Second Women's BB Scouting Report: Tennessee

For the Vanderbilt women’s basketball team, there aren’t many more chances to make statements. The men’s team won in Knoxville on Thursday. Can the women make it two conquests of the Big Orange in four days’ time?


Thursday night, while the Vanderbilt men affirmed their upward trajectory and showed that they’re headed in the right direction, the VU women’s team affirmed very much the opposite. A 70-58 loss at home to Auburn revealed a team that has lost ground over the past few weeks instead of taking forward strides that can set the table for the season to come.

To be fair to Vanderbilt, the loss to Auburn is more a positive commentary on Auburn than a negative commentary on the Dores. Auburn is a team that had struggled mightily through the course of the season. To incorporate the men’s team into this piece one more (and final) time, the VU men had been struggling for several weeks – the better part of January – looking and hoping for a breakthrough. They had to be patient while the losses mounted. They never stopped trusting that they could get better and find a new horizon. That’s very much the case for Auburn, so those Tigers deserve a lot of credit – not only for what they achieved against Melanie Balcomb’s team, but for carrying themselves the right way in the midst of a lot of adversity and continued negative results. Auburn finally broke through, and in the dialogue that is sports, sometimes you have to tip your cap to an opponent and acknowledge their sacrifice, their struggle, their improvement, their hard-earned achievements.

Now, having said all that, Vanderbilt and Balcomb need to be able to carve out some improvements of their own before this campaign ends, and what better opponent to improve against than the Lady Vols? Victory is not something that any oddsmaker would expect, but Vanderbilt needs to at least show itself that it can play at a higher level before its journey ends in March of 2015.

TENNESSEE AT-A-GLANCE

The big news surrounding Tennessee is that starting center and leading scorer Isabelle Harrison was lost for the season with a torn ACL a few weeks ago. That’s a massive loss for this team – the scoring (12.8 points per game) and the rebounding (9.1 boards per game), of course, but also a muscular and tall presence near the basket and, significantly, senior leadership. Tennessee needed Harrison on the floor for more reasons than just statistical output. Remember that altering shots near the rim is not something readily measured by numbers. Teams might chart that sort of thing internally, but it’s not widely available to the public. Tennessee put up a good fight against South Carolina last Monday night in a thrilling and well-played battle for the SEC championship, but lacking Harrison in the middle left the Lady Vols vulnerable against South Carolina’s bigs, and the Gamecocks kept feeding the post while also attacking the offensive glass. South Carolina’s superior length and power near the basket proved to be the difference in the game. Tennessee still looks like a team that can make its way to the Elite Eight, but the Lady Vols, without Harrison, might now lack that imposing interior presence which can carry them to the Final Four against a first or second seed in a regional final.

Starting Lineup

Forward – Cierra Burdick – Senior, 6-2; 2014-15: 11 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 2.5 assists per game

Burdick carries a greater burden in the aftermath of the Harrison injury. Tennessee is now much thinner – it can’t rotate players as well as it would like, so Vanderbilt needs to make its presence felt with the energy it brings to this game. That actually hasn’t been a problem for the Dores this season. They’ve consistently competed hard, especially at the defensive end of the floor, which is where effort is either revealed or shown to be insufficient. VU has to make Burdick realize just how much pressure she has to deal with now that she’s Tennessee’s primary low-post player

Forward – Bashaara Graves – Junior, 6-2; 2014-15: 10.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.9 apg

What applies to Burdick also applies to Graves. Just how many minutes can coach Holly Warlick steal for both of her prime post players with Harrison no longer there? She found 10 minutes for Nia Moore in Tennessee’s most recent game against Georgia. That’s not very much. This is a proving-ground moment for Vanderbilt, to see what it can achieve against an elite team, but one that is scrambling to reinvent itself on the fly near tournament time.

Guard – Jordan Reynolds –
Sophomore, 5-11; 2014-15: 6.8 points per game, 3.1 rebounds per game, 2.2 apg

Reynolds has now been slotted into the starting five with Harrison gone. Tennessee had used a traditional center, two-forward, two-guard lineup, but it must now employ a two-forward, three-guard look. The Vols will try to win with a little more speed and quickness, attempting to get more out of their backcourt since they have more available bodies at that position. Tennessee was able to get 31 minutes from its reserve guards against Georgia this past Thursday, only 10 minutes from its one backup frontcourt player, the aforementioned Moore.

Guard – Ariel Massengale – Senior, 5-7; 2014-15: 10.8 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.5 assists per game

Massengale, who is Tennessee’s foremost three-point shooter (as mentioned in our first scouting report on the team), faces a very tough and tricky task going forward: She knows she’ll need to hit a few more threes and provide a little more scoring punch in March. Yet, that very reality could lead her into being a little too trigger happy in a conscious attempt to compensate for what Harrison can no longer bring the team. She needs to be disciplined; Vanderbilt must therefore try to get her to make poor decisions on the court.

Guard – Andraya Carter – Sophomore, 5-9; 2014-15: 7.7 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.4 apg

Carter’s challenge in a Harrison-less lineup is paradoxically more straightforward than what Massengale faces. Massengale is more skilled at this point in time, but that means she has a responsibility to use her skills wisely. With Carter, the challenge is plainer: She needs to find ways to be a more effective scorer. Shooting too much is not an issue so much as learning how to make a bigger imprint on a game. Massengale needs to be disciplined; Carter needs to be more assertive. It’s a little easier to assert oneself, but the urgency of that task is the burden Carter faces.

Bench

You’ve met backup center Nia Moore, who is now the team’s one bench option in the post. She averages 4.8 points and 3.2 boards per game. Guard Alexa Middleton averages 4.2 points per game, having played 10 minutes against Georgia. Jaime Nared is listed as a guard, but she does possess some size, so she actually could be slotted into the role of a forward if Tennessee doesn’t want to use a small-ball lineup. Nared averages 4.5 points and 3 rebounds per game.

Keys to the Game

1) Challenge Tennessee inside.
When a team struggles on offense as Vanderbilt has, it should try to get to the foul line or at least focus on going inside first, then kicking out for threes when the defense collapses to stop penetration. Vanderbilt should be doing this anyway, but with Harrison out, it becomes that much more imperative for the Dores to attack the tin and force the Lady Vols to make good defensive plays.

2) Make Carter win this game. The Commodores know which Tennessee players are particularly skilled and especially equipped to win this game at the offensive end of the floor. Carter is the one who stands out as someone who is not yet there, or at least might not be there. Force her to be the one to hit tough shots.

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