For the past month, Vanderbilt has had revenge on its mind for tonight’s game against Tennessee.
The fact that the Volunteers will arrive as the nation’s newly minted No. 1 team should turn Memorial Gym into a boiling cauldron.
UT was ranked No. 1 on Monday for the first time in school history, two days after defeating previously top-ranked Memphis.
On the VU campus, Commodore players were smiling.
“It was hard for me to cheer for them, but I was pulling for them, figuring they would get that No. 1 spot,” forward Ross Neltner said. “We’re excited about another opportunity to knock off No. 1 again this year. We know what it takes. A lot of guys who play a lot of minutes have been there before.”
Vanderbilt beat top-ranked and eventual national champion Florida a year ago at Memorial Gym. The last three top-ranked opponents to take on the Commodores in Nashville have been beaten.
Opportunities get no juicier.
“It’s going to be an intense game,” VU guard Alex Gordon said. “It’s going to come down to who wants it the most.”
Vanderbilt, ranked No. 18 this week, believes it barely put up a fight in losing 80-60 at Tennessee on Feb. 17.
The Commodores committed 22 turnovers, helping Tennessee break open a 61-53 game in the second half and roll to an easy win.
“We just got punked,” Neltner said. “They bullied us on screens, turnovers and stuff like that. We’re trying to reconcile that now and keep getting better.”
In watching film of January’s game Sunday, Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings recoiled at images of his team taking a beating.
“They just out-physicaled us, out-aggressed us and out-played us,” he said. “We were beaten to every loose ball, we were beaten to every rebound, we were beaten through every screen. The good news is, hopefully, it can only get better.”
Thus, Vanderbilt is pinning its upset hopes tonight in large measure on its ability to handle Tennessee’s pressure defense, avoid turnovers and create good shots.
Easier said than done, perhaps. The relentless Vols generate 19.4 turnovers per game — the seventh-highest total in the nation — lead the Southeastern Conference with 10 steals per game and average 22.8 points per game off of turnovers.
The Commodores, plagued by turnovers earlier in the season, have coughed up only 10 or less in four of their past five games.
Similar efficiency will be required tonight against the Vols.
“You have to put together 40 minutes of your best basketball, and we didn’t do that when we played them in Knoxville,” VU’s Shan Foster said. “It’s the same thing it was last year against Florida. You have to be poised. You have to come out and play with great effort and passion. If you don’t, you’re going to get beat.”
For the Commodores, it might boil down to standing up to the neighborhood bully.
“Without a real commitment to being much more aggressive than we were in the first game, it doesn’t matter what scheme we play,” Stallings said. “If we play a little harder and compete a little better, then maybe scheme will come into play.
“Last year, we maybe played our best game of the season against Florida when they came in here. It will take a performance of equal proportions for us to win this game.”