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GAME DAY REPORT: Vanderbilt vs. Tennessee

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•Tip-off: 7:00 PM CDT (Sold out)
• Series Info: 170th meeting; Tennessee leads
the overall series 104-65. Vanderbilt leads 44-31 in Nashville. Tennessee leads 66-20 in Knoxville and 7-1 at neutral sites. Last Year's Meetings: Tennessee won both meetings:
69-62 in Knoxville on Feb. 1 and 68-59 in Nashville on March 4.
• Coaches: Kevin Stallings is in his eighth year at Vanderbilt (132-101) and his 14th year overall (255-164); Bruce Pearl is in his second year at Tennessee (35-10) and his 15th year overall (352-94).
• Rankings: Tennessee is No. 16 in AP poll and No. 20 in ESPN/USA Today poll. Vanderbilt is not ranked in either poll.
• Radio: Vanderbilt-ISP Radio Network (WGFX 104.5 FM);
• Television: None.
• Sagarin: 15-Tennessee = 88.08; 110-Vanderbilt = 76.57
3 - Alex Gordon, G, 5-11, 164, Jr., Pensacola, Fla. (7.9 ppg, 3.7 apg)
32 - Shan Foster, G/F, 6-6, 200, Jr., Kenner, La. (15.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg)
4 - Derrick Byars, G/F, 6-7, 230, Sr.-Tr., Memphis, Tenn. (13.9 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 3.2 apg)
20 - Dan Cage, G, 6-5, 215, Sr., Indianapolis, Ind. (10.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg)
41 - Ross Neltner, F, 6-9, 247, Jr.-Tr., Fort Thomas, Ky. (11.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg)
2 - JaJuan Smith, G, 6-2, 196, Jr., Cleveland, Tenn. (15.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg)
5 - Chris Lofton, G, 6-2, 200, Jr., Maysville, Ky. (22.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg)
12 - Ramar Smith, 6-2, 185, Fr., Mt. Clemens, Mich. (7.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 3.1 apg)
23 - Dane Bradshaw, 6-4, 205, Sr., Memphis, Tenn. (7.5 ppg, 4.7 apg, 4.3 rpg)
32 - Duke Crews, 6-7, 233, Fr., Hampton, Va. (10.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg)
Tennessee is a team on the rise. After a surprising Top 20 finish last season under first year head coach Bruce Pearl, the Vols appear to have successfully replaced stellar point guard Watson with freshman Ramar Smith.
And, after losing starting power forward Major Wingate to expulsion from school last fall, freshmen Duke Crews and Wayne Chism have stepped in and, for the most part, stepped up. In addition, Ryan Childress has increasingly provided a solid contribution from the bench, much to the surprise of many UT fans who had felt perhaps Pearl's second Tennessee receruit might not ever make much of an impact.
No doubt, though, the heart and soul of the UT team is senior Dane Bradshaw. Bradshaw, who continues to play through injuries, leads Vols in assists and blocks and is second in steals.
Tennessee, at 13-2, has its share of bunny wins. Five victories have come against teams whose RPI ranks 192 or lower.
But, UT does have good wins over Memphis (16), Oklahoma State (12), Western Kentucky (63) and Texas (66). And, perhaps just as impressive, the Vols' only losses have been to Butler (4) and North Carolina (3) -- both on a neutral court. After VU, UT plays Ohio State (23) in Columbus, so this is a game that they can hardly overlook under any circumstance.
Pearl has stuck to his "flat flex" offense, and has truly maximized the abilities of his star player, Chris Lofton. Lofton, who is easily the league's best and most prolific shooter, is on course to be named first team all-American. The Kentucky native, who was barely even recruited out of high school, averages 22.2 points, 3.6 rebounds and just under two turnovers a game.
Lofton is also a more than capable defender, and has become one of the league's true superstars. Last weekend, Lofton scored 11 points in the final six minutes versus Mississippi State to pull out the win.
Lofton is joined by JaJuan Smith, who also ranks in the top 10 in 3-point percentages -- just ahead of Vandy's Shan Foster.
Defensively, Tennessee continues to be content with focusing on increasing the pace and number of possessions, rather than on causing turnovers and grabbing rebounds. UT ranks last in the SEC in scoring defense at 74.6 points per game, a full seven points more than 11th place Vanderbilt. That's easily the largest margin in that category between any two SEC teams.
