The No. 25 Tennessee Volunteers face the host Vanderbilt Commodores on Wednesday at Nashville, Tenn.
The Vols (15-6, 8-6 SEC) beat Vanderbilt (6-12, 2-10) easily in Knoxville, 81-61, in the teams’ first meeting on Jan. 16, but their season has taken a disappointing turn of late.
Tennessee, the preseason pick to win the SEC, is merely fighting for positioning in NCAA and conference tournaments after falling five games behind league-leading Alabama following its 70-55 home loss to Kentucky on Saturday.
It was the Vols’ second loss in three games, third in their last six and fifth in their last 10.
Once again, sub-par offense was a culprit. The Vols hit just 35.3 percent of 2-pointers and 27.3 percent of their 3s on Saturday.
This came three days after Tennessee beat South Carolina, 93-73. Coach Rick Barnes addressed the inconsistency after the Kentucky game.
“I think it is immaturity, at times, I do,” he said. “I think you are still trying to get guys to understand. It is a combination. We have a team where we have some young players that I still think are learning what college basketball is all about.
“You might say by this time of year, they should know it. Do I think they are going to shoot the ball the same every night and play the same? No, but when they’re not, you have to have the other part.”
More than likely, that was a reference to freshman Jaden Springer, who had scored between 16 and 30 in the four games coming into Kentucky. Springer was 2-for-11 from the floor and finished with four points on Saturday.
When the Vols are playing well, Springer and fellow freshman backcourt mate Keon Johnson are leading the charge. Johnson scored 15 against Kentucky, but it came on 4-for-14 shooting. He scored seven points on 3-for-5 shooting against South Carolina.
Senior forward John Fulkerson was also unable to carry forward momentum after a 19-point game against South Carolina. Fulkerson, a preseason All-SEC pick, averaged just 5.2 points over his previous six games before posting his season high against the Gamecocks.
The Commodores aren’t an easy out despite the record. Seven of their 10 league losses have come by seven points or fewer.
The latest came at Alabama on Saturday, when the Commodores’ second-half rally come up short in an 82-78 setback.
Vandy’s two-man show of Scotty Pippen Jr. (20.5 points, 5.2 assists, 1.7 steals per game) and Dylan Disu (15.0 ppg, 9.2 rpg) are about as good a tandem as you’ll see in the league. Disu, the reigning SEC player of the week, leads the league in rebounding, while Pippen ranks second in scoring and assists and third in steals.
The duo combined for 41 of the Commodores’ 78 points against the Crimson Tide, led by Pippen’s 24.
“It’s a good learning experience for us playing the No. 8 team in the country,” Vanderbilt coach Jerry Stackhouse said about Alabama, which is now ranked sixth nationally. “I think this is confidence builder, even though we didn’t beat them, to know all these rankings and stuff doesn’t matter. We know we are very, very capable and we just got to keep building and taking these experiences and learning from them.”
–Field Level Media