When Vanderbilt and Tennessee matched up Wednesday night at Memorial Gym, it was two desperate teams fighting to keep their heads above water. Making the NCAA Tournament is a long shot for both.
Vanderbilt has an excuse, as the Commodores lost three players to the NBA draft. It represented close to 90 percent of their production, leaving veteran coach Kevin Stallings to face a major rebuilding project.
Tennessee is in its second season under Coach Cuonzo Martin and more was expected from the Vols. But both teams have had a number of lowlights thus far and could be found near the bottom of the SEC standings. With the 58-46 win, Tennessee improved to 5-6 inside the league while Vanderbilt dropped to 3-8. It's nothing for either team to brag about.
The only route to the NCAA Tournament for both teams will likely mean having to win the SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena.
Overall, the Vols improved to 13-10, Vanderbilt dropped to 9-14. Those who came to Memorial Gym hoping to see a classic game had to settle for less.
The teams' two best players did their part in early action as Tennessee's man-child Jarnell Stokes and Vanderbilt guard Kedron Johnson set the tone for their teams.
The 6-8, 270-pound Stokes bagged his sixth straight double-double game. Vanderbilt had no answer for Stokes. The sophomore from Memphis had 17 points, 10 rebounds and five blocked shots.
Martin credited Stokes with the team's recent improvement.
“The biggest thing is that now our offense flows through Jarnell,'' Martin said.
Stallings feared what Stokes could do to his team. His fears were founded.
“He is playing like a first round (NBA) draft pick,'' Stallings said earlier in the week. “He is an absolute stud. I'm not sure how to defend him honestly. His strength sets him apart. His hands are so strong around the goal. He's the complete package.''
Stokes is getting more comfortable and confident as the season winds down. He is a load in the paint and a bear on the boards.
“Coach Martin preaches hard work and he doesn't let up on you. The whole season has been a learning experience,'' Stokes said. “I learned you have to work for everything you get.''
While Stokes worked both ends of the court for Tennessee, junior guard Trae Golden hit four of his first five shots in his first starting assignment since mid-January.
They led the Vols to a 40-28 halftime lead. Stokes led the way with 14 points, Golden added 11 points and Jordan McRae's 10 points gave the Vols three players in double figures in the first 20 minutes. McCrae also went on to post a double-double.
The 40 points represented the most points the Vols had scored in an opening half since the Presbyterian game in December.
While both teams have struggled to score the basketball, such was not the case in the first half for Tennessee.
Vanderbilt's troubles escalated less than two minutes into the second half as Kedren Johnson took a hard blow as he drove the lane for a basket and seemed to re-injure his right arm/shoulder area. He returned at the 10-minute mark, but clearly was not at full speed.
Tennessee now welcomes Kentucky to Thompson-Boling Arena Saturday. The ‘Cats will be without 6-10 freshman forward Nerlens Noel, who suffered a torn ACL against Florida and is lost for the season.
The Vols will have to make a strong run down the stretch to get to post-season play. But if Stokes continues to lead the way, anything is possible.
Contact wkrn.com Sports Columnist Joe Biddle at firstname.lastname@example.org.