The Lady Vols now know their first opponent of the SEC tournament; thanks to 10 three-point shots and 77% free throw shooting, Ole Miss advanced past South Carolina in a one-point victory and will now play Tennessee on Friday at noon Eastern.
The Mississippi victory was one that showed just how much the little details can count. The referees checked their hair-triggers at the door and allowed the gals to play, which let Junior guard Kayla Melson logged a full 40 minutes of play; her meager 4 points of production were more than compensated for by her 7 rebounds and 9 assists as she spearheaded the show. Other Rebel guards logged a lot of minutes as well: Shantell Black had 37, Bianca Thomas had 36, and Elizabeth Robertson had 33. (Yes, four guards averaged about 36 minutes of game time each.) This speaks to Ole Miss's strength and their weakness: they have great production from the perimeter from their starters, but have no real depth in the interior or on the bench.
The Lady Vols, meanwhile, enjoyed a day off as their top seed earned them a bye through the preliminary round. Their last action was on February 28th against ... er ... Ole Miss. This will be the third time these teams meet this year, and the Lady Vols enjoy the benefit of having a true back-to-back setup on the last two meetings. With the dominant interior presence of Kelley Cain and the vastly improved Alyssia Brewer, the Ladies are set up well to control the interior on both ends of the floor. If Glory Johnson can find her early-season magic, UT will present a three-woman front that Ole Miss cannot hope to contain.
In a way, Tenneseee is built as the opposite of Ole Miss; where the Rebels hang their hopes on their point guard play, UT has consistently struggled to stabilize the point guard role. Shekinna Stricklen's work at the point is rather impressive for a player who really should be on the wing, but Brianna Bass and Kamiko Williams still have yet to live up to expectations when commanding the offense. If Stricklen ends up in foul trouble, Tennessee's advantage may be nullified by an inability to get the ball into the interior.
It's very difficult to beat a team three times in one year, as the losing team usually makes greater adjustments than the winner. But it's hard to imagine what more the Lady Rebels can do that they haven't already tried. Their hopes will rest on their shooting from the perimeter. Against South Carolina, they were 35% from the floor, but 40% from three-point land (10-25). If they can sustain 45% shooting against the Lady Vols on Friday, they will have a very real chance; their problem is that very few teams have shot above 40% against Tennessee this year.
Looking forward, Tennessee is nearly guaranteed a number one seed in the NCAA tournament. Their RPI and strength of schedule is - as usual - ridiculously high, and their two loss mark is better than any team ranked below them (Xavier has three losses). The only way they can lose that seed would be to lose badly to Ole Miss (a team they've beaten twice already) and for Xavier to win the A-10 tournament - and even that might not do it. Normally, a 1 seed and a 2 seed are virtually equivalent, but Tennessee is geographically in a good region to wind up in UConn's bracket if (a) they take a #2 seed, and (b) the selection committee decides to be mean. A UT/UConn matchup would be a fantastic game, but the longer it is put off in the tournament, the more UT benefits from the increased experience.