But that is being balanced by having the league's highest scoring offense, at 85.9 points per game -- which is fueled by their league-leading 10.13 steals per game. They are also fourth in the SEC in assists, a clear indication that Pearl has successfully installed his own version of "40 minutes of hell" in Knoxville.
If you back out Lofton and Smith's gaudy numbers, Tennessee suddenly looks like a very beatable opponent. As a team, Tennessee shoots just 45 percent from the field, 10th in the SEC. And they're not much better from three, despite what Lofton and Smith have been able to accomplish thus far: 37 percent ranks then just seventh in the conference from outside the arc.
As with most teams that rely heavily on the three, Tennesse is not a particularly prolific offensive rebounding team. And, they rank last in the SEC in defensive rebounding. But, the top seven players on the team in terms of minutes played averages at least three boards a game, and both Chism and Crews have had double digit rebounding games.
Of course, as one of the league's just two intrastate rivalries, the real measure of this game is in bragging rights -- and after taking it on the chin from "Candy" for so many years, Vol fans and players make no bones about what it means to beat Vandy.
And, since Pearl came to town, that is exactly what UT has done. The capper was the Vols' 68-59 win at Memorial last year, when more than 100 UT fans stayed well after the game to applaud UT's players as they emerged from the locker room.
Pearl was plenty happy to bask in the glow and lead the fans in cheers for the Vols, wearing a bright orange blazer he reserves only for matchups with Vandy and Kentucky.
Tennessee, ranked in the top 20 for most of this season, has its sites set on another run at a conference championship, and a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. A win over Vandy, whose RPI is not likely to help UT's resume, is less important than what a loss would look like when seedings come around.
Mike Rapp
Franklin, Tenn
VandySports.com Publisher
My take: On paper, this rivalry has suddenly become a mismatch. Tennessee has experienced immediate revival under Pearl, and his players and fans appear to have fully bought into his system and style. That goes a long way in the college game.
Whatever success Pearl has experienced in teaching and implimenting his sytem is secondary to how well he adapts his system to his talent. Witness Lofton, Smith, Bradshaw and even Childress.
Though both UT and VU have the reptuation for being great outside shooting teams, the stats tell a different story. Neither, as teams, are really anything special. But, while both coaches talk about playing uptempo, Pearl's team does it -- and does it very well. They get a lot of layups off of turnovers, and play with spirit and aggressiveness that is palpable.
VU hasn't stopped anyone on defense except Georgia Tech, and they did that playing zone. A zone against Lofton and Smith would almost certainly result in an historic blowout. But VU hasn't been able to guard man; Frankly, fifth-year Skuchas is no match for either Chism or Crews.
So, what's Stallings to do? If this becomes a 3-point shooting contest, UT will bomb Vandy into oblivion. Auburn did it as the worst shooting team in the SEC. I honestly don't know what Vandy can do to slow down Lofton and Smith, and unless Foster, Cage and Byars are sinking 50% from outside, Vandy can't score.
Key to a Vandy win: Don't turn the ball over at the top of the key. UT makes up for their average outside shooting (sans Lofton and Smith) with a ton of easy turnover baskets. Also, Neltner has to have the game of his life.
Player to watch: JaJuanSmith. I first thought Lofton, but honestly, I don't think Vandy can stop him anyway. Smith, though, takes up a lot of slack, and UT depends on him more than the casual fan would realize.
X-Factor: Last year, Pearl gloated about his ability to stack Memorial with orange, and since this game is already a sell out, that tells me it may be worse tonight. If Memorial is actually an advantage for UT, watch for anger to boil over unlike anything the talk shows and message boards have seen this year.
And the winner is: It would be easy, as a VU fan, to say this is the game the 'Dores take. But there is just no reason to believe that is going to happen. Losing to Auburn -- which I still think is the worst team in the league -- and going the final 10 minutes against Rice without scoring a basket...well, what can be said other than the obvious. VU has the worst RPI in the league, and has among the lowest strengths of schedule to boot.
Most fans don't know much about Xs and Os, and follow recruiting from a relative distance. Losing to Auburn is one thing; And, even losing to Furman is another. But, losses to Tennessee -- and especially lopsided ones -- speak very loudly to the common fan. Fair or not, Coach Stallings' eroding status with fans depends a lot on how well Vandy plays versus UT tonight.
