Friday, January 14, 2011

VSL Gets You Ready: Vanderbilt travels to Knoville to take on Tennessee

When ESPN's College GameDay decided to kick-off their 2010-11 season in Knoxville, I'm sure they imagined a very different set of circumstances than the ones they've got. Tennessee will be without Bruce Pearl, who will be serving game 3 of his 8 game SEC suspension; a Volunteer team reeling, attempting to avoid an 0-3 conference start, after losing to Arkansas and Florida; and Commodore squad tied with 3 other teams for 2nd at 1-1 in a bunched up SEC East. With that said, this is a very big game for both teams.

As discussed, the Commodores at 1-1 in conference and 12-3 overall. After handling a very athletic Georgia team at Memorial on Wednesday, the Kevin Stallings' team would like to erase the bad memories of their first SEC loss: a 83-75 overtime defeat in Columbia to a South Carolina team they led for the vast majority of the game.

For Tennessee, this might be the biggest game of their season. At 10-6 overall (0-2 in conference), the Volunteers are widely considered the most disappointing, and difficult to figure-out, team in America. After starting out the year 7-0, including victories over then (and current) #7 Villanova, and then #3 Pittsburgh. The Volunteers' complete domination over the Pitt Panthers on ESPN was thought by many to be the team's coming out party, where they showed how good they were despite the controversy surrounding Bruce Pearl and his well-documented NCAA violations. Since the Pitt game on December 11th, Tennessee is 3-6 including home losses to Oakland and a College-of-Charleston team that, frankly, embarrassed the Volunteers. One could even argue Bruce Pearl's guys are lucky to be 3-6 after dodging a bullet from the Belmont Bruins, who lost 66-65 in their second game of the 2010-11 season at Thompson-Boiling Arena. Coach Kevin Stallings does not think a Vanderbilt victory on Saturday will be the death-knell for the Volunteers. Maybe not technically speaking, but an 0-3 start, including 2 loses to SEC East rivals at home would spell trouble for Tennessee, especially since they have to play at a Georgia team who beat Kentucky to start conference play on Tuesday. After the Georgia game, Tennessee will travel to Storres, CT to take on #5 UCONN (where Pearl will be allowed to coach), before playing their next 3 against SEC West opponents. Basically, to have any hopes righting their ship, Tennessee has to win Saturday. They are a wounded-animal, so to speak, and are capable of anything. The Commodores have to expect they'll get everything Tennessee has, something Coach Stallings seems acutely aware of.

Scouting Tennessee

Tennessee has talent. There is no doubt about that. They've got 5 quality starters, and a physically imposing big-man who comes off the bench in senior Brian Williams. They've shown, at times this season, an ability to play through adversity and distractions (i.e., the saga surrounding their head coach). Here are some great nuggets contained in Tennessee's Game Notes highlighting the difference between what happens when UT wins and when they lose. The Volunteers shot 46.8% from the field and 37.3% from 3 in the 10 wins, and just 40.3% from the field and a paltry 25% from downtown in their 6 losses. Their opponents shot just 37.9% from the field and 30% from 3 when UT wins, and 48.1% FG and 43.4% 3FG when they lose. Simply, Tennessee's fate rests with their defense.

The Volunteer Back Court

Tennessee runs a 3-guard set, with senior Melvin Goins (5'11) running the point, and juniors Scotty Hopson (6'7) and Cameron Tatum (6'6) filling out the wings. Goins is a quick, athletic guard who can knock down shots. Averaging 8.5 points and 3 assists a contest, he's a 40% shooter from inside and outside the arc. Goins is not a player looking to score himself, but will certainly take advantage of opportunities that present themselves. Tinsely, although bigger than Goins, might struggle with his quickness. It would not surprise me at all to see Fuller get some minutes if Melwin's speed becomes a problem.

Scotty Hopson is Tennessee's leading scorer. He's also, according to my UT friends, the most frustrating player on the team. The Junior from Hopkinsville, Kentucky averages 16.5 a game, good enough for 7th in the SEC. He's a 37% 3-point shooter, and isn't shy from firing away. He shoots 43% from the floor and is a good free throw shooter at 77%. He has an ability to take over games, case in point, his performance against Belmont in December where he scored the Volunteers' final 9 points, including a game-winning layup with 7 second left on the clock. I expect to see Jeffery Taylor defending Hopson, a match-up sure to get the attention of Dick Vitale who will be calling the game for ESPN.

