The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Previewing Tennessee: In-state rivalry comes to Nashville

The Commodores will have another chance at redemption against a top-10 team when they host No. 6 Tennessee on Wednesday.
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Barrie Barto
Tyrin Lawrence shoots from midcourt, as photographed on Feb. 4, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Barrie Barto)

It’s been a tumultuous few weeks for Vanderbilt basketball. After a respectable start to SEC play featuring wins against Arkansas and Georgia, the team dropped three straight conference games and fell to the bottom five in the conference standings. That losing streak culminated in an embarrassing 101-44 loss to No. 4 Alabama, a program low that forced even the most ardent Jerry Stackhouse advocates to question the program’s long-term trajectory. The Commodores’ win last weekend against Ole Miss indicated the team may have turned the page on the locker room turmoil and lack of effort that precipitated the third-worst loss in program history. With a bit of momentum, Stackhouse now faces a tenure-defining game against No. 2 Tennessee. 

The Commodores (11-12 4-6)  and Volunteers (19-4, 11-1) already met once this season, resulting in a 77-68 win for Tennessee on Jan 10. 

Although the outcome didn’t help Vanderbilt improve in the conference standings, a relatively close game against the then-No. 5 team in the nation inspired hope for the future. In that loss, Jordan Wright and Liam Robbins performed admirably off the bench but weren’t enough to crack Tennessee’s nation-best defense (and a horrendous showing from the refs). 

After its victory against Vanderbilt, Tennessee eventually rose to No. 2 in the country and subsequently defeated No. 10 Texas to improve its record to 18-3. However, the Volunteers didn’t hold that ranking for long, dropping to No. 6 after a surprising 67-54 loss in their next game to Florida. Let’s see if the Commodores can pull off a similar upset.

No. 6 in the Nation, No. 1 on Defense 

There’s no question that Tennessee’s strength this season has been its lockdown defense. The Volunteers are allowing just 54.6 points per game, the lowest figure of any Division I team this season. Tennessee is excellent at limiting scoring opportunities by creating turnovers and dominating the boards to eliminate second-chance points. In terms of forcing turnovers, Tennessee ranks 2nd in the SEC, the majority of which are generated by its tenacious starting backcourt of Santiago Vescovi and Zakai Zeigler. These players are both averaging over two steals per game and look like clear candidates for the all-SEC defensive team. They’ll face stiffer competition than usual against Vanderbilt, who has surprisingly been fairly turnover-averse compared to its conference peers. The Commodores are averaging just 11.5 turnovers per game, the third-fewest of any SEC team this season. 

On the rebounding front, the Volunteers don’t have a definitive tone-setter on the boards. However, they have five players averaging at least five rebounds per game, helping the team to average 40.2 total rebounds per game (2nd in SEC). Fortunately, the Commodores aren’t a bad rebounding team themselves, averaging 11.9 offensive and 36.8 total rebounds per game (both 9th in SEC). It’s also worth noting that Tennessee’s impressive defensive metrics have come against relatively low-scoring teams. The Volunteers have faced only two teams in the top 50 nationally in total scoring. 

On offense, the Volunteers have been dependable but unremarkable this season. Tennessee is averaging 72.3 points per game (6th in SEC) while shooting just 43% from the field (8th) and 32.3% from three-point range. Vescovi and Zeigler are outstanding playmakers, however, and the team benefits from extraordinary scoring depth with four starters averaging at least 10 points per game. Vescovi in particular has been a thorn in Vanderbilt’s side over his storied four-year career at Tennessee. The former first-team All-SEC guard has averaged 13 points on 53% shooting from three in his last three appearances against the Commodores, earning a lofty comparison from Stackhouse. 

“He reminds me of (Manu) Ginobili a lot,” Stackhouse told the media after Vanderbilt’s first matchup with Tennessee. “He’s one of those guys who gets up under your skin. You love to have them on your team but you don’t like playing against them.”

Outside of Vescovi and Zeigler, the Volunteers have a number of capable scoring options amongst their ranks. Senior wing Olivier Nkamhou is averaging 11 points per game on respectable 54/35 shooting splits, and freshman Julian Philips looks like a rising star in the SEC with averages of 9.2 points and 5 rebounds in just 25 minutes per game. While Tennessee may not be an Alabama-caliber offensive juggernaut, the Commodores shouldn’t overlook this wily group.

How the ‘Dores stack up

Vanderbilt will have their hands full trying to score against Tennessee’s No. 1 defense, but this isn’t the worst matchup for the Commodores. If the Commodores can protect the basketball as well as they did in their 74-71 victory against Ole Miss, they’ll be off to the right start. Vanderbilt recorded just seven turnovers in the win, a credit to the improved play of Tyrin Lawrence and Ezra Manjon. Lawrence’s development has been a rare bright spot this season, and Vanderbilt will certainly need him to show up if they stand a chance against the Volunteers. The hyper-athletic guard has averaged an impressive 14.8 PPG in his last six appearances but made just two shots in Vanderbilt’s last game against Tennessee. Stackhouse recently gave Lawrence some extra motivation to finish the season strong. 

“‘Your talent and your ability, not to take anything away from the guys on our roster, is different,'” Stackhouse said he told Lawrence. “I think he has the potential to play at the next level.”

Liam Robbins and Jordan Wright both had huge performances to keep Vanderbilt within arm’s reach in that previous defeat. The two combined for 31 points off the bench on 55% shooting from the field. Given Stackhouse’s mercurial lineup adjustments, there’s no telling who will start and who will come off the bench tonight. Regardless, the Commodores don’t stand a chance if their veterans don’t step up in this one. 

Tennessee hasn’t lost a basketball game to Vanderbilt since 2018, winning 11 in a row for the longest streak in the history of the rivalry. All eyes will be on Stackhouse, whose 0-7 record against Tennessee looks a lot less excusable given the controversy surrounding the program of late. Fortunately for him, Vanderbilt can win this game. Tennessee is not as good as its record or AP rating suggests, and Vanderbilt can catch them off guard if they protect the basketball and rebound aggressively. Unfortunately, this team hasn’t been consistent enough to expect a clean game when the stakes are this high. 

Vanderbilt will host No. 6 Tennessee on Wednesday, Feb. 8, at 6 p.m. CST in Memorial Gymnasium.

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About the Contributors
Brandon Karp, Senior Staff Writer
Brandon Karp ('25) is from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and is studying human and organizational development and political science in Peabody College. You can reach him at [email protected].
Barrie Barto, Senior Staff Photographer
Barrie Barto ('25) is majoring in medicine, health & society with minors in communication of science & technology and neuroscience in the College of Arts and Science. She previously served as Photography Director. Outside of The Hustler, you can find Barrie cheering on the St. Louis Blues or tracking down the best gluten-free food in Nashville. She can be reached at [email protected].
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