But I frankly just don't know what he can do to change the facts on the ground.
Tennessee 89, Vanderbilt 72
Jesse Johnson
Murfreesboro, Tenn.
VandySports.com Recruiting Analyst
My take: This is the must game of the season for Vanderbilt. It's at home; They just laid an egg at Auburn with a disappointing start to the first half; It's their rival; It's the first SEC game in Memorial; It's against a Top 25 team; And Vanderbilt fans need something to feel good about with the program.
With all of that said, a majority of the matchups seem to favor Tennessee and the Volunteers have proven to be able to pull out just about any type of win this season.
Pearl has generated excitement in the Tennessee program in his short tenure in Knoxville, and if last year was any indication, expect to see a good showing of orange at the game. Lofton is considered the Tennessee star, but they have several role players that are generally the ones that deliver the knockout punch.
Vanderbilt has to come into this game the same way they did when they faced off with Georgia Tech. They must be the aggressor, have the most energy, and play like there is no more games past this point.
Player to watch: Derrick Byars. Will the real Derrick Byars show up? He disappeared against Rice and did a close to similar disappearing act at Auburn. It is plain and simple: Vanderbilt is not going to win ANY SEC games without Byars scoring and defensive play.
X-Factor: Tennessee's JaJuan Smith. Last year, JaJuan Smith had a few so-so performances against Vanderbilt, but this year, he has been the key "nail in the coffin" player for Tennessee. In a number of Tennessee's close games this season -- Texas, Oklahoma State, East Tennessee State -- Smith has hit that critical, backbreaking three to give the Vols. And given the way Vanderbilt played against Auburn's Rasheem Barrett, it's likely that he could do the same against Vandy.
Key to a Vandy win: Play with energy. Play with heart. Be the aggressor. Protect your "home" court. Make it tough on Tennessee to get into their offense and don't make those causal plays against the Vols defense, cause that is where Tennessee makes their runs and that is how they beat Vanderbilt on senior day last year. Vanderbilt must be the one playing in your face, attacking the basket, and playing smart defensively. Maybe easier said than done, but if Vanderbilt wants to have a successful season in the SEC, they have to win at home and have to win this game in particular.
And the winner is: After the last two games, it's hard for me to pick Vanderbilt. However, since the Commodores' last home game, I have personally felt that they would defeat Tennessee in this game despite records or circumstances. It's tough to feel this way after the Auburn game. Still, I have to go with my original feeling, even if it might not make sense to some.
Vanderbilt 68, Tennessee 67
Tommy Crockett
Reno, Nevada
VandySports.com Basketball Board Moderator
My take: Playing Tennessee at Memorial has never been a lock, but 20 years ago you could count on a crowd not decked out in orange-clad enemy gear. This season, with the weight of a short Commodore roster taking its toll, Memorial Gym just may host more Tennessee fans than Vandy fans.
Tennessee brings Lofton, Smith and Crews ready to take up any scoring slack that graduated in their surprise season one year ago. More surprisingly, they've barely been taken aback in losing C.J. Watson. Even Jordan Howell is averaging 2.7 assists per game helping repair whatever is lost in distribution.
Vandy wins if: The Volunteers come to Nashville thinking this game is over even before they tip off. It will take a mixture of luck, Commodore focus, Volunteer disarray and some sort of astrological disturbance to pull this game out of the fire. Vandy cannot miss a lick when their subs are on the floor. In that vein I expect a good game from Alan, Ted and Ross if the final score in Vandy's favor.
Player to watch: Lofton is absolutely the guy to keep your eye on here. I have no doubt that Vanderbilt will again try to zone up on Tennessee and that could lead to an easy thirty points for the kid that UK couldn't find room on their roster to sign. Vanderbilt has no perimeter player able to guard Lofton.
X-factor: If Vandy can get balanced production from the wings and strong rebounding from whomever they place in the post things could get interesting.
And the winner is: Tennessee 87, Vanderbilt 78
Chris Lee
Nashville, Tenn.
VandySports.com Publisher
My take: It used to be that the Vandy-Tennessee rivalry was a heated one, and it has lost some luster until Pearl came to Nashville and fueled the fire with the Ray Mears-like orange blazer. I'm not sure what it means to the players, but certainly, it's once again become a big deal to fans.
