Vanderbilt almost got caught looking ahead Saturday, escaping with an eight-point victory over the visiting Auburn Tigers. As A.J. Ogilvy succinctly put it, "We were flat to start the first half. " That was a bit of an understatement as Auburn jumped on the Dores early, and had a lead as large as 16 with 3:14 to play in the first half. Fortunately for Vanderbilt, the backcourt combo of Jermaine Beal and Brad Tinsley kept the Commodores close, combining for 17 first-half points. Vanderbilt was then able to establish its inside-out game in the second half, and caught up with the Tigers midway through the second stanza. Jeffery Taylor and Ogilvy scored 18 and 17 respectively to finally put away a pesky Auburn squad.
With that victory behind them, bringing Vanderbilt's record to an impressive 15-3, debate has begun as to whether VU should be ranked in the top 25. Regardless which viewpoint you take in that argument, this week will go a long way toward defining this 2009-2010 team. Coach Kevin Stallings knows this, saying about the upcoming slate of games, "I know the rubber is getting ready to hit the road. We'll find out here. I like our team."
Now the country will find out what type of team Vanderbilt has. Is it a team that has built its impressive record against inferior competition? Or is this group of Commodores more like the 2007-2008 squad that finished the year 26-8, including an upset of then-No. 1 Tennessee?
Two wins this week and the Commodores can virtually punch their NCAA Tournament ticket, since they will have beaten two highly ranked opponents and become virtually assured of reaching 20 wins. One win this week and Vandy should still be sitting pretty since, that would put the VU crew at 16 wins overall with a 5-1 SEC record. Being swept this week would not necessarily be disastrous, but it certainly wouldn't help the cause. Not with a schedule that doesn't feature many (some would argue any) quality wins, considering none of Vandy's victories are against teams that are currently ranked. It's imperative the Commodores get some wins against ranked opponents.
That can start Wednesday at No. 14 Tennessee.
The Volunteers can be really good. Their 76-68 upset of then-No. 1 Kansas proved it. They can also be really bad as evidenced by their 22-point drubbing on the road at USC, and their most recent outing, a 78-63 loss at 9-8 Georgia. Though UT and Vanderbilt have identical 15-3 records, no one knows which Tennessee team will show up.
The final deficit of the UT-Georgia game is also deceiving. The Volunteers, for all intents and purposes, were never in the game. They fell behind in the first half by as much as twenty points, 40-20, with just under two minutes in the half. After briefly cutting the Georgia lead down to 12, Tennessee fell as far as 24 behind with a little over six minutes left in the game.
This came, however, less than two weeks after Tennessee's upset of the Jayhawks. The Kansas game saw the Volunteers limit KU's All-American center Cole Aldrich to five shots from the field and dictated tempo throughout. UT's preferred frenetic pace proved advantageous as the Vols were able to shoot 9 of 18 on 3-pointers and also found their way to the foul line 29 times. (which was important since the Vols only made 15 of those attempts). Even more impressive for Tennessee, the Vols upset the Jayhawks while missing four of their own players.
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl has also had to deal with off-court issues. Junior forward Tyler Smith, who was third on the team in scoring and led the Volunteers in assists, was removed from the team stemming from a New Year's incident involving weapons and marijuana. Junior point guard Melvin Goins, junior center Brian Williams, and sophomore guard Cameron Tatum were in the same car as Smith during that traffic stop on Jan. 1. All three of them were suspended by Pearl, though Tatum and Goins have since been reinstated and both played in the Georgia debacle.
Certainly it has been an up and down year for the Vols. They won four straight, only to lose by one to then-No. 6 Purdue. Tennessee then reeled off another four in a row, only to suffer their worse loss ever under Pearl, a twenty-two-point loss at USC. This latest loss at Georgia followed a seven-game win streak, one of which was the Kansas upset. While the USC road loss can be partially explained away by Pearl as not having "seen [point guard Mike Gerrity, who was making his first appearance of the year] on any tape," the only explanation for the loss in Athens was poor Tennessee play.
While questions certainly abound regarding Vanderbilt's schedule, one could ask just as many about Tennessee's. Sure, the Kansas win is a great win for the UT program, but apart from the victory over the Jayhawks, their next best victory is probably their 66-59 road win at Memphis, which is certainly not the Memphis of old. Yes, the Volunteers do have a two-point win over No. 23 Ole Miss, but that game, at least at this point in the season, has not really answered many questions.
Guard– Bobby Maze – Senior, 6'3", 195; 2009-10: 8.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 3.3apg
In Tennessee's offensive scheme, turnovers are almost a given considering the high number of possessions per game. That makes Maze all the more impressive. He currently averages a conference-best turnover ratio of 3-1. In his past twelve games, the most turnovers Maze has had are two: once against Kansas, and once against Alabama. Maze's vulnerability is his desire to shoot with the rest of his Volunteer teammates. Maze has made only five of his last 30 3-point shots. Stallings would be wise to play off Maze and let him try to prove his long-range shooting ability. Should he be pressured and thus be allowed to demonstrate his skill at penetrating a defense to create scoring opportunities for teammates, it could make for a long night for Vanderbilt.
