If you were to analyze the Vanderbilt women’s basketball team at the start of conference play – following Friday’s 75-61 loss at No. 5 Texas A&M – you would find it hard to avoid any other conclusion about Melanie Balcomb’s team: It has to become much more imposing and disruptive on defense. A quick look at this season’s results shows that defense is both the barometer of this team’s performance and the main source of its instability.
Vanderbilt has scored some important wins this season over teams in the top 20 of the RPI: Green Bay and Minnesota. In those games, Vanderbilt held opponents to under 34-percent shooting from the field. In other wins of note – against power-conference opponent Wisconsin and Atlantic 10 foe Saint Louis – VU’s defense limited teams to 44 percent and 31 percent shooting, for an average of under 40 percent.
In marked contrast to those high-level defensive showings, Vanderbilt’s defense has not shown much – or even shown up – on a number of other occasions. Friday night against Texas A&M, the Dores allowed the Aggies to hit just over 56 percent of their shots. Six Aggie players attempted at least three field goals, and only one of them hit under 50 percent of her tries. Five Aggies attempted at least six field goals, and only one hit under 50 percent as well. If you’re going to allow a mid-50s shooting percentage, you had better force a lot of turnovers. Vanderbilt forced 13, which is not a miniscule amount, but it wasn’t the 21 turnovers VU itself committed on Friday night. Had VU forced 21 turnovers and coughed up only 13, that contest would have been very different. Alas, that was not the case, but you can see the basic point: Vanderbilt gave up a high shooting percentage without compensating for that deficiency in other areas.
Vanderbilt has a lot to look forward to as a program. There are no seniors on this season’s roster, offering a lot of promise for the future. The SEC is – as usual – one of the deepest and toughest conferences in women’s college basketball, so as the Commodores venture out into deep waters and test themselves against the best in the sport, they need to learn how to become seaworthy, as any skilled Commodore must learn to do in order to run a ship that can stay afloat. Let’s see what VU can do against Tennessee on Monday night in Memorial Gym.
The point of uncertainty attached to the Tennessee Lady Vols this season is not necessarily rooted in the Lady Vols themselves. To a certain and considerable extent, Tennessee’s profile is somewhat hard to read because of the opponents UT has defeated.
To flesh out this point a little bit, coach Holly Warlick’s team has lost to Texas and defeated Stanford. Texas – once a national power under the legendary Jody Conradt – fell on tough times for several seasons and could not return to the top under former Duke coach Gail Goestenkors, who basically struck out in Austin following a stint at Duke which included multiple Final Four trips and a national title game appearance. Texas, under third-year coach Karen Aston, is rated third in the country and has managed to beat not only Tennessee, but Texas A&M as well. The Longhorns appear to be a legitimate Final Four threat, but it makes sense to wait for the Big 12 season to run its course before we’re certain that Texas is all the way back. There’s still at least a little mystery attached to Tennessee’s loss to the Longhorns.
As for Stanford, Tennessee’s win over the Cardinal – a 19-point home blowout – is certainly to be commended, but it doesn’t carry the same weight it might have in the past. Stanford, without Chiney Ogwumike, is not the force it once was, so the same value can’t be assigned to the Lady Vols’ win over the Trees. When you also add in the fact that Tennessee lost to Chattanooga – a perplexing team that also beat Stanford but has lost to both Arkansas State and South Florida – it’s hard to get a firm sense of what Tennessee’s non-conference results really mean. With UT beating Missouri – a team located outside the RPI top 100 – in its SEC opener on Friday night, the Lady Vols didn’t answer any questions or create any new doubts. This team will be much more identifiable – for better or worse – after January runs its course. With that, let’s take a look at the Vols’ starting five.
