Bobby's got a great look at the road map for the rest of the season below. My own top five reasons Vanderbilt needs to beat Tennessee in Memorial tonight:
5) Breathing room. With both teams at 6-2 in SEC play, this is a battle for outright possession of the #2 spot in the conference. Loser falls a full game back and into a tie for third with the resurgent Florida Gators. Not ideal.
4) Momentum. Ever since the clock struck 4:00 in the Mississippi State game, Vanderbilt’s engine has been sputtering. UT, on the other hand, has bounced back from the home loss to win their last three straight heading into Nashville. As this Commodore team rounds the corner to the home stretch of conference play, think of this contest like the first five minutes of the second half of the season – we could be about to learn a lot about this team’s future.
3) The looming horizon. Next week Vanderbilt faces two very tough tests, first at Ole Miss and then Kentucky Part II. A loss to UT puts the Dores’ backs against the wall as they face a potential trap game against LSU before taking on back-to-back (likely) Top 25 opponents.
2) “We must protect this house.” Click-clack. A quality tournament seed that will set the Commies up for a deep run depends critically on our ability to hold serve for at least 4 of the 5 remaining home games of the season. Who dat whiting out Memorial Gym?
1) Two words: Vomit Orange.
How Vanderbilt can beat the Volunteers (whose name, by the way, is a total misnomer – I don’t care how much community service you do, it’s not really “volunteering” if the judge took your case under advisement and ordered you to do it):
*** Proof is in the paint-ing. We’ve been ripping A.J. Ogilvy for his play the past few games, and I stand by every word. With no injury as an excuse and exceptional guard play from Beal and Tinsley causing defenses to lay off him a little, A.J. has been mostly a disappointment of late – missing some girly-man layups while trying to be finessy around the basket and getting absolutely abused on the glass. Andre Walker has really found his way to K-Stall’s doghouse as well, while Jeff Taylor still doesn’t seem to have recovered from that missed reverse dunk in Lexington. No longer can the Commodores afford to be MIA in the post. Wayne Chism having an injured knee was a big part of why Vanderbilt was able to do some inside scoring in Knoxville (just ask Frosted Tips). Tennessee is 14-1 when Chism scores at least 9 points. With Wayne healthy again and sporting a big-time chip on his shoulder, the Dores will have to respond in kind by taking it strong to the rack, drawing fouls, and boxing out like life depends on it. As physical as Tennessee likes to play, Vanderbilt needs to be that much more so, particularly to take pressure off our guards, whom Bruce Pearl is not keen to leave alone on the perimeter.
** Defense, defense, defense. For a while it seemed like every single game the Dores had someone different step up and produce points when the next guy was having an off night. Against Georgia, Vanderbilt showed that even when a couple of guys are playing out of their shoes (see Jermaine Beal and Brad Tinsley connecting on 14 of 26 while their teammates combined for 5 of 35 from the floor), we cannot just expect to outgun every opponent in a shootout. Allowing J.P. Prince to go 9 of 10 from the field for 22 points, as he did against Vandy a couple weeks ago, simply will not cut it. Why? Because it is highly unlikely that a fully recovered Wayne Chism, who just put up a career-high 30 in a rout of South Carolina, will miss 7 of his 9 field goal attempts the way he did the first time around. Because Scotty Hopson has shown himself capable of going off for 20+ points on any given night. Because after losing Tyler Smith to a promising career in the criminal arts, the Vols have proven they still have the depth to run for 40 minutes and find a variety of ways to score. Getting back to basics on the defensive end will help take the pressure off slumping scorers like Ogilvy, Taylor, and Jenkins.
* Cooler heads prevail. I have a feeling this game is going to be very close, and no one has proven more valuable to Vanderbilt in close games this season than Jermaine Beal. He put the team on his back against Tennessee once already, and in SEC play has showed his best shooting touch when the points matter most. Bruce Pearl may be a great motivator, but I think the story in this game could turn on which team makes fewer mistakes – avoiding turnovers against the press, hitting pressure free throws, etc. Vanderbilt has had plenty of miscues in recent games, most notably the inexplicable bricking of wide-open shots on Saturday in Athens. But, at the risk of jinxing him, Beal just seems to play better and better every time opponents up the ante. When this game is on the line, I want the ball in the hands of the quiet senior with the killer instinct.
The thing that excites me most about this Vanderbilt team is that I still don’t think they are close to their ceiling. For a while it seemed like everyone except Brad Tinsley was playing pretty well, and now Brad has elevated his game in a big way while guys like A.J. and Jeff appear to have gotten stage fright. But you know what they say: you don’t want to peak too early (though I recently discovered this is not a good motto for exam preparation). For real: if and when this team hits on all cylinders, I think they are capable of beating anyone in the country.
Here’s to hoping the cylinders fire and the Commodores improve to 12-0 at home tonight. Go Dores.