Forward/Center – Wayne Chism - Senior 6'9", 246; 2009-10: 11.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg
When Chism is using his athletic body around the basket, good things happen for the Volunteers. In his career, Tennessee is 12-2 when Chism notches a double-double. Sometimes however, in the Tennessee fast break attack, Chism gets caught up trying to shoot threes, instead of controlling the paint. During the Vols' loss at USC, Chism was one for seven on 3-point attempts, not what Coach Pearl wants to see. He has also been a bear to guard for Vanderbilt. In the first matchup last year, Chism dropped 20 on the Dores and was the second-leading scorer in their second matchup, both Vandy losses. Chism's athleticism will make it extremely difficult for Vandy's inside players to match up with him. Chism has reportedly been slowed by a knee injury and might not be 100 percent against Vanderbilt.
Guard – J.P. Prince –Senior, 6'7", 205; 2009-10: 6.8 ppg, 3.3 apg, 2.9 rpg
Prince, the cousin of NBA star Tayshaun Prince, transferred from Arizona early in his career. The hard-luck senior has battled injuries throughout his Tennessee career, the latest being an offseason surgery to his right shoulder. Prince understands his role on the UT squad. Though one would think with a name like Prince he would want to prove himself on the perimeter, he has only attempted seven 3-pointers this year (making one). Prince is the quintessential slasher. He looks to fly up the court on fast breaks for easy scoring opportunities and use his great athletic ability (who on Tennessee doesn't?) to get to the rim. Vandy best defense against Prince? Get back on defense.
Forward – Kenny Hall – Freshman, 6'8", 220; 2009-10: 5.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg
While his numbers do not stand out, Vanderbilt must always be aware of Hall on the offensive end. Why? Pearl calls this freshman forward his "best offensive rebounder." Statistics bear this out as 55 % of his rebounds are coming on the offensive end of the court. When he gets those rebounds, spectacular things often follow: Over half of his baskets have come by way of the dunk. The Commodores must find Hall and put a body on him. Tennessee's pace will already dictate more possessions than Vandy wants. Allowing Hall to make a difference on the offensive boards will just drive that number higher. And while the stats above show only 5.1 ppg, that number has risen to 9 ppg in SEC play.
Guard – Scotty Hopson – Sophomore, 6'7", 200; 2009-10: 13.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg, .413 3-PT %
Though only a sophomore, Hopson is the offensive leader for the Volunteers. He often takes his lanky 6'7" frame beyond the 3-point line and uses his frame to his advantage to shoot over smaller defenders. Shoot it he does, making 41 % of the 75 attempts he has taken beyond the arc, best on the team. The difference between Hopson this year and the young man who was an SEC All-Freshman selection last season is he is now starting to take the ball to the basket. There is a reason is so highly rated as a shooting guard. Being 6'7", athletic, and able to handle the basketball makes Hopson difficult to guard. He can – and this year he has – taken bigger defenders to the rim. Yet he can also shoot over a quick defender if an opposing coach tries to contain him in that manner.
Nobody uses his bench more than Bruce Pearl. Even during the five games he was without the removed and suspended players, Pearl's rotation was still nine deep. The Georgia game saw eleven players get meaningful minutes. Key off the Tennessee bench is reserve point guard Melvin Goins. While he was on suspension, Maze was forced to carry the brunt of the load at the point. Goins' return allows Pearl to occasionally rest Maze while not facing much of a drop-off since Goins averages almost six points per game and over two assists per game. 6'3" freshman guard Skyler McBee is supposed to be the main shooter off of the bench, but is only connecting on only 31% of the 58 3-point attempts he has taken. 6'8" sophomore Renaldo Woolridge, son of NBA-er Orlando Woolridge, is averaging 4.5 ppg and is shooting just under 40 % from three. Like many of his fellow Vols, Woolridge negates much of his athleticism by being too 3-point dependent. It's a style Pearl has experienced great success with, however, so one should not look for that to change.
Keys to the Game
- Protect the basketball. Last season, Tennessee forced 23 turnovers in a 69-50 home win over Vandy. When the Commodores weren't turning the ball over, the Vols were completely taking Vanderbilt out of its offensive game plan, demonstrated by A.J. Ogilvy only getting a combined 13 shots in the two meetings. Tennessee loves to run. Pearl's goal, if he doesn't create a turnover, is to force his opponent into an early bad shot that will allow his team to push the pace. If Tennessee exceeds 80 possessions in this game, Vanderbilt most likely will not have a chance.
- Keep Maze on the perimeter. Tennessee is successful on offense when Maze drives into the heart of a defense, creating easy scoring opportunities or open shots for Chism, Hopson and crew. Georgia countered this by using an effective zone that made the Vols want to shoot over it instead of getting the ball inside through use of the dribble. Whether in a man or zone, Coach Stallings squad needs to be content to let Tennessee shoot long-range threes and hold them to only one shot through strong defensive rebounding. If Tennessee uses its athleticism it will be a tough game for Vandy, just like the last few trips to Knoxville.