Cameron Tatum is UT's other win, and is averaging 10.7 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 2.2 assists a game. Tatum is a consistent player, although not as potent an offensive weapon as Hopson of freshman forward Tobias Harris. Tatum is connecting on just a third of his 3 point attempts this season, and has only attempted 61 free throws on the year (2nd fewest among UT starters). John Jenkins, still not the Commodores best defensive stopper, is likely to match-up with Tatum.

Tennessee's Front Court

6'8 freshman forward Tobias Harris is a player Commodore fans should be worried about. Averaging 15.7 points and 7.5 boards a game, Harris has started all but 1 of Tennessee's games this season, and has already won SEC Freshman of the Week Honors twice. He's only been held below 10 points once this year, and gets to the line a lot, averaging 5.6 FTA's a tilt. He is 4th in the country among freshman in scoring, and has 5 double-doubles on the year, including doubles in 3 straight, and in 4 of his last 5. Harris can create match-up problems with his ability to take guys off the dribble, combined with a solid shooting touch and ability to finish around the rim. UT's 2nd best player is likely to draw the attention of Lance Goulbourne, one of the few forwards in the league who has similar attributes to Harris. Like JT vs. Hopson, this is likely to be a match-up that gets a lot of attention, and could be key in determining who wins the game.

Rounding out the Volunteer starting 5 is 6'9 senior John Fields. Fields averages 3.8 points and 4 rebounds a game. He replaced Brian Williams in the starting line-up against Florida, and appears slated to remain there according to the Game Notes. Tennessee is Fields' 3rd team since 2006. Efficient, Fields is connecting on 63% of his FG attempts, and averages just under 13 points a game. The real threat for UT however, is the 6-10 Brian Williams, who appears poised to come off the bench for the second straight game. At 6'10, 272 lbs., Williams is a physically imposing force down-low. That is, when he can stay in games. Williams has committed 4 fouls or more in 7 games this season, and fouled out of 2. He's averaging 21.7 minutes a game, in part, because he is prone to getting in foul trouble. He's as good from the line as he is from the field (50%), and leads the Volunteers with 7.8 rebounds a game (good enough for 6th in the SEC). He's ranked 13th in America by account for 17% of his team's offensive rebounds. It's very important that Festus not commit silly fouls against Fields so he has to opportunity to post-up Williams, and hopefully get UT's big man in foul trouble.

Tennessee's Bench

Frankly, it doesn't scare me. The 4 guys most likely to get some run are Trae Golden (6'1 freshman), Skylar McBee (6'3 sophomore), Steven Pearl (6'5 junior), and Kenny Hall (6'8 sophomore). Pearl has played in all 16 games, averaging 11 minutes a game. Golden has played in 15 of 16 games, contributing 15 minutes and 4.4 points a game. Skylas McBee (which really is a girl's name), has played in 14 games, while Kenny Hall has seen action in 12 contests. None of these guys are likely to factor much into Tennessee's game plan (or Vanderbilt's scouting). Vanderbilt's bench has a decided advantage over Tennessee's.

Keys for the Commodores
- Controlling the Paint: Tennessee likes to score points in the paint. The Volunteers have scored 46% of their points in the paint, while opponents are scoring just 38.5% of the points inside.
- Dictating Pace: Vanderbilt lost against South Carolina because the Gamecocks dictated the pace of play and turned last Saturday's game into a pick-up game in front of a larger than normal crowd. The Commodores need to control the tempo because Tennessee is an impatient squad who can get easily frustrated.
- 70 Points. Tennessee is 7-3 when scoring 70+ points, and just 3-3 when scoring 69 points or less. Vanderbilt is 9-0 when holding the opposition to 70 points or less.
- Crash the Boards: This is the most obvious "key," but that doesn't make it any less true. The Commodores are 8-0 when out-rebounding their opponents, and just 4-2 when being out-rebounded. Vanderbilt has been out-rebounded by 15 in their first 2 SEC games (-8 against South Carolina, -7 against the Dawgs). In their 2 meetings last season, Vanderbilt out-rebounded Tennessee by 13.

