If there is one downside to all of the attention that has been focused on Lane Kifffin's first year and Bruce Pearl's roller-coaster season, it's that following the Lady Vols gets a bit tricky for the short-attention-span theater that is your typical college sports fanbase. Yet the Ladies have been quietly building up an impressive season with a very young crew and are once again in prime condition for a run at the SEC regular season title. They have already kicked off conference play with decisive wins over South Carolina and Mississippi State and, though it's very early yet, the race at the top of the conference is already beginning to take shape.
As of right now, four teams have two or fewer losses and should be considered the early favorites for the conference: Georgia (16-0), Tennessee (14-1), LSU (13-2), and Kentucky (13-2). (Vanderbilt comes in with 4 losses and is still ranked higher than Kentucky, but has already lost to MSU and UK within the conference and will need help.) Of the four lead dogs, Tennessee is ranked #4, Georgia #6, LSU #12, and Kentucky #27. For a very early projection, here's where I see the challenges:
For some strange reason in conference scheduling, Tennessee plays Georgia once and LSU twice. That places a huge value on the Georgia game because of the lack of opportunity to atone for a loss. Georgia is a very impressive team this year as well, and will not be intimidated by Tennessee. Consider:
- Georgia's current RPI is 8, and Tennessee's is 3.
- Georgia has defeated Oklahoma, Rutgers, and Virginia - three quality teams that Tennessee also defeated.
- Georgia has only allowed an opponent to score 60 points once (a 61-60 overtime win against Kentucky). Tennessee has allowed 60+ 6 times (with a high of 75 against Oklahoma).
- Georgia was Pat Summitt's 1,000th victim last year - a fact not lost on the returning players.
- Georgia's coach, Andy Landers, has over 800 career wins (807-260). At UGA, he boasts a 0.752 record (725-329). If Pat Summitt were not the legend in the SEC, Landers most definitely would be.
The Georgia game will also be played in Athens. This is perhaps the most important conference game of the year for the Lady Vols. A loss to Georgia, and the Lady Dawgs might keep UT from winning the conference regardless of the other games.
Tennessee @ Georgia : January 21, 7 PM EST
After Georgia, LSU is the next most worrisome team. Tennessee plays LSU twice - once at each school - with the first meeting coming on the road only three days after the Georgia game. LSU will be readay for Tennessee, no doubt, but Tennessee will have to shake off whatever result they receive from the Georgia game. They can't let a win get to their heads, and they can't be downcast if the Georgia game is a loss. Consider this a great tournament test and a chance to prove their maturity.
LSU's only losses have come to undefeated Nebraska and an overtime disappointment against Auburn. Reading their record is a little more difficult than Georgia's because the level of competition is not as high (SOS of 76 for LSU compared to UGA's 38). But like Georgia, LSU is a team that leads with defense, holding opponents to an average of 47 points per game.
The second meeting should be kinder to the Lady Vols, as they will be at home on a four-day rest after playing Alabama. And as the third-to-last game of the season for the Ladies, the conference picture will be far clearer and the importance of the game more well-understood.
Wildcats fans have to be pleased with their Ladies right now. So far, the She-Cats are 13-2 on the year with a surprising loss to Middle Tennessee State and the overtime heartbreak against Georgia. But the Lady Cats have also beaten Vanderbilt and placed themselves in a strong position for an early run in the conference. They play Tennessee only once this year (in Knoxville), but it will be the next to last game for both squads and UK will have 4 days of preparation for the tilt. Unlike Georgia and LSU, Kentucky is an offense-first team, averaging over 79 points a game while giving up 54 points per game on defense. They have twice eclipsed the 100-point mark (Miami-Ohio and Louisville) thanks to their very fast tempo of play.
Kentucky is decidedly shorter than Tennessee on most counts (except for 6'-7" freshman Anna Cole, who is still settling into the team), but plays very quickly . This may be yet another game where Summitt brings the zone defense to neutralize the opposing speed and allow Tennessee's size to become more of an advantage. But even with that, the key to stopping Kentucky is to defend the whole team - nobody is the unquestioned star of the team when they have the ball, and scoring opportunities are spread across all players. Kentucky will have a difficult time stopping Tennessee, but they might be able to keep pace.
Vandy is the sudden dark horse in the conference among the preseason darlings, as upset losses to Mississippi State and Kentucky have placed them in a trailing position. Vanderbilt does, however, have possibly the most experienced team in the conference, with four seniors and four juniors leading the way. Senior Merideth Marsh and junior Jence Rhoads are the two anchors for the team, and account for the primary points and assists for the team. They have seen adversity in previous years, and they know that their current 12-4 (1-2) mark is not impossible to overcome in the race for a conference title. I fully expect them to rebound from the slow conference start and at least scare several teams along the way. Additionally, the four seniors would love to claim a farewell victory over Summitt as one last in-state memento for their school.
But Vanderbilt's fate is to play Tennessee immediately after Georgia, which has to qualify for the most difficult 1-2 punch in the conference. Given Georgia's exhausting style of play and the newfound team chemistry of the Lady Vols, this game appears heavily tilted in UT's favor - so long as the Ladies don't get to cocky about it.
Oh, and this is a home game for UT, which means they don't have to deal with that screwball court in Nashville.
By the end of the month, Tennessee will have played Georgia, LSU, and Vanderbilt, which accounts for three of the top four opponents in the SEC. They'll have a rematch with LSU alongside the Kentucky game at the end of the season, but everybody else is very beatable by the resurgent Lady Vols. But January will dictate the terms of the rest of the season, and Tennessee has a real shot to put the conference in their rear view mirror early. Which I fully expect them to do.