Tennessee had a fun run at the top of the polls for over a month, and while climbing back to number one before the end of the season certainly isn’t out of the question, the Vols’ time at number one is over for now. After what Coach Rick Barnes called an embarrassing loss in Lexington to the Wildcats, the Vols, now ranked number five, will play their first game off the top of the polls against the same team that started their run at number one. Vanderbilt comes into Thompson Boling Arena after giving the Vols all that they wanted earlier this season in Memorial Gym. The Vols needed overtime and a historic performance from Grant Williams to top the Commodores earlier in the season, and despite that, the focus surrounding Tennessee seems to be lingering on the loss to Kentucky, not on the ‘Dores.
Looking at these two teams, even considering how the last meeting went, it is easy to see why many around the program and most media outlets are still focusing on the outcome of the first contest against Kentucky. Vanderbilt is still winless in SEC play, and the longer the season goes, the more it looks unlikely that Vandy is going to capture a conference win. In the last contest, Vanderbilt forced the Vols to overtime, and likely felt that they let a game they should have won get away from them. Even then, Vanderbilt had an out of body experience shooting the ball that night in Memorial Gym, hitting almost everything they threw up in the second half, and having their best offensive night of the season by far. Conversely, Tennessee had their worst night shooting the ball to that point in the season. The Vols struggled to get points, and despite getting good looks regularly, they just couldn’t seem to get shots the fall. The entire offense was struggling with the exception of Williams. Mid way through the second half, the Vols just started feeding the reigning SEC Player of the Year, and he did not disappoint. Turning in 43 points and 23-23 from the free throw line, Williams loaded his team on his back and willed them to a road victory. It is unlikely that such an effort will be required again when the two teams meet in Knoxville.
Tennessee went into Lexington to play the Wildcats with the entire nation watching, and under the brightest lights, in a critical SEC game, the Vols played their worst game not only of this season, but possibly the last two. While Kentucky defended the Vols well, Tennessee struggled defensively to slow the Wildcats and just never were able to get into their offense. Normally dangerous shooters in Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner missed shot after shot, many on good looks they typically bury. Grant Williams had far, far too few touches over the game, limiting his impact, and while Admiral Schofield did manage to make a dent in the scoring department, it was primarily off hustle plays and put backs. Jordan Bone played a solid game but struggled to get his shot to drop or get his typical assist numbers. Perhaps the most troubling facet of the game for Tennessee was the lack of effort shown on the boards by the Vols. Kentucky killed the Vols on the glass, and in a huge surprise, killed the Vols in the paint as well. Many Vol fans have pointed out that the officiating could very kindly be described as inconsistent at best, with the Vols not attempting a foul shot until the second half despite some hard plays not being called fouls, and while the officials absolutely impacted the game, the Vols did enough on their own to lose the game. Jordan Bone and Grant Williams both called the Vols selfish multiple times after the game, a word that was echoed by their coach. Williams went on to call the Vols phony in in their efforts, the normally mild-mannered star rather bluntly laying his thoughts out there and shouldering the blame. These phrases have been echoed by everyone within the program when asked to describe the beating at the hands of Big Blue, and that likely doesn’t bode well for the Commodores.
This is a Tennessee team that was embarrassed on the road in their last game. They were proud of being number one, and that is over for the time being. They got hammered by their biggest rival in an enormously important game that the nation was watching, and it has bothered them ever since. Make no mistake, Rick Barnes is hard on his players after impressive, dominant wins. Practice has not been a pleasant experience for the Vols since Saturday. Expect Tennessee to come out sharp, ready to avenge a loss, to get the taste of a loss out of their mouths, and the make a statement against the rival Commodores. The odds of Vanderbilt repeating their shooting performance against the Vols is exceedingly slim, almost as slim as the Vols shooting that poorly again. One thing that will remain the same, Vanderbilt has absolutely nothing for Grant Williams if he plays his typical game, let alone if he catches fire again. Tennessee has gotten in trouble a few times over the last month by not getting Williams enough touches, something Barnes has mentioned more than once. Tonight, against Vandy, expect the Vols to feed their big man early and often, getting back to their identity, and running things through the post. Vanderbilt needed everything to go their way at home to get the Vols to overtime, now, on the road, where the Vols play exceptionally well, they are going to draw a Tennessee team that is not only focused and ready to play, they are mad. That doesn’t bode well for the ‘Dores.
The Vols should win handily tonight against Vandy, and though anything can happen in rivalry games, everything that has come out of Knoxville from this team since losing to Kentucky has indicated that they are ready to play. If the Vols are sharp and angry, with something to prove, this game could get out of hand quickly. Tennessee isn’t going to overlook Vanderbilt. They are an experienced team, this is a rival, they need to make a statement, and their coach simply won’t let them. The Vols need a game to get back to who they are, and that is precisely what the contest with Vandy provides. Look for an angry Tennessee team to come out tonight, hopefully sharpened by the taste of defeat. A sharp Volunteer squad is a serious threat to the rest of the SEC, with a huge game looming against the Tigers in Baton Rouge. This contest in Thompson Boling should show the nation what the Vols are made of mentally, and provided they rise to the occasion, they will show the nation that Knoxville will still have a say in who is crowned SEC and National Champion.