However this resurgence isn't really that surprising given Tennessee's history and Coach Pat Summitt's influence. The LSU loss may have made it easier for UT's head coach to get her message across, but it was the SEC tourney in its entirety that gave her the insight to shuffle the lineup.
Tennessee lacked energy during the SEC Tournament, but it also lacked continuity on offense. The lack of energy reflected the difficulty in going undefeated through 14 conference games before going into a conference tournament against the very teams you have already beaten as least one time each.
The Lady Vols found the strength to come back in their first two games, but not the third. This is indicative of just how tough the competition is in the SEC, particularly for Tennessee because all conference teams have essentially been designed to compete against the Lady Vols. That means they are all athletic and quick.
The three games in three days left little time for physical or emotional recovery or for pre-game preparation. This negated one of Tennessee's principle strengths because no coach prepares their team better than Summitt.
Of course, LSU had the intrinsic emotional edge because it had already lost to Tennessee and could make adjustments. UT couldn't find an answer for 5-4 point guard Tameka Johnson and there wasn't time to develop a team approach to address the problems she presented.
Obviously, playing only two games in three weeks has given Tennessee the time it needed to recover its legs and to focus on the road ahead. It also gave Summitt and her staff the chance to change the lineup.
Although the insertion of Shyra Ely for Ashley Robinson seems insignificant, especially for a team that uses as many players as Tennessee, it actually eliminated a lot of problems in terms of flow and spacing.
With the 6-5 Robinson inside UT had more size up front, but it also had traffic problems. It was often too congested for Gwen Jackson to establish low-post position on offense as teams would drop an extra defender down low, creating a five-player log jam in the paint. When Robinson went outside in an effort to free up room for Jackson to work down low, teams wouldn't go out with her on defense and Jackson was still seeing double teams inside.
Additionally, the congestion inside took away penetration opportunities at the point which in turn prevented the kick out to the perimeter. In short, the offensive was dysfunctional.
With Ely in the starting lineup, Tennessee is not only a more athletic team it's also a better rebounding team because of superior quickness and better position. Being a better rebounding team has also made the Lady Vols a better team in transition; not only can Jackson and Ely hit the boards with authority, either could lead the break or trail and score.
In the half-court game, Tennessee has better balance and is better able to isolate each player's strengths. With Jackson working on the low block there's room for Ely to flash to the high post or to get on the offensive boards from the backside. Moore has lanes to exploit off the dribble while Kara Lawson and Tasha Butts can operate from the wings or along the baseline.
The unexpected bonus with this lineup comes on the defensive end where Tennessee is quicker in man defense and surprisingly more effective in the zone. The Lady Vols close ground quickly out of the 2-3 and take away what looks like opportunities to opponents. They also trap the ball better and are reacting with more fluidity to entry passes. Being able to zone makes it more difficult for opponents to prepare for UT and effectively reduces its set offense.
The difference shows in the statistics comparing UT's three SEC Tournament games to its three NCAA Tournament games. The Lady Vols have a 110-point collective advantage in the final margin of three NCAA games compared to zero in the SEC Tournament. Tennessee has a plus-47 combined advantage at the half of NCAA games compared to minus-34 in the SEC Tournament.
Of course, Tennessee hasn't played a team as athletic to this point in the NCAA as it saw in every SEC Tournament game, and it won't tonight against No. 11 Villanova.
Much has been made of Tennessee installing Villanova's motion offense as designed by Wildcat head coach Harry Perretta. Certainly, it's true that Villanova (28-5) will cause UT problems on both ends of the court, but Tennessee still has the edge in quickness and depth. That means the Lady Vols should be more effective disrupting the motion offense than Villanova and much better in transition.
The key for Tennessee is to push the ball and tempo at every opportunity, to wear down Villanova, pound the boards with a vengance and command the lead in the late stages. The Wildcats are dangerous, as their victory over UConn clearly attests, but they have to keep the contest close to succeed. If forced to play from behind Villanova's patient offense will be out of sync and there won't be anything left for the home stretch.
Prediction: Tennessee 66, Villanova 51