The Lady Vols are back on the road in the SEC with a Thursday matchup against Arkansas. InsideTennessee checked in with assistant coach Lady Vols for a team update and scouting report.
Tennessee (11-4, 2-1) will take on Arkansas (6-10, 1-2 SEC) in Fayetteville. Tipoff is set for 9:05 p.m. Eastern (TV: SEC Network) at Bud Walton Arena. Two things come to mind immediately for Lady Vol fans – Arkansas’ conference win was against Texas A&M, and Tennessee typically struggles in Fayetteville.
Dean Lockwood took the time to chat before the team departed for Arkansas. For the Lady Vols to keep their momentum, they will have to win on the road for the next two games. First up is the Razorbacks on Thursday, followed by Notre Dame on Monday.
Tennessee went 1-1 at home in the SEC with a loss to Florida and a win over Auburn. The shooting percentages and output of effort were in stark contrast in the two games.
InsideTennessee: Getting a read on this team has been a tad difficult. Will this team be a game-to-game revelation or do the coaches feel a little bit better in mid-January?
Dean Lockwood: Our last two games couldn’t be more different. We have to strive for consistency. Auburn and Florida are comparable teams. Florida may be a little bit better – that was a tougher game one would argue. But just the difference in those games – our discipline, our focus, how together we played, we didn’t fragment at all. It was just a real concerted together effort as opposed to Florida.
We have to become more consistent. We have to take good shots on a consistent basis. We have to take better care of the basketball. The way we moved and shared the basketball against Auburn was a textbook blueprint for us. We are encouraged. We know that we’ve got it in us, but now we’re striving to achieve a level of consistency that good teams play with.
IT: How much truth is there to this statement: As Diamond DeShields goes, for better or for worse, so goes Tennessee.
Lockwood: That’s a great question. I don’t know if I can answer it right now after 15 games. I think it’s going to take more, especially in the heat of SEC play, to know. I will tell you this and I actually texted this to her the other day: ‘I know this. We’re so much better when you come out and you are a facilitator. You are getting people involved. You are making sure people get the ball where they are effective. You’re making them better.’
I think there is no question we are better when she’s doing that. I don’t know if we can answer that question now, but I will tell you this. It is clear that when she comes out as a facilitator and making other people better, then there is no doubt that we are better.
IT: Mercedes Russell has logged a lot of minutes at the most physical position in the game. Against Florida, her tank was empty late in the game and that hurts her production and effectiveness. With Nia Moore, another true center, now back, how will that help Russell?
Lockwood: There is no doubt it’s going to help her. Nia can provide her with reps and be a back-up at her position. Nia is a good player in her own right, so she can help us. Mercedes is a very smart player, and she fully knows and realizes that Nia has such a value to her personally because her playing at a high level for 26 or 27 minutes versus going on fumes for 34 minutes is a whole other thing for this team.
IT: Moore has missed several weeks to recover from a rib injury. What are realistic expectations for the senior center going forward as she gets back on the court?
Lockwood: Nia has always been in good condition, and if she can just play in spurts right now, play a hard four minutes, five minutes, six minutes and give Mercedes and Bashaara a break. Nia has proven she’s a good player and she may have it going and stretch those minutes out, which everybody would be thrilled with, including her teammates and Mercedes and Bashaara, especially, because they have so much respect for her.
Mercedes can look over and get some rest, and Nia can go in without Mercedes feeling like she is hurting the team by not being in there. Mercedes can catch a break while Nia is doing her thing. Mercedes isn’t worried, the team isn’t worried, and everybody is confident and comfortable, and nobody is playing out of position.
Against teams with substantial size you need defenders, and that is one of Nia’s strengths. She is so good defensively and rebounds the ball for us. Anything she gives us offensively is a plus.
IT: Speaking of defense, Jaime Nared has brought a dimension of defense as a sophomore. How much better can Nared get on that side of the ball?
Lockwood: She can continue to be better, and she is starting to come into her own a little bit as a player defensively. I think she is taking more pride in it, quite honestly. I think she is paying more attention to it and seeing the value. She sees how important it is to our team success.
