Second WBB Scouting Report: Tennessee
Excellence in any sport requires at least some combination of – to borrow a pair of (Winter Olympic) figure skating terms – "technical merit" and "artistic impression." The equation is different for each individual athlete and each team, but every high-level performer in the realm of athletics must marry talent and grit, skill and work ethic. The human body is capable of dazzling feats of physical prowess, but the mind and spirit must create the clarity that enable the body to flourish and fly.
Vanderbilt's masterwork this season in terms of skill was its 74-63 win over Tennessee's Lady Vols on Jan. 12. That was the strongest "artistic impression" left by coach Melanie Balcomb's team as we arrive at President's Day. Hitting 49 percent of field goals against a credentialed Final Four contender with more size and length represented a high level of precision, a demonstration of craftsmanship that James Naismith would have been proud of.
Yet, great teams can't just win with skill. As Doris Burke would be the first to say, will must complement skill on the road to big basketball achievements. At some point in a season of more than 30 games, a team will have to survive a good, rugged scrap against a tenacious opponent by finding extra levels of competitive resolve and gaining larger contributions from players who are tough enough to step from the shadows and announce their presence to one and all. Morgan Batey became just such a player for VU against Texas A&M, the 2011 national champion of college basketball.
Batey, who had been averaging just over 5 points per game heading into Sunday's important contest, delivered a classic "role-player game-changer" performance for the Dores. A spectacular 17-point effort (5-of-7 from the field, 7-of-7 from the foul line) gave a struggling Vanderbilt offense the scoring punch it needed to emerge from the doldrums after a particularly discouraging loss to Missouri a few days earlier. Vanderbilt's win over A&M reset the dial on this SEC season. At 6-3 in the league, the Dores can reasonably say that they're in a good place once again. A loss and a three-game losing skid would have put them behind schedule in the eyes of most observers.
What's just as valuable as the win itself, of course, is the awareness that this team can deal well with adversity while also accessing new sources of production and poise. If Batey can develop into a steadier scoring option – someone who is good for 10 points a night in the coming weeks (very much including this game against Tennessee) – Vanderbilt's prospects in March would certainly improve. The days of being stuck in the 50s (against South Carolina and Mizzou) would recede just as quickly as they emerged.
It's true that Tennessee will be out for revenge on Monday night in Knoxville. However, VU – hardened by its recent struggles and heartened by its ability to overcome them – can now take the court in Thompson-Boling Arena with the knowledge that it might have one more weapon in its arsenal, and the belief that it is now capable of even greater feats as this season continues. "Will and skill" can now coexist to an even greater degree on this team, and that's an exciting idea to contemplate as the Dores head into the Lady Vols' lair.
Tennessee watched Vanderbilt deliver its A-game a month ago in Memorial Gym. Now, the Lady Vols get a shot at revenge. When you look at Tennessee, it's still clear that this team is not quite what it once was, but in the same breath, it's also true that the Lady Vols really aren't that far away from being a Final Four team.
The Lady Vols were simply outclassed by Vanderbilt the last time these teams met. There's no shame in losing a road game on an afternoon when an opponent attains a high level of performance. If one is to realistically break down Tennessee's season, the Lady Vols don't have a single performance on their resume that should cause them to lose sleep at night. Coach Holly Warlick's team might have skated through some so-so efforts in various wins this season, but Tennessee's four losses have been commentaries on the quality of UT's opponents.
The Lady Vols lost to Stanford and Notre Dame, two teams that are obvious Final Four favorites alongside Connecticut. Aside from the Vanderbilt loss, UT's only other setback came against an LSU team that hit 6-of-12 threes to win a three-point game in Knoxville on a night when one of the Lady Vols' more inconsistent players, Meighan Simmons, actually shot the ball well (4-of-4 from three-point range). Tennessee did commit 19 turnovers in that loss to LSU, so it's not as though the Lady Vols performed anywhere near their best. Yet, LSU needed to make above-average plays to beat Tennessee. There's no "bad loss" on this resume.
It's only because of Tennessee's history that it feels like a criticism to call this team an Elite Eight-level squad. Yet, that's hardly a knock on a team's quality. If you're one of the eight best teams in college basketball, you're really good. There are a few teams that have become more airtight than the Lady Vols, but not many. There are a few respects in which this team still has to improve, and it's up to Vanderbilt to ensure that the Vols' attempt at renewal is delayed at least one more week.
What's particularly fascinating about the backdrop to this game is that much as Batey stepped up in a big way for the Commodores against Texas A&M, the Vols have gained new contributions from role players, helping them to thrive in spite of the injury-based absence of starting point guard Ariel Massengale. The leading distributor on the UT roster, Massengale suffered an injury to her face on Jan. 23 and has been inactive since then. There's a possibility that she'll play in this game on Monday, but even if Massengale remains out of the UT lineup, the Lady Vols have found new sources of production in their adjusted starting five. Bench play will figure prominently in this game.
