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February 26, 2008

Vols must refocus on Vanderbilt

HEAD-TO-HEAD BREAKDOWN: Who has the edge?

Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said Monday that his team has "turned the page" after garnering the first No. 1 ranking in school history.

Don't misunderstand. It's a remarkable accomplishment, and Pearl would love to revel in it. There simply isn't time.

The newly minted No. 1 Vols (25-2 overall, 11-1 in the SEC), who beat then-No. 1 Memphis 66-62 on Saturday, take on rival Vanderbilt (23-4, 8-4) at 8 p.m. CT Tuesday on ESPN. The Commodores have won six in a row and they're 17-0 at home this season.

"We're not concerned with our ranking, other than it makes the prize even bigger for Vanderbilt," Pearl said. "It's an opportunity to beat the No. 1 team in the country, and that's an opportunity that's just not extended to you very often."

Pearl dangled the same carrot in front of his team a few days ago.

"It was a big factor for us in our preparation for Memphis," Pearl said. "We had an air of everything to gain and nothing to lose."

The Vols whipped the Commodores 80-60 in Knoxville on Jan. 17, though Pearl said the game was closer than the score indicated. Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings disagrees.

"They out-physicaled us, out-aggressed us, outplayed us. Nothing more, nothing less to be said about that," Stallings said. "We were beaten to every loose ball, every rebound, beaten through every screen. They out-everythinged us. The good news is hopefully it can only get better."

The Commodores can look to recent history and hope for a repeat performance. They delivered an 83-70 jolt to No. 1 Florida last season at venerable Memorial Gym, snapping the Gators' 17-game winning streak.

"Last year, we played maybe our best game of the season against Florida when they came in here," Stallings said. "And it will take a performance of equal proportions for us to win this game."

Here's a closer look at the Vols-Commodores matchup:

No. 1 Tennessee (25-2, 11-1) at No. 18 Vanderbilt (23-4, 8-4)
Ramar Smith vs. Jermaine Beal
EDGE: Vanderbilt Smith, a 6-foot-2 sophomore, got back into the starting lineup nine games ago after coming off the bench for most of the season. He's averaging a 8.2 points and 3.1 assists per game, but he was a non-factor against Memphis (five points on 2-for-9 shooting). Beal, a 6-3 sophomore, is a true point guard. He averages 7.7 points, leads the Commodores with 4.7 assists per game and is the runaway leader in the SEC in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Chris Lofton vs. Alex Gordon
EDGE: Tennessee Lofton, a 6-2 senior, is the Vols' leading scorer at 15.1 points per game, though he struggled to get good looks against Memphis (seven points on 2-for-11 shooting). Still, he remains a major threat from 3-point range (3.3 3-pointers per game). Gordon, a 6-foot senior, is a glue guy for the Commodores. He's a capable outside shooter (42.7 percent from 3-point range), and he's second on the team in assists and steals.
Wayne Chism vs. A.J. Ogilvy
EDGE: Vanderbilt Chism, a 6-9 sophomore, averages 9.3 points and 6.1 rebounds. He came up big against Memphis (13 points, seven rebounds), and he dominated Vanderbilt in the first meeting with a season high in points (18) and a career high in rebounds (18). Ogilvy, a 6-10 freshman, is Vanderbilt's leading rebounder (6.9) and second-leading scorer (17.1 ppg). He hit a lull in January, but he's averaging 15.2 points and 8.2 rebounds over the past six games.
JaJuan Smith vs. Shan Foster
EDGE: Vanderbilt Smith, a 6-2 senior, is the Vols' second-leading scorer at 14.1 points per game, and he leads the team in steals. He also is the leader of a defense that Stallings says is the best his team has faced all season. Foster, a 6-6 senior, is the frontrunner for SEC Player of the Year honors. He's second in the league in scoring (19.2 ppg) and is first in 3-pointers made (101) and 3-point percentage (44.9).
Tyler Smith vs. Ross Neltner
EDGE: Tennessee Smith, a 6-7 sophomore, gives the Vols plenty of everything, leading the team in rebounding (6.5) and assists (3.7) and averaging 13.5 points. He had 16 points and six rebounds against Memphis. Neltner, a 6-9 senior, provides leadership and help on the boards (5.4) for Ogilvy. Asked to pick a player outside the spotlight who could play a major role for the Commodores, Foster chose Neltner, saying, "He's playing well lately and playing great in practice."
BENCH
EDGE: Tennessee Tennessee's depth is scary. J.P. Prince, a 6-7 sophomore, was the X-factor in the win over Memphis. Prince scored 13 points and grabbed eight rebounds in just 21 minutes. Jordan Howell, a 6-3 senior, started for a long stretch of the season and he'll see plenty of minutes at point guard. Depth up front is provided by 6-7 sophomore Duke Crews and 6-10 freshman Brian Williams. Vanderbilt has five reserves who average at least 9.0 minutes per game, led by 6-9 forward Alan Metcalfe (6 ppg, 2.5 rpg) and 6-1 point guard Keegan Bell, a decent outside shooter (39.7 percent from 3-point range).
COACHING
EDGE: Tennessee Pearl has done a masterful job keeping egos in check and spreading around the minutes. He also has the Vols playing hard on the defensive end, which was a huge question entering the season. They beat Memphis because they outworked the Tigers, especially on the boards. Stallings, who guided the Commodores to the Sweet 16 last season, quietly is doing another great job. Not too many people saw Vanderbilt being 23-4 at this point. The most impressive thing Stallings has done this season is change up parts of his offense to accommodate having a true post presence in Ogilvy.
BOTTOM LINE
It's hard to pick against Tennessee the way the Vols have played in February. It also is hard to pick against Vanderbilt, given that the Commodores are 17-0 at home this season. The difference is quality depth, which is UT's advantage over 99 percent of the teams in the country, maybe 100 percent. Consider this: The Vols' two leading scorers combined to score 16 points, 13.2 below their average, and shoot 26.3 percent (5-for-19) and Tennessee still beat the No. 1 team in the country on the road. Foster and Ogilvy scored about 13.2 below their average when these teams met in Knoxville and Vanderbilt got run over. It would take a monumental effort from both for the Commodores to even have a chance. They'll hang around because they always do at Memorial, but the Vols will wear them down.
PREDICTION
Tennessee 86, Vanderbilt 79
SEASON RECORD
11-4

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.



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