It is no secret that the University of Tennessee men’s basketball program is in turmoil.
The Volunteers are without head coach Bruce Pearl, who has served two games of his eight-game Southeastern Conference suspension for violating NCAA recruiting rules. Plus, they haven’t shown any sign of consistency — with or without Pearl.
They jumped out to a 7-0 start, including an upset win at then-No. 3 Pittsburgh, and were ranked as high as seventh. Since then, it has been a wild ride with losses Oakland, Charlotte, Southern California and College of Charleston but a blowout win of then-ranked Memphis.
Heading into Saturday’s matchup against visiting Vanderbilt, Tennessee is 10-6 and 0-2 in SEC play despite two strong scorers in Scotty Hopson (16.5 points per game) and Tobias Harris (15.7 ppg) .
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, though, knows he can only control his team’s focus and so far the Commodores have done that, cruising to a 12-3 start. Still, he knows what can happen if his team doesn’t prepare well — like last week’s road loss to South Carolina.
“It is not something we can control. It is not something we can focus on,” Stallings said. “What we have to focus on is our preparation to play and how we play once the game starts. I thought we faltered a little bit last week in preparation of South Carolina but we picked it up again in preparation for Georgia.”
Vanderbilt bounced back on Wednesday with a big 73-66 upset win of No. 24 Georgia at Memorial Gym. It was the team's 10th win in 12 games and put the Commodores at 1-1 in SEC play.
A loss Saturday, which is an 11 a.m. (CST) start and will be aired on ESPN, would put Tennessee in an 0-3 conference hole. Stallings warns that won’t be enough to knock the Volunteers completely out of SEC East contention.
“I don’t think if we win the game that will in any way, shape, or form eliminate Tennessee from anything,” Stallings said. “We are just going to go do what we do, try to play well and get in a spot where we can win the game at the end, make winning plays and win the game.”
Vanderbilt, which will be trying to win its third straight game in the series, will again be without starting forward Andre Walker. The junior did not practice on Thursday, instead elevating his left foot, with a huge ice bag wrapped around his ankle, which he sprained nearly two weeks ago. He has missed three games due to the injury and Stallings said he might be able to play next week, possibly next Saturday in the Commodores’ home non-conference matchup against St. Mary’s.
Without Walker, the team still has battled through, playing eight men, instead of the usual nine. With consistent scoring from guard John Jenkins (18.4 points per game), forward Jeffery Taylor (14.5 ppg) and center Festus Ezeli (12.9 ppg), the Commodores have filled in the void nicely. But if foul trouble gets in the way — like it did at South Carolina when Ezeli had to sit early — it could make things interesting for Vanderbilt.
“If any of those first five guys,” Stallings said, “if we are having to play around them or without them, or whatever, then that is going to cause certainly some tough times, at least temporarily.”
Hey, Tennessee can relate to hard times. But that’s not Vanderbilt’s problem.
“We are not going to let it affect us,” Stallings said. “We are going to go over there and do what we do.”
• Vanderbilt 82, Alabama 66: Stephanie Holzer managed a double-double (17 points, 10 rebounds) before she fouled out as Vanderbilt improved to 3-1 in SEC play (12-5 overall) Thursday.
The Commodores trailed for most of the opening 10 minutes but used a 14-6 run over the final 3:33 of the first half to take a 39-34 lead at intermission. They held Alabama to one point in the first 6:37 of the second half and pulled away.
Jence Rhoads led all scorers with 20 points and added a game-high six assists. Hannah Tuomi added 19 points and five assists with no turnvers.
Tierney Jenkins had a team-high 15 points for Alabama (11-6, 0-4).