Unfortunately, the renewed passion in the rivalry couldn't have come at a worse time for the Commodores, who struggled in losing to the SEC's worst team over the weekend. Now, Wednesday night's contest is not just a rivalry game for Vandy, but just a struggle for survival.
It won't be an easy struggle. The Vols will be the best team the Commodores have faced all season, and Vandy needs its best 40 minutes of basketball if it hopes to even its SEC record to 1-1.
Vandy wins if: They play their best game of the season. I make no pretentions that the 'Dores will stop Lofton, but if they keep him under his average and can find the range from behind the 3-point arc, there's chance.
Player to watch: Lofton. UT's Allan Houston of this millenium is perhaps America's best shooter.
X-factor: Byars. He's had a disappointing couple of games of late, and might draw the defensive assignment on Lofton. He needs an 18-point, six-rebound, five-assist kind-of-night, coupled with a good defensive effort, for Vandy to pull an upset.
And the winner is: I started to pick Vanderbilt, and oh, I desperately wanted to talk myself into believing it.
It didn't work. The Vols are the better-coached team, play with much-more passion and consistency, and Pearl will likely have them more motivated on Wednesday night. For me to believe the Commodores can win, I would have to believe that Vandy's going to show me a side I haven't seen against a quality opponent with the exception of about half the Georgia Tech game.
It's not out of the realm of possibility that the Commodores can win. If Foster and Byars get hot and Vandy plays its most-inspired basketball of the year, it could happen. All those things could also happen, and this team could still come up short given its defensive deficiencies.
I just don't like the odds of the stars all aliging on Wednesday. I'll split the difference and call it a close Vandy loss.
Tennessee 85, Vanderbilt 80
Robbie Smoot
Nashville, Tenn.
VandySports.com Guest Writer
My take: Tennessee comes into Memorial with all the momentum, from both a team and perception standpoint. I can remember the days of folks saying they were UT football fans, and Vandy basketball fans. Not that I agree with that, but it at least put in to perspective what folks thought about VU basketball as compared to UT basketball.
Those thoughts are no more, and VU needs to do something to stop it, and a start would be winning this game. While Vandy fans have lost much of their hope for the season, even the most positive thinkers may give up with an 0-2 start. However, a win versus the arch rival Vols, and the Orange Clad Bruce Pearl, and some hope could be revived!
Key to Vandy win: First, force Lofton into a poor game offensively. Even though I consider Lofton the best shooter in the country, I think Vanderbilt has the capabilities of controlling him. I have seen Lofton play a lot, and he has trouble with tall defenders. For example, versus Oklahoma State, they have a 6'9 wing player (Marcus Dove) that virtually held Lofton scoreless while he was on him (Lofton got all his points in transition or when someone else was guarding him). And, Lofton tends to stand around a lot on offense, making him easily defended.
Vandy has those type of tall athletes in Byars and Foster. If Vandy will put those players on Lofton, and they don't leave Lofton, EVER, for help situations, they can hold him in check.
Second, limit Tennessee's offensive boards. Duke Crews has really come into his own, and seems to get a lot of offensive rebounds. Vanderbilt has to limit his second chance points.
Third, limit their turnovers on the press. Tennessee may be the toughest team in the nation to make the inbounds pass on. If you can get the ball inbounds and keep it out of the corners, TN tends to pull back the press at that point. Vandy needs to at least limit those type of turnovers, if not to punish the press by scoring on it.
Players to watch: Derrick Byars & Shan Foster. Byars, labeled by many as VU's most consistent offensive player, has disappeared the last couple of games while we have seen the old Shan Foster. This has been a trend throughout all of last year as well, meaning when one of VU's wing tandem starts scoring, the other stops. Vandy needs good games out of both their stars to win this game.
X-Factor: Memorial gym and the crowd. First, will this be a typical home court advantage for Vandy, or will the Big Orange faithful find ways to get into the gym? No doubt there will be at least 1,000 Vol fans, but if that becomes 3-4,000, the push that Vandy got from the crowd during the Georgia Tech game may not be their for this one.
And the winner is: I feel Vandy can win this game, as they have enough good matchups to overcome the poor ones. As bad as I want to think VU will solve the three keys above, I just don't see it. I see UT's press giving VU too much trouble, especially in the second half. And, I don't think VU has a good match up to limit Duke Crews, as I see him having a really big game. Here's hoping I'm wrong, but final score:
Tennessee: 84, Vanderbilt 75