We expect a lot from our Ladies. That's not surprising - after all, the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame is in Knoxville for a reason, and there are enough banners hanging from the TBA banners to satisfy most schools for a lifetime. We have high expectations most years to begin with, but with a huge, talented recruiting class all hitting their upperclassmen year this time around the writing was on the wall. We expect a clean sweep (well, not everyone, but a definite majority).
What does a clean sweep look like in the women's game? Well, the women's game doesn't have as many strong team as the men's game - talent is concentrated in fewer teams, and the gap between the haves and have-nots is larger when compared to the men. That's a function of the development system in middle school and high school; that gap may close with time, but it's less an issue to be conquered and more a reality to be noted right now. Conversely, the teams that have talent are much stronger, and if you're a team with talent, you need to play games against talent to determine where you stand. In other words, there are going to be games the Ladies play that are functionally useless as an evaluation tool. No offense intended to, say, Old Dominion, who have a once-proud program, but they're not on the same talent level as the Ladies, nor are they very close. For that matter, no offense to Rutgers (the Ladies' next opponent), who are having a rough season. Those games shouldn't be contests. That means, if we're going to attempt to figure out anything about the Ladies this year, it comes down to four games: Georgetown, Texas, Baylor, and Stanford.
The Ladies' record during those games? 2-2. That's fine for most teams, but if you want to raise a banner, it has to be better than that, and the losses need to be better than they were. Georgetown was an inexcusable loss, fraught with sloppy play and an inability to deal with a bizarrely-hot deep shooting team. Baylor was never a contest. Yes, Baylor is a very good team (and yes, Griner gets the benefit of the doubt from the refs more often than not, and yes, she's 6'8", thank you ESPN, we get it, move on), but Baylor did to the Tennessee women what the Tennessee men did to Pittsburgh. It was never a contest.
Sure, the road win at Texas was nice (it was also never a contest), and the home win over Stanford in OT was critical and gutty. I don't want to marginalize those wins - especially the game against Stanford. However, Texas is a low-25 team, and Stanford came to Knoxville. Those wins were the bare minimum for a Final Four-type team.
Right now, this team isn't good enough to take home the trophy.I put a lot of stock into road & neutral performances. Of those four games, three qualified. The only good performance of the lot was Texas. That's not measuring up to the standards of, well, Baylor and Stanford (and yes, UConn. Man, it hurts to say that). Had Tennessee closed out Stanford at home, I might think otherwise. Had they hung tough in Waco, I might think otherwise. But right now? Not happening.
That isn't to say they won't be good enough to take home the trophy in April, but there's work to be done. That isn't to say there aren't great stories and great things that have come out of the first half of the season. Heck, let's list a couple.
- The emergence of Meighan Simmons. Nobody really knew what to make of this hot-shooting true freshman guard when she was lighting people up in exhibition games. Then she went on a tear to start the season (including one game where she made eight(!) three-pointers) and has turned into one of the most reliable scoring options from the outside, pairing well with Angie Bjorklund - and more importantly, functioning as a legitimate outside threat when Bjorklund needs to go out of the game. She didn't start the season opener against Louisville, but hasn't missed a start since.
- The reinvention of Glory Johnson. Anyone who's followed me in gamethreads knows my favorite player on the team - and it's not Kelley Cain. When she's on, Glory has the most diverse array of post moves on the team and can score at will; her problem going into the season was she had no clue how to harness her athleticism. Turns out she turned herself as a dominant rebounder, as she's pulling down nearly 9 boards a game in 23 minutes of action (translated to a 40-minute average, that's 15.4 boards a game, or 0.4 boards a minute, or dominant if you prefer not to deal in numbers). Most people probably pegged her as 7th or 8th in the rotation going into the season, but she hasn't missed a start either.
We haven't seen anything yet this season to make me think the Ladies won't pick up the double (that is, the SEC regular season championship and the SEC tournament crown) - Kentucky is the biggest threat in the league, and Tennessee's better than them. Then again, they were better than Georgetown, too. What needs to happen before the tournament?
- Kelley Cain needs to be healthy, and if she's not, then she needs to be a force of nature. I don't know if Cain will ever really be healthy - some people are just predisposed to injury, and others play like they're inviting their bodies to break down. While Cain is playing her smartest basketball of her life right now, she's also falling apart, and if Tennessee's going to make a run, she needs to be preserved. I'm fine with bringing her off the bench, in all honesty; we have a pretty easy conference slate as these things go. Still, if she's not healthy there's a reasonable argument for going "Look, you won't be healthy this year and that's fine. But you will play 8 minutes a half, and we will run the offense through you, so go all-out for those 16 minutes a game and we'll take care of you after the game is over". So far she's averaged 17 minutes a game, so we're right on track with her minutes. The rest of the show needs a bit of improvement.
- Pat Summitt needs a PG. Hands down, this has to happen. It's plagued the team for the last couple of years, and all the latent issues - turnovers, mental focus, crunch-time response - can be traced back to that. There are a couple of candidates on the roster, most notably Lauren Avant. However, do you trust a true frosh PG in March, especially when she hasn't seen a ton of PT yet? I don't, and I don't think Summitt does, either. Bjorklund and Simmons can handle the point in a pinch, but they're much better as shooting guards. That puts the burden back in the hands of Shekinna Stricklen, who, well...
- Shekinna Stricklen needs to make this her team. Go through some game recaps here - we spend a ton of virtual ink talking about Bjorklund, Kelley Cain, Simmons, Glory Johnson (those are the ones I've done). We don't spend enough time talking about Stricklen, who's the actual engine of the team. Stricklen is by far the most diverse threat on the team on both ends of the floor and does most of the ball-handling when a true PG is absent. Obviously, she's not a guard - not at 6'2" and with 7 boards a game, but a point-forward role is unique in the women's game. It's Stricklen's game to command, and that absolutely needs to happen. (And when it does happen, can you tone down the turnovers a bit? Thanks.)
Hold on, I'm not done with this yet. Stricklen is the only player on the team that has the personality to take over this year - Bjorklund doesn't have it, Glory doesn't have it, Cain can't be on the floor enough, and Simmons isn't ready for it yet. (Come 2012, it won't be an issue.) She's talented enough to do it, and she can straight-up demand the ball in crunch time. Being a true alpha dog is more than just being able to score at will, and it's more than just crashing the boards haphazardly. Come crunch time, she needs to facilitate and dominate. The Stanford comeback was Simmons and Bjorklund, and that can work, but Stricklen is the all-around best player on the team. She needs to do it.
And if she can't, well, then it better be Simmons - and our national championship aspirations would rest on the shoulders of a true freshman. That doesn't fill me with confidence.