Center – Isabelle Harrison – Junior, 6-3; 2013-14: 13.3 ppg, 8.8 rpg
Harrison's size will remain a problem for Vanderbilt. She had averaged 9.3 boards per game entering the first meeting between these teams, but when a player averages "only 8.8 boards" per game, she's still carrying her fair share of the workload for this team.
Forward – Cierra Burdick – Junior, 6-2; 2013-14: 8.3 points per game, 6.9 rebounds per game, 2.3 assists per game
Burdick has replaced center Mercedes Russell in the Vols' starting five and has solidified this team in the paint. Burdick lacks Russell's size, but she is a more effective rebounder and a more consistent interior defender. She's also a much better passer than Russell and a leader on the floor. She has galvanized this team and become a part of this team's resurgence in the absence of Massengale.
Forward – Bashaara Graves – Sophomore, 6-2; 2013-14: 9.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg
In the first scouting report of Tennessee a month ago, it was mentioned that while Jasmine Jones was the Lady Vols' starter, Graves was essentially the forward who played starter-level minutes. Now, Graves is the actual starter. Her scoring average has declined by 1.1 points per game since the Jan. 12 meeting with Vanderbilt.
Guard – Meighan Simmons – Senior, 5-9; 2013-14: 14.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 2.3 apg, 35.6 % on 3-PT FGs
Simmons's three-point shooting needed to improve in order for Tennessee to become a better team. Simmons has responded. She's shooting five percent better from long range than she did heading into the Jan. 12 matchup between these teams. If Simmons can get close to 40 percent and stay there, Tennessee will become a more legitimate Final Four threat.
Guard – Andraya Carter – Freshman, 5-9; 2013-14: 6.6 ppg, 3 rpg, 2.2 apg, 1.5 steals per game
Carter has filled in admirably for Massengale. Her stat line isn't gleaming, but it doesn't have to be. Facilitating the offense and playing sound perimeter defense are two very important roles for a team whose three-point-shooting defense has struggled in most of its losses this season. The Lady Vols watched Notre Dame hit 10-of-20 threes. Stanford hit 7-of-11 triples. LSU hit 6-of-12 bombs. If Carter's perimeter defense remains strong, Tennessee can take that next step from Elite Eight to Final Four.
You've seen Russell, Jones and Massengale mentioned in this scouting report, in addition to the current/projected starting five for Monday's game. Warlick also uses guard Jordan Reynolds, who played 29 minutes in UT's most recent game against Ole Miss and is being trusted to provide the perimeter defense that has been this team's Achilles heel in big games this season.
Keys to the Game
1) Three for all. If the backcourt can produce an impressive three-point shooting display, Vanderbilt could find enough offense to win this game. A few statements need to be made in order to develop this particular game key for the Dores.
First, Vanderbilt was just 4-of-14 from long distance in its win over Tennessee a month ago. The Dores, on the road, can't expect to hold the Lady Vols to 63 points yet again. It's quite likely that the Vols will score in the 70s or higher in this game, certainly in the high 60s at the very least. Vanderbilt will need to find some thunder from three-point range if it expects to prevail in Knoxville, and since the Lady Vols have been weak in defending the three in their non-VU losses this season, it only stands to reason that the Dores must excel in this one aspect of competition in order to pull off an improbable season sweep of their foremost rival.
The second point to emphasize here is that if Vanderbilt can shoot effectively, the Commodores won't have to worry about rebounding against the Lady Vols' frontcourt size. The best way to minimize the centrality of rebounding is to not create rebounds in the first place.
2) Rolling with the role players. In this season's previous matchup with Tennessee, Vanderbilt used the 1-2 punch of Jasmine Lister and Christina Foggie (15-of-28 field goals, 9-of-10 free throws, 43 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists, only 4 turnovers) to thrive, but Batey (9 points, 8 boards, 4 steals) and Marqu'es Webb (12 points, 3 boards) also came up big. This is and can be an inexact science, but Vanderbilt will need an even better blend of star and role-player production to win this game. The Dores will need everything they received from Lister-Foggie-Batey-Webb on Jan. 12 against the Lady Vols, plus value-added performances from at least two of the following three players: Jasmine Jenkins, Rayte'a Long, and Kady Schrann.
Tennessee's role players and bench have improved to a considerable degree over the past month. Vanderbilt's role players and bench must match if not exceed Tennessee's supporting cast in order to nail down a sweep of the Lady Vols. Naturally, it will take a special performance to pull off the improbable, but after the gut-check win over Texas A&M, the Commodores just might be in the frame of mind that will enable them to create a lasting memory.
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