What to Know: Tennessee at Vanderbilt

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    Tennessee and Vanderbilt will square off tonight for their first of two regular season meetings, and both teams are not playing their best basketball right now.

    The Vols (10-6, 2-2 SEC) are coming off a 17-point loss to Georgia on the road on Wednesday and have lost six of their last 11 games overall. The Commodores (8-8, 0-3 SEC) have lost their first three SEC games and have lost four-straight games overall.

    Needless to say, both programs could use a win to help turn things around.

    Tennessee heads into Saturday’s contest having won four-straight games against Vanderbilt, and they’ve beaten the Commodores in six of their last seven match-ups. The Vols are led by fifth-year head coach Rick Barnes, who is 6-3 vs. Vanderbilt while at Tennessee. The Commodores are led by first-year head coach and former NBA player Jerry Stackhouse.

    Here’s a look at everything you need to know about Saturday’s contest between Tennessee and Vanderbilt that tips off at 6:00 PM Eastern on the SEC Network.

    Another Lost Star

    Last year, Vanderbilt lost five-star guard Darius Garland to a season-ending injury just five games into the season, and it derailed the Commodores’ entire year. Vanderbilt struggled without their star point guard and leading scorer, failing to win a single SEC game all season. That historically bad performance cost head coach Bryce Drew his job.

    Now, first-year head coach Jerry Stackhouse is dealing with the exact same problem Drew had to go through last season.

    Vanderbilt lost their leading scorer Aaron Nesmith to a season-ending injury a week ago. Nesmith was the leading scorer in the entire SEC, averaging 23 points a game to go along with 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals a game.

    Without Nesmith, Vanderbilt has struggled. Mightily.

    The Commodores have lost both SEC games they’ve played without Nesmith, and neither contest has been close. Vanderbilt lost 69-50 to Texas A&M and fell 75-55 on the road to Arkansas on Wednesday. Vanderbilt has shot just 34.7 percent from the field and 20 percent from three in Nesmith’s absence, averaging only 52.5 points a game.

    Vanderbilt is also playing without 6-foot-8, 240-pound forward Clevon Brown. The senior has missed the Commodores’ last seven games, and he was averaging nine points, six rebounds, and two blocks a game before being held out with an undisclosed knee injury. He was leading the team in rebounding before sitting out.

    Paint Problems

    Tennessee has had a plethora of issues down in the post on both offense and defense over the last couple weeks. Even with Uros Plavsic adding his seven-foot presence to the roster earlier this week against Georgia, the Bulldogs still outscored the Vols in the paint, continuing a troubling trend.

    The Vols have been outscored in the paint in four of their last five games. Over their last five games, Tennessee has been outscored 132-94 down in the post.

    Aside from John Fulkerson getting a double-double in Tennessee’s 56-55 win over South Carolina — scoring 15 points and bringing down 10 rebounds — the Vols’ post presence has been virtually non-existent over the last three weeks, which is, ironically enough, the same timeframe since the Vols lost point guard Lamonte Turner for the season.

    Over the Vols’ last five games, Fulkerson has averaged 9.4 points and 5.4 rebounds on 64 percent shooting. Yves Pons, acting as an undersized four and in some cases a center, has averaged 9.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks in that same span while shooting 40 percent overall and 25 percent from three. Freshman Olivier Nkamhoua has come off the bench in all five games as essentially Tennessee’s only post support on the bench until Uros Plavsic was cleared, and he’s contributed 3.0 points and 3.0 rebounds a game over the last five games. Speaking of Plavsic, he scored five points and grabbed three rebounds in 17 minutes in his debut against Georgia.

    Luckily for Tennessee, Vanderbilt hasn’t been great in the post either. The Commodores’ 86 total rebounds as a team is dead last in the SEC, and they’re last in both total offensive boards and defensive rebounds as well. Only one active Vanderbilt player averages over five rebounds a game, and that’s freshman forward Dylan Disu, who averages 5.7 rebounds to go along with 5.7 points and 1.0 blocks a game.

    Home Away from Home

    Lately, Tennessee has made Nashville a second home in basketball.

    The Commodores and Vols are only separated by about three hours of driving, and Vol fans usually show up in a big way when UT plays in Memorial Gym in Nashville. Tennessee has rewarded those fans a lot in recent play, winning three-straight games against Vanderbilt on the Commodores’ home court.

    All-time, Vanderbilt owns a 54-42 record against the Vols in Nashville, but the Vols have made it a habit of winning in Nashville against the Commodores recently, and Tennessee has dominated the in-state series over the last few years period. The Vols have won four-straight games against Vanderbilt and have won six of the last seven times the two teams have met.

    Counting the SEC Tournament, Tennessee has won six of their last seven games against Vanderbilt in Nashville.

    Battle of Bad Offenses 

    Are you ready for a rock fight? Because that’s likely what you’ll be getting in this game.

    Neither Tennessee nor Vanderbilt have had much luck on offense lately. The Commodores have been downright putrid without Aaron Nesmith in the lineup, and their 61.3 points per game in conference play ranks 13th out of 14 SEC teams. Vanderbilt is dead last in the SEC in field goal attempts and rebounds, and they’re 10th in both overall field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage.

    The Vols, however, haven’t been much better.

    In SEC play, UT is averaging just 63 points a game, which ranks one spot higher than Vanderbilt. The Vols have committed the most turnovers of any team in conference play, and their overall field goal percentage ranks 12th in the conference.

    Tennessee’s defense at least has been pretty good, with their 68 points allowed in SEC play ranking third in the conference. Vanderbilt has given up 75.7 points per game to SEC opponents, which ranks 12th among the 14 SEC teams.

    Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.