Final Thoughts

I am fully expecting Vanderbilt to win tomorrow's game. But if they don't, assuming they aren't run out of the gym, I won't panic. Tennessee, as I wrote above, is a wounded animal and is capable of anything. There will be a lot of emotion tomorrow with ESPN College GameDay being in the house, and their season largely hanging in the balance. What will be important for Vanderbilt is that they don't get rattled early, no matter what Tennessee does. Vanderbilt trailed by 4 last year at Thompson-Boiling, only to out-score the Vols by 11 in the 2nd half and go on to a 85-76 win. The Commodores have to do what Tennessee couldn't last season at Memorial: "take a punch." Vanderbilt started off the game hot and UT never recovered. The Commodores led by 17 at the half and the game was over pretty much after the first 8 minutes.

I am expecting big games from Jeffery Taylor, John Jenkins, and Festus Ezeli. Taylor torched the Volunteers for 26 last year at Memorial and is capable of doing the same tomorrow. What is important for Jeff is that he remain assertive offensively throughout the entire game. There are stretches where he disappears. He's our leader and best player. I'm ready for him to have that moment where he puts the team on his back and refuses to lose. Tomorrow would be a great time for that to click.

Offensively, Jenkins is incredibly dynamic. He appears to have worked out the "flatness" issue Coach Stallings lamented after the Marquette game, but at times appears to be forcing bad shots. He's likely to be guarded by Tatum, a player who is a little taller and a little quicker. Jenkins needs to make sure he's taking good shots. Given the balance the Commodores have on offense, he doesn't need to force the issue. If Jenkins lets the game come to him in Knoxville the way he did in Gainsville last year, Commodore fans have reason to be confident.

UT is somewhat lacking in size. If Fez can establish position, effectively use his drop-step move, and get his baby-hook to fall, Tennessee will be in trouble. Tennessee's rebounding relies primarily on 2 guys, Williams and Harris. If Fez plays the kind of game he's capable of, Williams will be spending a lot of time on the bench watching.

As I eluded to above, the player on UT that probably concerns me the most is Tobias Harris. I am comforted, however, by the though of Lance Goulborne being given the opportunity to match-up with the freshman. Both these guys are from New York, and Lance is sure to take his assignment on the kid from Long Island very seriously. Lance leads the SEC in rebounds in conference games and will play a big part if the Commodores are able to control the glass.

Finally, the Commodores have to get a good performance from the 1, no matter who's running it. I've said that the criticism of Tinsely is exaggerated and often unfair. Brad might make a couple bad passes a game (at least 1 of which usually comes at an inopportune time), but he's cut down on bad shots, does a nice job running the offense, and is great about taking what the defense gives him.

Prediction: Vanderbilt 74 - Tennessee 67


AD said...

Oakland is good. Watch out for them in March.

Would really like to have this win. Even if it doesn't do a lot for us nationally, as UT is vascilating between wounded duck and defensive predator modes, it would feel great, especially if Taylor follows up his Top Play dunk with a full-game performance of equal lustre.

Brad seems to be playing pretty well, and sometimes looks like the only one of our starters willing and able to dribble penetrate from the arc to the rim.

Anonymous said...

Walker would be really helpful for this game but what's gone is gone.

I think Steve T. is gonna be big this game. He's not gonna let that crowd or team shake him. I see 2 or 3 Stevie Thunder 3 pointers sinking tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

Vanderbilt 81, Tennessee 69

Chuck Heston said...

Anyone check out the commercials that ESPN is running for the start of Gameday? They end with Digger saying "I'm going with Vandy for payback!"

Anonymous said...

I hate ut and hope our guys kick their ass. I won't hold my breath about the girl's team though. Even though they blew out "Bama on the road the other night, they don't seem like they are at the level where they could pull a major upset.

But the guys should beat ut. Even if it is by one point I will be happy. But if it's a blowout, I will like it even more.

Did I mention that I hate ut?

Anonymous said...

Daag is from Long Island, I don't know if he told anyone. So is Billy Donovan.

AD said...

Looks like this'll be on espn3 as well, for those with access

Unknown said...

For an off-the-wall take on the mind of Jay Cutler, including thoughts on Vanderbilt, visit

We're live-blogging this weekend's playoff games.