What to Know: Tennessee vs. Vanderbilt

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    (Photo via Tennessee Athletics)

    Men’s basketball in the state of Tennessee hasn’t lived up to expectations this season, but there’s still plenty to watch for when the two SEC teams in the state meet on the court.

    The Vols (14-11, 6-6 SEC) host Vanderbilt (9-16, 1-11) at 6:30 PM Eastern in Thompson-Boling Arena on Tuesday. The game will be televised on the SEC Network, and it will be the second time this season the in-state foes have faced off.

    Tennessee is coming off a heartbreaking 63-61 loss to South Carolina on the road on Saturday, and the Vols have lost five of their last seven contests. Vanderbilt is playing better than the last time UT played them, but the Commodores are still at the bottom of the conference. Vandy is coming off an 84-66 loss to Florida in Gainesville on Saturday, and they’ve lost three-straight contests. The Commodores did end their extended SEC losing streak two weeks ago with a stunning 99-90 victory over LSU, but they’ve lost every game they’ve played since, falling to Mississippi State, Kentucky, and Florida.

    Freshman guard Josiah-Jordan James returned to action for the Vols on Saturday against South Carolina after missing the last four games due to a hip/groin injury. James came off the bench and played 30 minutes, totaling nine points, five assists, and three rebounds. Starting junior forward Yves Pons is dealing with tendinitis in his knee, but he’s expected to play on Tuesday.

    Here are the most important things to know and keep an eye on for tonight’s Tennessee vs. Vanderbilt basketball game.

    One-Sided Rivalry 

    The in-state rivalry between Tennessee and Vanderbilt hasn’t been much of a rivalry as of late.

    The Vols have won five-straight games against the Commodores, and they’ve beaten Vandy seven of the last eight times they’ve faced them. Tennessee has won two-straight games against Vanderbilt in Knoxville, and UT is 72-20 all-time against the Commodores at home.

    In Tennessee’s last 20 games against Vanderbilt, they’re 14-6 against their in-state foes.

    Tennessee put in a dominating second half performance against the Commodores earlier this season in Nashville, defeating Vanderbilt 66-45. The 45 points were a season-low for Vanderbilt, and it was their lowest point total since losing 68-42 to Virginia on November 23, 2017.

    Rising to the Occasion 

    Since losing star forward Aaron Nesmith to a season-ending injury, Vanderbilt has struggled on the offensive end. But junior point guard Saben Lee has been a bright spot for the Commodores, and he’s been one of the top players in the SEC this season.

    Lee is averaging 18.8 points, 3.3 assists, 2.5 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game in conference play for Vanderbilt. His 17.2 points per game on the season are the sixth-most among SEC players, trailing only Arkansas guard Mason Jones, Ole Miss guard Breein Tyree, Georgia guard Anthony Edwards, Mississippi State forward Reggie Perry, and Alabama guard Kira Lewis Jr. on the year.

    The veteran guard has been solid in SEC play, but he’s been even more on fire on offense lately. Over his last four games, Lee is averaging 24.0 points, 4.3 assists, 4.3 rebounds, and 2.0 steals while shooting 49.2 percent overall and 42.1 percent from three.

    The only problem for Lee is that he hasn’t had a whole lot of help behind him.

    Scotty Pippen Jr. is the only other Vandy player averaging double figures in scoring in SEC play, putting up 11.3 points a game against conference foes. Maxwell Evans is averaging 9.8 points in league play, while Dylan Disu is averaging 8.1 points and 5.8 rebounds in SEC play.

    Can They Make a Three?

    The last time Tennessee and Vanderbilt played, the Commodores had a historically-bad performance from behind the three-point arc.

    Vanderbilt went 0-for-25 from three when they last played UT, snapping a 1,080-game streak of making at least one three-pointer. The Commodores had made at least one three in every game since the implementation of the three-point line in college basketball.

    Since then, the Commodores haven’t exactly lit the world on fire from three.

    Vandy has the worst three-point shooting percentage in SEC play this season, connecting on only 27.8 percent of their threes against conference opponents. The Commodores have done better as of late, making 37.4 percent of their threes in their last four games. But inconsistency has been a major issue for Vanderbilt from three.

    Nine different times this season Vanderbilt has shot under 30 percent from three. On the flip side, Vandy has connected on 40 percent or more of their threes in nine games. The Commodores are 1-8 when making less than 30 percent of their three-point attempts, but they’re 5-4 when making at least 40 percent of their shots from distance.

    The Incredible Fulk

    None of Tennessee’s players have been more consistent or more pivotal to UT’s success in SEC play this season than junior forward John Fulkerson, and that’s been especially true lately.

    Fulkerson is the Vols’ leading scorer in conference play this year, averaging 13.8 points a contest. His 6.8 rebounds also lead the team in SEC games, and he’s made 60 percent of his field goal attempts against conference foes.

    Over his last four games, Fulkerson has been a force.

    The 6-foot-9 forward is averaging 19.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in his last four games, and he’s shooting 62.2 percent from the floor in that stretch. Fulkerson has broken his career-high in points twice in his last four games, scoring 22 points in a win against Alabama and dropping 25 points against South Carolina in a loss on Saturday. Fulkerson has also done a great job of getting to the free throw line in his last four games, totaling 42 trips to the line while making 73.8 of those attempts.

    Nathanael Rutherford
    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.