KNOXVILLE — Tennessee and Vanderbilt are usually playing for NCAA tournament seeding as well as in-state bragging rights this time of year.
Not this season.
Vanderbilt (9-13, 3-7 Southeastern Conference) and Tennessee (12-10, 4-6) have struggled through disappointing seasons that have left both teams in the bottom half of the league standings. This figures to be the first year since 2005 that neither team reaches the NCAA tournament. It could mark the first year since 1994-95 that both finish below .500.
They can take out their frustrations on each other Wednesday at Vanderbilt in the teams’ second meeting of the season. Tennessee escaped with a 58-57 victory Jan. 29 at home after Vanderbilt missed two potential game-winning shots in the closing seconds.
That thriller indicated the subpar records of both teams haven’t altered the rivalry’s intensity.
“It doesn’t change it for me,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “I don’t think rivalries ever change. ... I don’t think that changes anything. You’re competing to win basketball games. It doesn’t matter.”
Vanderbilt’s problems are easy to pinpoint.
The Commodores lost five starters from the team that won the SEC tournament and earned a school-record third consecutive NCAA bid last season. Vanderbilt replaced Festus Ezeli, John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor, who all were taken among the first 31 picks in last year’s NBA draft. Vanderbilt’s top returning scorer was sophomore guard Kedren Johnson, who averaged 3.1 points per game last season.
Vanderbilt is last in the SEC in scoring (59.5) and free-throw percentage (.609). The Commodores rank ahead of only Mississippi State in field-goal percentage (.411).
“Nobody feels sorry for us,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “They’re kind of glad it’s been our turn to get our butts kicked, and so we just have to work hard to get back to where we think we belong. We knew this was going to be a year where we were going to have some challenges. But we’re feeling better about it, and hopefully going forward again we can finish on a good note and see what happens from there.”
Since beating Xavier 66-64 in overtime on Dec. 6, Vanderbilt is 1-6 in games decided by 10 points or fewer. During that stretch, the Commodores are 5-3 in games decided by more than 10 points.
Tennessee’s troubles were tougher to predict. After emerging as the SEC’s greatest surprise by tying for second place in the conference and reaching the NIT in Martin’s debut season, the Vols have become one of the league’s bigger disappointments this year.
The Vols expected Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes to form one of the nation’s top frontcourt duos, but an injured left knee prevented Maymon from playing all season. Stokes has come on strong the last two weeks, but he needed half the season to adjust to the double-teams he faced in Maymon’s absence.
Junior guard Trae Golden led the Vols in scoring last season, but he fell out of the starting lineup this season and missed two games with a strained right hamstring. Freshman forward Derek Reese underwent preseason shoulder surgery and missed 11 of the Vols’ first 12 games. Senior guard Skylar McBee’s shooting percentage is down as he attempts to play through a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.
“We can’t let that affect our season,” Tennessee guard Josh Richardson said. “We can’t let it bother us at this point. We’ve just got to play through it.”
Neither team has given up on the season. In fact, both enter Wednesday’s game with momentum.
Tennessee finally earned its first road win Sunday at South Carolina as Golden returned from his injury and scored 16 points. Stokes, the reigning SEC player of the week, has five straight double-doubles. Tennessee was 10-12 at this point last season and made a late charge that nearly resulted in its seventh straight NCAA bid.
“There’s yet to be a game where Trae was going, I was going and (leading scorer) Jordan (McRae) was going,” Stokes said. “We haven’t had a game like that yet. If Trae keeps playing like he’s playing now, I think it will definitely be hard to beat us.”
Vanderbilt is coming off a 67-49 victory over Arkansas, which beat the Commodores 56-33 on Jan. 12. Now they have another shot at a measure of revenge. The Commodores are asking all fans to wear white to this game as they attempt to avenge one of their most heartbreaking losses of the season.
“When it’s Tennessee and Vanderbilt, you throw away the records and it’s just the names on the jerseys,” Vanderbilt forward Sheldon Jeter said. “That’s how we’re looking at it. They’re a star rival. This is still a very important game, especially to all our fans. We want to go and make them proud of us.”
AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker of Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.comments powered by Disqus