Women's Basketball Scouting Report: Tennessee
A 2-1 start to the SEC slate has Vanderbilt on schedule – not ahead of it, and not behind it. A win over Tennessee on ESPN2 would give VU a better-than-even chance of meeting its January goals. A loss would reduce this team's margin for error in the coming weeks. Enough about the horse race, though – Vanderbilt is facing a supremely formidable opponent, a rival but also a team that is a leading Final Four contender. Perhaps it won't be hard for VU to be laser-focused when tip-off time arrives, but just to make sure, it's worth underscoring the extent to which Tennessee is still Tennessee.
Sure, Tennessee hasn't been to the Final Four since 2008. Sure, Pat Summitt no longer walks the sideline on game nights. The momentum of a program has been interrupted, its aura dented to a slight but real degree.
Yet, the name endures, the talent remains, and the expectations persist as much as they eer have in Knoxville. No one can be the next Pat Summitt, because there's only one of those, but head coach Holly Warlick is proving to be entirely capable of leading this program forward. She carries the attitude and intensity of a person who knows what it means to represent the Lady Volunteers.
"This is a team right now that is very talented, but we're underachieving. I've gotten mad at them. I've raised my voice. I've threatened them. I've been nice. I don't know. When our backs are against the wall, we generally play pretty hard. But I don't have an answer. We play in spurts and at times we don't look like we really care if there's a game going on or not anything going on."
That comment, without attribution, would likely seem to come from the coach of a team that can't win consistently. It's a remark one would more likely associate with a losing coach than a winning coach. If it was the comment of a winning coach, it would probably emerge from a game in which a team played terribly at one or both ends of the floor, prevailing by an ugly score of 51-49 or a no-defense score of 94-93.
That comment came from Warlick after Tennessee's 94-70 pasting of Ole Miss on Thursday night. When a 24-point win leaves a coach feeling substantially dissatisfied, it's cleaer how high the bar has been set. Tennessee has made three straight Elite Eights, but the Lady Vols expect to play for championships at the Final Four. They were favored to beat Louisville in last year's regional final, but the Cardinals – having caught fire after taking down Brittney Griner's last Baylor team in the Sweet 16 – played a near-perfect game on offense and flew past the Vols, 86-78. Unlike Tennessee's previous two losses in the Elite Eight, that setback against Louisville felt like a true disappointment in the sense that it should have been the Lady Vols' moment. If there was ever a grace period for this program in the wake of Summitt's gradual exit from the stage, that period is over. There's no more time for sweet sentiment – Tennessee has to get back to the Final Four in order to restore what's been missing since 2008.
The point is plain: Vanderbilt needs to brace for a street fight on Sunday and call forth all of its resources as a team, both tangible and intangible.
Center – Mercedes Russell – Freshman, 6-6; 2013-14: 8.1 points per game, 5.3 rebounds per game, 1.7 blocked shots per game
Russell is just a freshman, so she's still learning how to use her height to her advantage. She will get better as her career progresses, but she's very much an unfinished project. It's just as well for Vanderbilt that it gets to host Tennessee early in the SEC season. Hosting the Vols now gives them a better chance of bothering Russell and keeping her off balance. It will likely be harder for Russell to handle Memorial Gym in the second weekend of January as opposed to the second week of February, when these teams meet again. It's probably a fair trade for Vanderbilt to host Tennessee early and then make the trip to Knoxville in February. The road game will be harder to win, but in exchange, this home game is a little more attainable.
Forward/Center – Isabelle Harrison – Junior, 6-3; 2013-14: 13.9 ppg, 9.3 rpg
Harrison will be a tough defensive assignment for the Commodores. She finishes near the basket. She gobbles up everything on the glass and is the leading rebounder on a team that's stocked with rebounders. Five members of a nine-player rotation are 6-2 or taller. Tennessee out-rebounds opponents by an average of 15 boards per game. The Vols recorded 10 blocked shots against Ole Miss this past Thursday, while the Rebels didn't block a single shot. Tennessee's length and size are just too imposing, with Harrison leading the way.
Forward – Jasmine Jones – Sophomore, 6-2; 2013-14: 5.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg
Technically, Jones is a starter, but she plays fewer minutes (17.1) than three of the Vols' four reserves. More will be said about these reserves in the "Bench" section.
Guard – Meighan Simmons – Senior, 5-9; 2013-14: 13.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.2 apg, 30.6 % on 3-PT FGs
This is the most intriguing player on the Tennessee roster… and probably the most important one as well. Chris Pendley of the Rocky Top Talk blog performed a statistical deep dive on Simmons' shooting performances in big games, revealing the extent to which Simmons has come up short in her career. As you can see (and as you've been told), there's a lot of size and power on this team. If Simmons can somehow manage to become a more consistent and less erratic shooter, Tennessee's inside-outside offensive balance would become even more pronounced. As long as Vanderbilt's defensive rotations make Simmons at least somewhat uncomfortable on long-distance shots, the Commodores should be willing to take their chances. Giving Simmons clean and unbothered shots is what VU can't afford.
Guard – Ariel Massengale – Junior, 5-7; 2013-14: 13.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 6.1 apg
On a team with so many tall trees, Massengale is the unquestioned distributor, the player who consistently and persistently feeds the post and gets all her teammates involved. Cutting off passing lanes while limiting dribble penetration must be Vanderbilt's foremost priorities as far as Massengale is concerned.
Tennessee has a deep bench. Forward Bashaara Graves would start for plenty of Division I teams. She averages 11 points and 6.9 boards per game. She is, essentially, the starting forward in place of Jones, even though she does come off the bench. That might be a mostly technical distinction; yet, it reaffirms the extent to which Tennessee can throw one big body after another at its opponents.
Warlick also turns to forward Cierra Burdick, who averages 7.1 rebounds per game. It's impossible to avoid noticing the extent to which this team hammers its foes on the glass. Three UT players average at least 6.9 rebounds per game. Six average at least four per game, and eight average at least three per game. That's a terrifying reality for opposing coaches (such as Balcomb) to contemplate.
Tennessee's nine-player rotation is rounded out by guards Andraya Carter and Jordan Reynolds, who both help out on the glass and are solid defenders. Reynolds adds 2.1 assists per game for the Lady Vols.
Keys to the Game
1) Team rebounding. Every Vanderbilt player has to help on the glass – it's that simple. Tennessee can't be allowed to dominate the offensive backboard. There is clearly no bigger priority for the Dores on Sunday. Tennessee's size and length are imposing, and Vanderbilt can't counter the Vols with only one or two low-post players.
2) Follow the Schrann plan. Guard Kady Schrann stepped up and played her best game of the season this past Thursday in the win over Auburn. It's not as though Schrann has to perform well on Sunday for VU to win (though that would obviously help the cause); the point to emphasize is that the Dores will need two or three role players to emerge in support of Christina Foggie and Jasmine Lister. Balanced contributions on both offense and defense must define this game for Vanderbilt.
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