South Carolina's victory places the Commodores a half-game ahead of Kentucky in the SEC East standings. While we might not stay that way after this week, the magnitude of that loss increases the importance of this road game.
Stealing one from Tennessee tonight would give the Commodores a two game cushion over the Vols and would keep us one step ahead of Kentucky going into Rupp on Saturday. A loss at Rupp would result in a tied record with Kentucky holding the tiebreaker. However, unlike Kentucky and Tennessee, we would be playing some of our most important games, with the exception of Ole Miss and Florida, in the friendly confines of Memorial. The rest of the SEC East would need to travel to Nashville with us having eliminated the majority of our road travels against East opponents (though a fiery Georgia squad is not someone to look past).
But speaking of that Georgia squad, their victims stand in the way of us maintaining our lead atop the SEC East. The Tennessee Volunteers will not lay down and give this game up by any stretch of the imagination. Tennessee is 17 in Ken Pomeroy's rankings and boasts one of the best defensive turnover percentages in the nation (if you believe in his statistics).
Tennessee, despite the loss of All-American candidate Tyler Smith and big bully down low Brian Williams, has played remarkably well. No matter what you think of Bruce Pearl personally, the guy can flat out coach. His teams play tenacious defense, are opportunistic, and thrive on momentum.
I believe we are all familiar with Wayne Chism, who has made a career out of throttling Vanderbilt in our previous encounters. While Tyler Smith was the primary culprit in our throttling in Knoxville last year, Chism came into Nashville and made his presence well known, getting 20 points on 8-11 shooting, as well as two huge threes. He also nabbed 7 rebounds.
Chism is averaging 11.8 ppg and about 6.4 boards per game over the season, but has played some extremely good games, especially against Ole Miss, where he scored 26 to lead them to a home victory. As mentioned, Chism CAN shoot the three, and is very athletic underneath the basket. But his greatest asset is on defense where, simply put, A.J. has been able to very little against him.
There is positive news about this match-up for A.J., however. First, Chism has been suffering from a sprained knee that happened at the Georgia game. Chism at 75% is much more ideal than Chism at 100%, and this could work in our favor. Chism also has a propensity to get in foul trouble, and with the suspension of the aforementioned Brian Williams on-going, Tennessee lacks depth in the post. As a result, going after Chism early and often is going to crucial to our success, both with A.J. down low and with Taylor forcing the issue by taking it to the bucket.
Tennessee also has an athletic playmaker in J.P. Prince. Prince is fairly erratic as a player however. Though he had impressive performances at home against Auburn and Ole Miss, he struggled on the road against Alabama and Georgia. I would expect Prince, however, to put up a solid game, as he had 16 points in Memorial last season, and then 8 points and 10 boards in the home stand in Knoxville. He loves to get after Vanderbilt, maybe because he didn't appreciate our admissions policy.
The player, in my mind, Vandy has to worry about the most is Sophomore guard Scotty Hopson. Hopson is averaging 13.7 ppg and is shooting threes at 41% clip. He is a dangerous outside shooter that must be contained. He was by far the most effective offensive threat for the Vols on their most recent road trip, scoring 17 against Alabama and 19 against Georgia. It will be imperative for Vanderbilt to find him on the floor at all times.
Bobby Maze and Cameron Tatum round out the rest of the Vols lineup, with Kenny Hall also providing clutch minutes. Maze is an adept passer who has a 3/1 assist-to-turnover ratio, and Tatum has the ability to hurt defenses from three as he shoots about 40% from beyond the arc. Hall has gotten more minutes with the loss of Williams and Smith, and has made his presence felt over the last couple of games, nabbing a double-double against Auburn and scoring 10 against Georgia.
Tennessee's bread and butter is on defense, where they are second in steals per game behind South Carolina and lead the SEC in turnover margin. They aren't particularly great at rebounding, so it will be important to control the glass. A major reason for Georgia's win was a 34-22 edge for the Dawgs in rebounding. Tennessee is also very careful with the ball, and as a team leads the SEC in assist-to-turnover ratio. They are also very efficient, as they are 3rd in the SEC in field-goal percentage (in case you were wondering, the Commodores are first).
Our match-ups with Florida and South Carolina should have prepared us nicely for this particular bout, and the game plan really should be no different. Using our three-headed monster of Ogilvy, Fez, and Steve T. we need to come after Chism and try to keep him on the bench as much as possible. From there, we need to do a much better job of boxing out than we did against Auburn, and ride our post play and efficiency to victory, with Beal, Tinsley, and Jenkins nailing clutch threes to stomp out momentum. The environment will be hostile, and Tennessee will be stinging from their loss at the hands of the Dawgs, but this is a game we can win, and if we REALLY want to take advantage of some crucial losses, it's a game we must win.