After a wild week of scheduling, the No.10 Tennessee Vols (9-1, 3-1) are slated to face the Vanderbilt Commodores on Saturday.
A couple of postponements earlier in the week caused a break in action for the Vols. However, with a struggling Vandy squad coming to town, Tennessee has a chance to take advantage and properly prepare for what will be a tough segment of the Vols’ schedule.
The Volunteers last played on Jan. 9 in College Station, TX, where they handed Texas A&M a 68-54 loss.
A Look Ahead
After what should be an exhibition-like contest against the ‘Dores, Rick Barnes and the Vols will embark on a 2-week stretch that will help define expectations for Tennessee as it marches towards tournament time.
Based on record, the four-game stretch after Vandy will be the toughest portion of the Vols’ remaining schedule. Those four opponents have a combined record of 31-13. No other four-game sample comes close to matching that win/loss mark.
The Vols will start on the road against Florida. After just four non-conference games, the Gators are 3-2 in SEC play. Mike White’s bunch rallied to beat Mississippi 72-63 on Tuesday after a two-game skid last week.
Missouri will then come to town and attempt to avenge an embarrassing defeat in Columbia, Missouri. On December 30th, Tennessee went into CoMo and drilled the (then) 12th ranked Tigers by 20. The Vols’ win marked their second straight 20-point victory and came off a week’s break in action.
Ben Howland and the Mississippi State Bulldogs will try their luck in the second of three straight home games for the Vols. As of now, State has only played two true road games but have won each. Howland and Barnes combine for 1223 career wins. Mississippi State defeated Tennessee by 13 points last season, marking the largest margin of victory in the match’s history since the two coaches entered the conference in 2015. Barnes is 6-2 versus Howland in that span.
What We’re All Waiting For
The three aforementioned conference games will be a decent test for the Vols, but the match-up everyone is anticipating is the one that takes place on Jan. 30 in Knoxville.
Tennessee will take on No.6 Kansas in what could be a Top-10 showdown. The Vols have lost the last two contests between the schools. Just like this season’s pairing, last year’s game in Lawrence, KS, was showcased as part of the SEC/BIG 12 challenge. The tilt in 2018 was part of the NIT Tip-off at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The Volunteers lost by six points in each contest.
Jayhawks head coach, Bill Self, holds a 15-6 record against Barnes, dating back to their rivalry in the Big 12. The Vols would love to snap their skid against the BIG 12 powerhouse and make a statement in what will likely be Tennessee’s biggest game of the regular season.
Kansas, like Florida and Missouri, are in good company when it comes to KenPom rankings. All three are in the top-50 rankings overall. When you include Mississippi State as part of the Vols’ remaining January opponents, all four fall into the top 70 adjusted offensive efficiency. But the Jayhawks are by far the darling of the bunch. At No.13, Kansas is seven spots behind Tennessee in the composite.
First Things First
Before the Vols jump into a busy slate, the little brother from Nashville will have something to say. Vanderbilt (4-5) comes to Knoxville hungry for a conference win. The Commodores have come up empty in their first three SEC games. In their last contest, Mississippi State narrowly escaped Memorial Gymnasium with an 84-81 win.
One thing that can make this game interesting is Vandy’s habit of launching from distance. Perimeter defense is one area where the Vols haven’t seen good fortune. For the Commodores, shooting from distance is a staple. Vanderbilt is 18th in the nation in three-pointers made per game (10), and 16th in long-balls attempted (28.3).
With Scotty Pippen, Jr. leading the way, look for the ‘Dores to put up as many shots as possible. Along with being the team leader in PPG (21.56), Pippen also leads the way in assists (5.78), steals (1.56), and minutes (32.7). However, one major concern for the sophomore is turnovers. He averages 3.44 giveaways a game, while Vandy has a poor turnover percentage of 16.3.
For Tennessee, they will look to feast in the paint. While the Vols are an overall good shooting team in terms of field goal percentage (46.5%), Barnes would probably like to see his guys get some work around the rim. The Volunteers are shooting a modest 51.4 percent inside the arc.
If that’s the route the Volunteer offense goes on Saturday, look for that number to climb. Vanderbilt is allowing opponents to shoot 45.5 percent overall. They are especially vulnerable the closer teams get to the bucket. The ‘Dores surrendered 42 points in the paint against Mississippi State last Saturday. The Bulldogs just needed seven three-point attempts to complement their efficiency inside the arc.
Predictions for Saturday
There will be too much variance late in the game on Saturday. With Vandy hoisting treys at such an alarming rate, and Barnes likely to clear his bench, the 16.5 spread is too uncomfortable for me to take. The over (136.5) on the total is in serious play, though.
Six of Vanderbilt’s nine games have gone OVER. Tennessee has only seen three such outcomes due to their exceptional defense, but I think the Vols offense breaks the 80-point barrier for the first time in conference play, thanks to Vandy’s poor defense. That opens things up for the total to go north of the number. Vanderbilt overs have also hit three of four times when the Commodores get more than three days rest.
Look for John Fulkerson to have his best game of the season. The senior has seen a dip in point production since last season, but that’s due to others becoming more involved. Being a Tri-Cities guy, Fulky knows this match-up’s history and what it means to the state. This could be his last time to drill Vandy at home. The Kingsport native will certainly do his part.