Center – Isabelle Harrison – Senior, 6-3; 2014-15: 11.2 ppg, 8.6 rpg
Harrison is going to be a problem for Vanderbilt in this game – that’s not because of her stat line, which is impressive, or because of her rebounding prowess, which is considerable. The point to note about Harrison is that she got into foul trouble on Friday against Missouri and was then ejected due to a flagrant-2 foul. With very few minutes under her belt in that game, Harrison’s going to be fresh for this game. Getting Harrison into foul trouble would be great if Vanderbilt can pull it off, but Harrison’s going to take the court with something to prove… and a lot of energy to burn off. VU has to be ready to expect Harrison’s best in this game.
Forward – Bashaara Graves – Junior, 6-2; 2014-15: 10.6 ppg, 8.4 rpg
You can notice something very obvious about the statistical profiles of Tennessee’s players: The three double-figure scorers on this team are mostly interior players who grab a lot of rebounds. Graves, like Harrison, gets some of her points on second chances and putbacks. Tennessee typically throws a lot of size and length at opponents, requiring a team rebounding approach from all five spots on the floor. This season’s Lady Vols are no exception.
Forward – Cierra Burdick – Senior, 6-2; 2014-15: 8.1 points per game, 7.2 rebounds per game
Tennessee can really wear down opponents with its size in the paint. Burdick is one of three players on the Lady Vols’ roster who averages at least 7.2 rebounds per game. This team can swallow up opponents on the glass, and this is in part the product of Burdick’s ability to get the loose balls that Harrison and Graves don’t manage to track down. You’ll see a number of teams with two strong primary rebounders. Thanks to Burdick, Tennessee has three of them. This is why the Lady Vols are so tough to play against.
Guard – Ariel Massengale – Senior, 5-7; 2014-15: 11.8 ppg, 2 rpg, 2 assists per game
Massengale is the leading scorer on the Lady Vols, and this is the case because she is a 43-percent 3-point shooter. While Tennessee is imposing because of its size in the paint and on the blocks, Massengale offers needed balance, and her shooting ability helps space the floor, providing a crucial dimension to her team’s halfcourt offense.
Guard – Andraya Carter – Sophomore, 5-9; 2014-15: 6.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.2 apg
Carter averages just under 7 points per game, but she scored 16 against Missouri on Friday night, hitting 3-of-6 threes. If Carter can perform – and more specifically, shoot – like that the rest of the season, the Lady Vols will likely become the team to beat in the SEC (if they don’t already merit such status). Carter, if able to shoot the long ball as well as Massengale, would make the Lady Vols’ backcourt extremely hard to deal with, creating all sorts of opportunities for the team’s multiple and skilled post players.
Warlick can turn to guard Jordan Reynolds, who played starter-level minutes on Friday against Missouri due to Harrison’s early ejection. Reynolds averages 5.3 points and 3.6 rebounds per game, along with 2.9 assists per game. She’s a valuable jack-of-all-trades role player Tennessee can bring off the pine. Backup center Nia Moore was also ejected from the Missouri game on Friday. She will also have a full fuel tank for this game. Given that she averages 8 points and 4.4 rebounds, she could be a problem for VU as well. Guard Alexa Middleton averages 6.7 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game. Forward Jaime Nared averages 5.9 points and 3.4 rebounds per game.
Keys to the Game
1) Team rebounding. Tennessee is tops in the SEC and 11th in the nation in rebounding percentage, at 59.3. The Lady Vols are extremely difficult to match up with on the glass in the first place, but with Harrison and Moore both coming off games in which they didn’t log many minutes, Tennessee is going to be able to play with even more energy than it otherwise would have. Vanderbilt must do all it can to rebound well at all five positions. Without a mighty effort in this particular facet of play, the Dores likely won’t be able to win; they would need to play a near-perfect offensive game to compensate.
2) Plus-five or better in turnovers. The Commodores have to make this game difficult for Tennessee, and since the Lady Vols have so much muscle and strength, VU has to make UT unsure of itself before it can play volleyball on the glass or enter the ball into a favorable position in the low post. Active hands and timely rotations in help defense must define this game for VU, and if the Commodores are pesky enough on defense, they can take their minus-eight turnover differential on Friday against A&M and turn it into a positive differential of at least five, and hopefully more, in this game. With such a differential, the Commodores would have a real chance of winning.
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