoxville, Chism has struggled mightily in Memorial, averaging 6.5 points and 4.0 rebounds when visiting the ‘Dores.
J.P. Prince – Junior, 6-7, 205 lbs. – Prince has seen his role in the offense diminish with the emergence of Scotty Hopson and Cameron Tatum on the wing. After opening the season with seven straight games with double-digit scoring, the lanky swingman has averaged just 7.7 points over the past six games. The decrease is mainly a function of taking fewer shots, as Prince has not been asked to score as much. A talented slasher and finisher, the Memphis native is not a good shooter; he's connected on only 12 of his 64 career three-point attempts. Prince is a capable defender and can be a menace to opposing backcourts, averaging 1.5 steals per game.
Scotty Hopson – Freshman, 6-7, 185 lbs. – Though he has battled the offensive inconsistency you'd expect from a freshman, Hopson has shown signs of becoming a key scorer for the Volunteers. He averages just 9.0 points per game, but he leads his team in three-point shooting (38.3 percent) and has begun to showcase the all-around scoring ability that earned him a five-star ranking as a recruit. Most recently, Hopson scored 19 points to lift the Vols over South Carolina on a night when Chism fouled out without scoring a point. The freshman is at his best when driving to the basket and drawing contact. As a passer, rebounder, and defender, Hopson is still coming along.
Bobby Maze – Junior, 6-2, 185 lbs. – Transfer Bobby Maze has given the Vols some consistency at the point guard spot, a position that has given Tennessee trouble over the past couple of years. Tied with Tyler Smith for the team lead in assists (3.9 apg), the combo guard still exhibits a shoot-first mentality at times. Averaging 9.8 points per game, Maze can put up points in a hurry if he's shooting well. If he's not, however, he can shoot the Vols out of a game. Though he can't match JaJuan Smith's quickness, he's the only Volunteer guard with speed enough to effectively pressure the backcourt.
A pair of freshmen joins two more experienced Volunteers to give Tennessee some much-needed depth. Sophomore Brian Williams bolsters the Tennessee frontcourt; the 6-10, 267-pounder averages 5.8 points and 6.6 rebounds and gives the Vols a force on the offensive glass. Junior guard Josh Tabb isn't much of a scoring threat, but he's a solid defender and is capable of running the point when needed.
The freshmen, Cameron Tatum and Renaldo Woolridge, are both swngmen who like to linger out on the perimeter. The 6-6 Tatum leads the Volunteers with 28 three-pointers and converts them at a rate of 33.7 percent. His 10.3 points per game are good for third on the team, and he's given a poor shooting team some semblance of an outside threat. Woolridge's 18 three-pointers tie him with Hopson for second on the squad, but he's gone scoreless in the past four games as his role has diminished recently.
Keys to the Game
Perimeter Play – Yet again, a Vanderbilt win will depend on whether or not the Commodores can score from the perimeter. Tennessee's losses have all come at the hands of opposing guards. Most notable was Meeks' historic night, but Gonzaga's Matt Bouldin, Temple's Dionte Christmas, and Kansas' Sherron Collins each scored at least 26 points against the Vols' porous perimeter defense. Tennessee allows its opponents to shoot 36.6 percent from beyond the arc, worst in the SEC. Unless Ogilvy has a career night, the ‘Dores will need to take advantage of the Vols' inability to guard against the three-pointer.
Control the Tempo – Managing the flow of the game is always a challenge against a Bruce Pearl team. Without much perimeter scoring, the Vols can struggle in a half-court setting when opponents double-team Chism and Smith. The Commodores have the size to defend the Tennessee frontcourt; the trick will be forcing the Volunteers to slow down so that Vanderbilt can defend in the half-court. As savvy a point guard as you'll find, Jermaine Beal won't have trouble controlling the pace, but when he's on the bench, the ‘Dores must remain poised and refrain from trying to match Tennessee's frenetic pace.
Stop Wayne – Tyler Smith is perhaps the craftiest and most relentless scorer in the SEC. Vanderbilt has the personnel to defend him better than most, but the Vols' best player will likely get his points. Tennessee is most dangerous when both Smith and Wayne Chism are playing at a high level. Chism is the Volunteers' emotional barometer; when he's going well, the whole arena knows it and his teammates respond. Such has been the case the last two times Vanderbilt visited Knoxville, and each time the Volunteers won in a rout. In Memorial, meanwhile, the ‘Dores have kept Chism at bay and won both games. If Vanderbilt's sizable frontcourt can frustrate Chism and prevent him from being a steady second scorer, the hosts should be able to protect home court.
Prediction: Without Shan Foster and Chris Lofton involved, the Commodore-Volunteer rivalry will look much different this time around. Both teams rely more on their inside game, and though Tennessee still plays fast, both teams have slowed a bit without their star shooters. This game has been a slugfest in Memorial the past two seasons, and with talent level fairly even, that shouldn't change this year. If the Commodores can get over their shooting woes, look for the best Vanderbilt crowd of the season to lift them over the Vols. Final Score: Vanderbilt 75, Tennessee 73.