Now that all SEC women's teams have finished their regular season, the SEC tournament bracket has been released. With only one conference loss, Tennessee was easily the top seed (Kentucky is #2 with 5 total conference losses). With the top seed, the Lady Vols have a bye through the preliminary round of the tournament, allowing Kelley Cain to attend her classes today and keep her teachers happy. Their first game is on Friday at noon on FSN, and thanks to the wonders of the internet, ESPN360 will be carrying all of the games of the tournament.
The Lady Vols' first game will be against either Ole Miss or South Carolina - two teams that the Lady Vols have already played twice this season. Tennessee won all four games, although they had a scare in one game against each, so it's not a first round that UT can afford to sleepwalk through. Honestly, I believe that Ole Miss has a better chance at upending the Ladies than does South Carolina; the Lady Rebels have matched up well against Tennessee and have taken great advantage of sluggish play. They didn't beat the Lady Vols this year, but they most certainly could have - both times.
But even at that, I fully expect Tennessee to walk out of this game with a victory in hand - a victory that should be enough to ensure them of a number one seed in the NCAA tournament. Against both teams, Tennessee has a tremendous advantage in size and length, and neither opponent has the interior presence required to slow down the combination of Kelley Cain, Alyssia Brewer, and Glory Johnson.
The one concern for the Lady Vols is the point guard position. Shekinna Stricklen is playing very well at the point, but Brianna Bass and Kamiko Williams have been very inconsistent over the last few weeks; if Tennessee has to pull Stricklen out of the game for foul trouble, they risk having their offense fall to pieces and may experience one of those multi-minute scoreless stretches that they've had far too often this season. No matter who Tennessee's opponent may be, Stricklen is the focal point on Friday, as well as the remainder of the tournament.
Defensively, the Lady Vols have quietly become a very strong team over the last few weeks, thanks in large part to Alicia Manning. The Lady Vols with the infamous-yet-unrelated last name has become a rebounding monster over the last few weeks and is showing the talent and ability that Pat Summitt saw in her during her recruitment. Manning is not a prolific point-scorer but fills the roles the team has been lacking over the last few weeks - a forward who is very good at not getting boxed out and can frustrate the scoring forwards and the scoring guards of the other team. She is one of the more consistent Lady Vols with her intensity and effort on the court, a trait that has come at just the right time for a team that has a tendency to play lazy at times.
Beyond the first round
The team might not be allowed to look ahead, but there's no reason that we fans can't. After the opening round, UT (should they win) would face #4 LSU, #5 Vanderbilt, or #12 Arkansas. Vandy should take care of Arkansas in the preliminary round, but picking between them and LSU is a pure toss-up. I'm a little more worried about Vanderbilt than LSU; they know they Lady Vols very well and played two exciting games against them in the regular season. I really think that Vanderbilt is the team most likely to beat Tennessee in the tournament.
But should UT pass this round, they'll be in the finals. Kentucky should be the favorite to meet Tennessee on Sunday, which is really a best-case scenario for UT - not because Kentucky's the best team for Tennessee to face, but because sustained improvement in Kentucky women's basketball could very well establish a new UT-UK rivalry, and that's something I think we can all get behind.