Tennessee begins the home stretch of the regular season Wednesday, traveling west of Interstate-40 to Nashville to take on instate rival Vanderbilt.
The inconsistent Vols are coming off one of their worst performances of the season in a 70-55 loss to Kentucky. The Wildcats dominated Tennessee for 40 minutes, leading for double digits the entire second half.
“I think that they had all intentions of wanting to play well, but when they didn't make shots the way they needed to, I could tell they were anxious,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said of his team. “One time there was a rebound where we wanted to get out and run, and all three guys that could've gotten the rebound looked like they were heading the other way thinking the other guys was going to get it. That's when you know your guys are anxious.”
Vanderbilt (6-12, 2-10 SEC) has struggled this season but is starting to play better basketball as of late. The Commodores are 2-4 in their last six games with their four losses coming by a combined 17 points.
In fact, since Vanderbilt’s 81-61 loss to Tennessee on Jan. 16, the Commodores have just lost one game by double digits.
"Well, they have certainly gotten better in a lot of different areas,” Barnes said. “I think they have different players obviously. (Scotty) Pippen has played well. (Dylan) Disu I think is really an underrated player. But they have the ability to shoot the ball. They run a lot of different offensive sets where you have to be on edge there because they do shoot it well. I think that they have had it where they are a little more consistent with an inside game and they are mixing defenses so they can show a little bit more pressure if they want to. They have gotten better.”
Last week, Vanderbilt lost a pair of close games to Kentucky and Alabama by identical scores, 82-78. Forward Dylan Disu was fantastic on the week, totaling 46 points and 31 rebounds on his way to earning SEC Player of the Week honors.
On the season, Disu has been one of Vanderbilt’s two reliable players. The sophomore from Texas is averaging 15 points and a team high 9.2 rebounds a game. Disu was effective on the offensive end in the first meetings between the teams, scoring 15 points on an efficient seven-of-nine shooting.
Vanderbilt’s other go-to option is sophomore guard Scotty Pippen Jr. Pippen ranks second in the SEC with 20.5 points per game while also dishing out 5.2 assists per game as the Commodores’ lead ball handler.
In the first meeting, Tennessee’s defensive efforts were focused on limiting Pippen’s production and while Pippen scored 18 points he did so on five-of-12 shooting while dishing out just one assist and turning it over six times.
Behind its top two, Vanderbilt has just two players, Jordan Wright and Maxwell Evans, averaging over six points a game.
Wednesday’s matchup marks the beginning of an important week for Tennessee as they go on the road to Vanderbilt and Auburn. The No. 25 Vols are just 5-5 in their last 10 games and are looking to salvage a solid seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Tip-off from Memorial Gymnasium is set for 9 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on SEC Network.