Vanderbilt forward Jeffery Taylor remembers thoroughly enjoying last year’s 90-71 home victory against Tennessee at Memorial Gymnasium. He should — he scored 26 points, which was a career-high at the time.
Teammate John Jenkins, on the other hand, didn’t catch any of the game — not even highlights. He was hospitalized with the flu and received five bags of fluid through an IV.
Neither, however, has forgotten their most recent outing against Tennessee, a 67-64 loss on Jan. 15 in Knoxville.
“It definitely hurt us,” Jenkins said. “So we are trying to use that as motivation for [Tuesday].”
Vanderbilt, currently ranked 18th, looks to avenge that loss when it hosts the Volunteers at 8 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN.
Not only was it a tough setback to swallow because it was against their intrastate rival, but the Commodores also blew a 17-point lead.
“You don’t have to tell them much for certain games. You don’t have to say too much,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “There are other games where you might have to prod them a little bit more but this is not one of them.”
Since that loss Vanderbilt (20-6, 8-4 Southeastern Conference) has played better, winning eight of its last 10 and moving into sole possession of second place in the SEC East.
Stallings points to rebounding, a more sound half-court offense, taking care of the ball and being able to field a healthy lineup as reasons for the team’s success since a 1-2 start in league play. Overall, though, he says this group has multiple weapons.
Jenkins certainly has stolen the show lately with at least 20 points in seven of his last eight games. The SEC’s leading scorer (19.9 points per game) averaged 18.3 points in the second half of the last three.
He is now the Commodores’ all-time sophomore scorer with 498 points, passing Matt Freije (484 in 2004).
“He has been amazing,” Taylor said. “He can really shoot the ball. I would say he is probably one of the better shooters I have ever seen in my life. ... He works really hard at it. He is very impressive.”
Beyond Jenkins, however, guard Brad Tinsley leads the SEC in assists per game (4.4). Taylor, though he has struggled on offense recently, has played solid defense and grabbed 42 rebounds in the last five games. Center Festus Ezeli has compiled 12 blocks in his last two games and, prior to Saturday’s game against Auburn, he had scored at least 10 points in four straight games.
“John has done a great job. He has shined in some big moments but it is certainly a team,” Stallings said. “We are not beating really good teams and we are not winning these games in a row and getting on a run here because of one guy. ... We have other guys who are contributing heavily to what is going on here.”
With the SEC regular-season championship still in reach — Alabama and Florida are tied for the best mark at 10-2 — the Commodores realize how important that team concept is. Therefore, they don’t intend to let Tennessee (16-11, 6-6) — a team desperately needing a win — get in the way.
“We want every game possible in the baddest way right now,” Taylor said. “We still feel like we are one of the most urgent teams in college basketball just because we are still in the hunt for the SEC regular-season championship, and also we want to work our way up to a higher seed in the NCAA Tournament. So we are one of the most urgent teams in college basketball right now, and I don’t feel like anybody wants this game more than us.”
• In the series against Tennessee, Vanderbilt has won four of the last five games at Memorial Gymnasium.
• Tennessee is led by junior Scotty Hopson (17.4 points per game) and freshman Tobias Harris (14.4 ppg). After opening SEC play with a 5-2 start, the Volunteers have dropped four of their last five games and are in fifth place in the SEC East.
“We know they are going to play their hardest [Tuesday] regardless” of their current struggles, Jenkins said of the Volunteers. “We are kind of that way, too — up and down. So every team goes through it.”
• Andre Walker is expected to play in consecutive games for the first time since Nov. 27-Dec. 1. The starting forward came off the bench and scored six points in 11 minutes on Saturday against Auburn. It was the first time he played in 14 games due to a right ankle sprain sustained in late December.
“It is still pretty painful,” Walker said on Monday. “I’ll probably play the same minutes [Tuesday] as I did against Auburn, but it was good to get out there. I will be able to make a full recovery. It is just going to take a while because of how bad the sprain was.”
Stallings didn’t give a definite yes on whether Walker would play Tuesday but did say he was encouraged by what he saw on Saturday.
“That was a good game for him to be in on Saturday and we’ll see if the game fits him tomorrow night or not,” Stallings said. “He is getting better. He is getting a little better and Lance [Goulbourne’s ankle] is getting a little better. Hopefully those guys can get back to a little bit closer of what they are capable of being.”