If you like aesthetically pleasing basketball, don't watch Vanderbilt and Tennessee tonight, when the Commodores and Volunteers begin their two-game season series in Knoxville. Vanderbilt's potent teams of the past two seasons – loaded with scorers and shooters – could not top the 64-point mark against the Vols in the Tommy Bowl. This year, a 64-point performance would represent a remarkable achievement for VU's offense. It would very likely deliver a win against the Children of the Checkerboard.
Tennessee, at home, regularly manages to muck up the sport of basketball, dragging Kevin Stallings into a messy, rugged, sloppy, uneven style of play that has never been VU's forte – not under Stallings, and not under Eddie Fogler, for that matter. However, in a season when offensive weaponry just doesn't exist in abundance, Vanderbilt has no choice. The Dores must roll up their sleeves and try to play defense even better than the defense-first Vols. Vanderbilt must stare UT coach Cuonzo Martin in the eyes and resolve to out-Cuonzo its foremost rival. Shutdown defense doesn't need to be restricted to James Franklin, and a bad outing for Tennessee against Vanderbilt doesn't have to be confined to Derek Dooley, either.
The Volunteers are 2-4 in the SEC, and one of their conference wins came against Mississippi State, the only team that can "compete" with LSU for the dubious distinction of being the worst in this 14-team assemblage of mediocrity (Florida and Ole Miss excepted). Tennessee owns a nice win over Wichita State from December and a commendable win over Xavier on Dec. 29, but this is a team that has to run the table – or something very close to it – if it wants to make the NCAAs. Only three SEC teams are likely to make the Big Dance this year, and Tennessee is part of the "unfortunate eleven" that are probably going to be left outside the candy store.
Why will Tennessee be NIT-picking (if it plays a postseason tournament at all) in March? It can't score. The Vols played high-energy defense under Bruce Pearl, and that hasn't changed under Martin, the Gene Keady disciple who preaches the value of defense, toughness and rebounding. However, Pearl's teams could put the ball in the basket in a number of ways, and this team just doesn't own the same level of resourcefulness at the offensive end of the floor. The Vols are low on pure shooters, and that's why they starve late in games against half-decent foes. In a cruel twist of the knife, the one time Tennessee shot the ball well came in the same game when it forgot how to play defense, an 85-80 loss to Memphis on Jan. 4. The Cuonzo Martin era in Knoxville needs more time to ripen into its fully realized vision.
TENNESSEE STAT PACK – STATISTICAL HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWLIGHTS
Two-point field goal shooting percentage: 42.8. National rank: 190 (out of 345).
Three-point field goal shooting percentage: 29.2. National rank: 316.
Possessions per 40 minutes: 66.2. National rank: 234.
Assists per game: 10.6. National rank: 307.
Field goal percentage defense: 40.8. National rank: 85.
Three-point field goal percentage defense: 30.4. National rank: 44.
Forward – Jordan McRae – Junior, 6-5, 178 2012-13: 14.7 points per game, 3.2 rebounds per game, 2 assists per game
Tennessee is a team in which guard and forward labels don't mean all that much. McRae plays the forward spot according to some basketball websites that compile advanced stats and keep ongoing records of teams and conferences; other websites list him as a guard. At any rate, McRae can be fairly identified as a tweener, someone who will at times play at the forward spot in a smaller lineup. What stands out is his lack of power and muscle, at 178 pounds. Meanwhile, his 6-6 teammate Josh Richardson plays at the guard spot, and reserve Derek Reese is listed as a guard despite being 6-8 and 208 pounds. At any rate, you'll notice that McRae doesn't devote much attention to the glass. He's not an accomplished three-point shooter; he chooses to attack the basket when he gets the chance. McRae has earned at least eight free throw attempts in five games this season. He shoots just over 79 percent from the charity stripe, so Vanderbilt – in what is likely to be a slugfest played in the 50s, must keep him off the line, especially in the final minutes of regulation.
Forward – Jarnell Stokes – Sophomore, 6-8, 270; 2012-13: 11.2 ppg, 8.1 rpg
Stokes provides all the power on a Tennessee roster that is conspicuously bereft of that characteristic at all other positions on the floor, with the possible exception of Kenny Hall. Tennessee has players who are long and lanky, but generally not as bruising or brawny as Stokes. Vanderbilt has regularly had a tough time rebounding in Knoxville. The Commodores must produce one of their best rebounding efforts of the season in order to win this game on this night in this building. When 50-50 balls are up for grabs in the final few minutes of regulation, VU must outwork Stokes in the low post.
Forward – Kenny Hall – Senior, 6-9, 230; 2012-13: 6.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg
Hall is a tricky player to play against, because he's not as much of a string bean as other Tennessee players. He owns some heft, but his long wingspan and considerable agility give him a multi-dimensional skill set that prevents him from being boxed into one category. As one of the few seniors on this team (a reminder that Tennessee is still in a developmental stage after the dislocations and disruptions caused by Pearl's stormy exit from Knoxville), Hall knows what it's like to frustrate Vanderbilt on home hardwood. Late in this game, Hall is likely to step forth for the Vols against a team he loves to hate. The Commodores must match his energy level at all times, but especially at crunch time.
Guard – Josh Richardson – Sophomore, 6-6, 188; 2012-13: 8.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg
Richardson's size means that he can play over the top of other guards. The fact that he doesn't score very much is an indication of his inability to shoot. Richardson should be able to get three-point shots on demand, but he hits just 25.9 percent of them. He hits 51.3 percent of all his field goal attempts, but that means he doesn't look for offense very much. That's a problem for a big guard and a big reason why the Vols don't score as consistently as they need to. Vanderbilt will need to combat Richardson when the Dores have the ball. Working around Richardson's length will create good shots for VU tonight.
Guard – Armani Moore – Freshman, 6-5, 203; 2012-13: 2.3 ppg, 2.7 rpg
Moore got the start for Tennessee this past Saturday against Alabama, but he averages just 11.9 minutes per game. Trae Golden is this team's de facto point guard, averaging 27.8 minutes per game and 4.1 assists per game on a team that, as you saw above in the "stat pack" section of this piece, doesn't generate many assists due to its inability to hit shots. Vanderbilt must defend Golden as a passer, not as a shooter. Golden's assist total will rise if he creates layups and other high-percentage looks for teammates. If Vanderbilt's rotations are solid, Tennessee's assist total won't climb.
With Golden technically being a bench player, there are only two other players to mention for the Vols, who generally go with an eight-man rotation but sometimes go to nine: The aforementioned Derek Reese and guard Skylar McBee. Reese could pose problems for VU as a long defender at 6-8, while McBee is the man Vanderbilt can't leave alone on defense. The Commodores have to get on his shooting hand and make sure that the Vols' primary three-point sniper doesn't get open looks. McBee doesn't hit a high percentage of his threes because he's not quick enough to get open on his own, but when he does get a free shooting hand, he's deadly, something Vanderbilt has discovered all too often in the past.
Keys to the Game
1) Own the boards and the 50-50s, especially in the final minutes. Vanderbilt has lost many a game in Knoxville in recent years because it simply couldn't claim a majority of loose balls in the final few minutes of regulation. Winning the 50-50s is the biggest thing the Commodores can do to improve their prospects in a building where they've rarely prospered.
2) No cheap points for the Vols. Eliminating turnovers might be hard, but eliminating the kinds of turnovers that lead to easy fast-break baskets for Tennessee should be Stallings's particular point of focus in this game. Not giving the Vols a parade of trips to the foul line or other avenues to easy scores must also enter the consciousness of every VU player tonight.