She is a sophomore and still learning and growing. She’s got to be in a stance a little bit more consistently so the drivers can’t get to the paint on her. One time (against Florida), she went over and doubled the ball in half court – just kind of randomly did it – and her player hit a three.
Little things like that she is working on, but let me tell you, as a staff we have a lot more confidence in her, and we are giving her tougher defensive assignments, and she has noticed it. She has got size and strength, and she can move. She is a hard matchup. She is tough.
IT: Te’a Cooper was the focus of a lot of hype prior to her arrival at Tennessee with predictions, unfair for a freshman, that she would be entrenched immediately as a starter at point guard. She seems to be slowing down in a good way as the game slows down for her. Are things starting to come together for Cooper?
Lockwood: I think so. As a coaching staff, we like what we see from her now much more than we did in November in terms of she is staying within the flow of the game, and she is picking her spots to attack. All of our guards have great freedom to do some things – get in the paint and attack and create shots for people and for themselves – but we’ve got to kind of know what’s coming. It can’t just be a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants thing.
There would be times (early in the season) when we’d call something, and she wouldn’t know it, so her answer to it was to put her head down and try to penetrate. She is becoming more of a thinking basketball player who understands concepts and playing to her strengths. A number of times early she would get to deep and take off-balance shots, and it was one of the reasons her shooting percentage was woefully low. It’s not because she’s not a scorer or a good shooter. She was taking low percentage shots for her. They were not makeable shots. She is starting to do a better job with that.
It’s coming. We see growth. We see improvement. She can watch the game, get a feel of what is happening and then get out on the floor and do some things.
She brings such tenacity on the ball for us. That’s one of the things we have always loved about her – she is just a tenacious on-ball defender. She could become dominant at it. As she gets a better feel for how games are called and who she is playing against and what their strengths are, that kid could be a dominant force in the game just by her on-ball defense.
We are really excited about her growth. She’s been receptive and coachable, and that is the key for her – she has been teachable. If she maintains that, that will help her grow exponentially.
IT: Some freshmen come in with so many expectations, and everyone has been telling them how good they are. They don’t quite understand that a lesser talented player can take it to them and how challenging the game is at a college level.
Lockwood: That is so true. Everybody goes through it to a certain degree. You’re going to a level where everybody is good. Don’t worry about getting knocked on your butt. Be humble. Keep learning. Stay hungry. Don’t let it break you, but learn from mistakes. They hear, ‘You’re going to be this. You’re going to be that.’
And then people that they have never heard of are going around them and they’re stopping them. That is a sobering wakeup call. It’s not an easy process. But, again, what the good ones do is they take the hit and they show the resiliency, and they keep pressing forward. They adapt. I hope that is what we are seeing from both Te’a and Meme (Jackson).
IT: What challenges does Arkansas present to Tennessee?
Lockwood: Number one, we have a healthy respect for them. They are a good team, and they have good parts. They haven’t put it all together all the time. They are in the process of doing that, a lot like us. They have quick, penetrating guards that are athletic. They have some real grit. They have one of the leading scorers in our league in Jessica Jackson (17.0 ppg).
It’s like going into a pit full of dogs. It’s going to be tough. Like I told our team, every time you turn around, there is going to be somebody right there who is going to be physical. It’s a challenge, and that’s why this league is so great. They are well-coached. I have watched them on tape, and I like what they are doing. They play with simplicity and to their strengths. It enables them to play hard.
We are fully anticipating a challenge. The other thing with them is you have to respect a team that gets beat by 52 points at South Carolina, and they turn around and punch Texas A&M, figuratively speaking, right in the nose. That team has heart. They have guts. That is a formidable team.
IT: What does Tennessee have to do to exit Fayetteville with a victory?
Lockwood: Number one, we have to take care of the basketball. That is huge for us. In every one of our losses, we have squandered possessions.
Number two, defensively we have to not let them be able to score a lot in the paint. They have got people who can shoot the basketball but where they are generating a lot of points is they are penetrating and creating off the dribble. We can’t let them do that. Our one-on-one defense and our team defense to keep them out of the paint are very important.
And, then, rebounding, which is so important to us. Getting one and done on the defensive end and helping ourselves on offensive rebounding.