Vanderbilt had a game plan for Tennessee’s Wayne Chism. Now, the Volunteers have to find an answer for the Commodores’ widening chasm.
Vandy’s 90-71 flattening  of the Vols Tuesday night at Memorial Gymnasium marked the first series sweep for the Commodores since Bruce Pearl took over at UT in the 2005-06 season. Tennessee had previously won six of eight meetings in the Pearl regime. But on Tuesday night, it was clear that the Volunteers now have unanswered questions where Vanderbilt is concerned.
“Vanderbilt did a lot of things to disrupt us. They did an excellent job game-planning for us,” Pearl said. “It made it really hard for us to reverse the ball and really hard for us to get the ball inside to Wayne and to get really good looks. They’ve got a pretty good feel for what we like to do.”
Chism finished with 16 points and seven rebounds, but like the rest of his Volunteer teammates was rendered a non-factor early as Vandy built a 30-10 lead with 8:46 to play in the first half.
In that first half, Chism and the Vols were stifled by a switching Vanderbilt defense that allowed the Commodores to streak out to a 44-27 halftime lead and never allow the lead to dip below double figures.
The 12th-ranked Volunteers (18-5 and 6-3 SEC) knew from No. 24 Vanderbilt’s 85-76 victory  13 days before in Thompson-Boling Arena that the Commodores have suddenly become a tough matchup for Tennessee.
Meaningful statistics from Tuesday night bore out the fact that the Commodores have taken the upper hand in the in-state rivalry. Vanderbilt held a 40-31 edge in rebounding, including an impressive 19-9 edge in the first half.
More importantly, the Commodores made the Vols pay at the free throw line, as Vandy was 37 of 43 on foul shots, including 12 of 12 by Jeffrey Taylor. Meanwhile, UT managed less than half that, 21 free throws with only 13 converted.
Pearl said the Commodores have become a problem for his team because of two primary factors – matchup problems and confidence.
“This was a tough matchup, the way this team is built and the way they play. And it’s not specifically Vanderbilt vs. Tennessee. We’ve had success against Vanderbilt,” Pearl said. “We’ve won in this building a couple of times, but this is a tough matchup for us, because of their size, their athleticism, their balance.”
As for the confidence factor, Pearl said it was evident that the Commodores had the advantage over the Vols in that regard.
“Vanderbilt is playing with much more confidence than they were and much more confidence in what they do,” Pearl said. “We’re not as confident in what we do, because it’s not working as well. Vanderbilt is still running the same stuff, but they look a lot more confident because it’s working better. So the guys sort of buy in a little bit more.”
So how did it get this way? Tennessee guard J.P. Prince said the Commodores have been copied in the mold of Tennessee and built to match up against them.
“A lot of the stuff they do, they copied off us trying to have a four man [power forward] that can dribble and bring the ball up,” said Prince, who led UT with 19 points. “I think a lot of the stuff they’ve done and built with has been done to stop us. With new personnel and switching things up, we had to adjust and we’re still adjusting. Sometimes it catches up with us.”
From Vanderbilt’s perspective, it was good simply to pull ahead of Tennessee in the SEC East standings into second place by a game with a series sweep in hand.
“You always want to win rival games. So obviously that feels good,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “It feels good that it puts us ahead of them in the league race, temporarily. Hopefully we can keep it going.”
And it dropped the Volunteers into third place and looking for answers heading to Lexington to face division leader Kentucky on Saturday.
“We didn’t play Tennessee basketball tonight. They came out and played harder than us,” reserve guard Melvin Goins said. “We fought back, but it was too late.”
During the second half, Pearl summoned UT athletics director Mike Hamilton to the bench area and the two carried on a brief conversation.
Asked what that was about, Pearl said, “We played through a lot of things out there that I wasn’t happy about.”
Making his return
Brian Williams made his return to the Tennessee lineup after being suspended for nine games in an off-court incident that caused Tyler Smith to be dismissed from the squad earlier this season.
“I put him in in the hopes that it was spark us a little bit, and/or if it didn’t, it would get the first one out of the way [so he knows], OK, here’s where you’re at and here’s where we’ve got to go,” Pearl said.
Williams did not score and picked up two fouls in two minutes of court time.