RTT's Weeklong 2010-11 Basketball Preview:
Monday: Vols - The New Core & The New Questions
Wednesday: Vols - Rotation, Rotation, Rotation
Thursday: Lady Vols - Dominating the Recruiting Wars
Potential. It's a tantalizing word, isn't it? It's why we get excited about sports (and it's nearly all we have left to look forward to in football), and for the Lady Vols, it's less on the team and more on the class. The freshman class of 2008-2009 was numerous, talented, and ...well, young. But given two years, youth gives way to experience, and this team is finally - finally - poised to take that step into the shoes of those who came before them. Yes, there are others beyond this class, most notably Angie Bjorklund and Sidney Smallbone, and there will be others once the upperclassmen graduate, but this team is the province of the juniors - Kelley Cain, Alicia Manning, Shekinna Stricklen, Vicki Baugh, Alyssia Brewer, Glory Johnson, Kamiko Williams, and Briana Bass.
It's weird to think that we're so tied to this class that - to date - has been among the least successful Tennessee has seen as far back as most of us can remember. Tennessee got bounced by Auburn in the SEC Tournament back in 2008, then lost to Ball State - Ball State - in the NCAA tourney.
That season was the worst we've seen since Pat Summitt stepped out as the coach. Last year, they did better; of course, better is a relative measure, and even with SEC regular season and tournament trophies, it felt incomplete. Maybe it felt incomplete because they got bounced in the Sweet 16 by a team they beat handily earlier in the season. Maybe it was fate that Kelley Cain would run into one of the few people who could actually shut her down in Brittney Greiner.
Tennessee is one of the few places that doesn't measure success in wins, or being competitive, or that one key victory. We're better than that. We need trophies. We need hardware.
In European soccer, most elite teams compete in three main competitions. The first is your domestic league, which is where most of your games are played. There's a second competition that typically involves every team in your country (both in your league and in leagues below yours), and then the truly elite play in Champions League. Each competition has a trophy associated with it; win your league and your country competition and you've won a double. Excellent teams win the double; Chelsea and Bayern Munich both won doubles last year. But Inter Milan won the double and the Champions League - in other words, they won the treble. That's the stuff of legends.
That sets up a pretty nice parallel, doesn't it? The Lady Vols have three main competitions this season, too: the SEC regular season, the SEC Tournament, and the NCAA Tournament. They won the double last year; wouldn't a repeat be nice? Of course, there's no guarantee of that; Kentucky isn't going anywhere anytime soon - Georgia and Vanderbilt will be tough outs. But there are no excuses this time around.
While we're at it, Tennessee doesn't lack for out-of-conference toughness. If they're going anywhere this season, the Lady Vols will know early. The schedule doesn't really get out-and-out difficult until December, but back-to-back-to-back dates against Texas, Baylor, and Stanford will tell us a lot about how good this team is. The first two of those are straight road dates, and while Texas is certainly winnable, school will be in session against Baylor. Of the Ladies' three losses last year, two came to Baylor and Stanford - both of whom are in the preseason top 5 (Baylor has even skimmed a first-place vote from another team whose name I dare not write in this space. But ESPN will tell you all about them.) Those are the toughest out-of-conference contests for the Lady Vols this year; Georgetown at the end of Paradise Jam in late November is the other big potential skin on the wall, but - to be honest - there's no excuse to lose any other non-conference game.
So what will the Lady Vols look like on the court? It's a credit and a curse that they're blessed with the level of depth they have, but there are no shortage of roster combinations to answer any questions. Let's have some fun:
Want a consistent, established five who work well together? Spani-Bjorklund-Manning-Stricklen-Cain.
Want a dominant interior presence and someone to take advantage of this? Stricklen-Bjorklund-Brewer-Johnson-Cain.
Three towers not enough for you? Stricklen-Brewer-Johnson-Baugh-Cain.
Want a second five that can match up with anyone? Smallbone-Williams-Johnson-Brewer-Baugh.
What about a lineup that can dominate when they get their heads on straight? Stricklen-Williams-Smallbone-Johnson-Brewer.
Want to make the other team cower in fear when they go to play defense? Simmons-Bjorklund-Johnson-Baugh-Cain.
Need a stop? Bjorklund-Spani-Manning-Brewer-Cain.
I could go on, but the point's pretty well established. The amazing thing is there's not that much of a dropoff between any of these five; the only player in any of these rotations that wasn't here last year is Meighan Simmons. The other amazing thing is I made it a point to avoid including Kelley Cain and Angie Bjorklund in every single one of the five. This team is deep.
Women's basketball is a weird creature; the youth ranks aren't strong enough yet to support a large crop of teams, so skill levels are clearly striated. At this point, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Tennessee is in the top tier, which means they should be able to play with anyone. What Tennessee lacks is true big-game success; that's why the early-season tilts with Baylor and Stanford are so crucial. Success in those games will turn heads. Beat Baylor and Kelley Cain establishes herself as the premier interior presence in the women's game (that would put her up 2-1 again Greiner). Beat Stanford and avenge last year's road loss. Win them both and Tennessee's 2-0 on the toughest two games on their schedule, and to be honest, the Ladies need to win one of those if they want to get to the ultimate goal -something that deserves to hang with the other seven Lady Vols banners.
There's no reason they can't get them both. Baylor was weak early in the season last year (and Greiner can't get nearly the favorable officiating she was getting in the last game Tennessee played; she shot approximately eleventy billion FTs) and Stanford is at home. The Ladies finally protected their home turf all year last year; there's no reason to expect otherwise until it happens. From there, the rest of the season falls into place. An undefeated season likely isn't realistic, but as long as they win their last game I think we'll all live with it.
The sky is the limit this season. Let's see a treble.