Lady Vols Trial By Fire: The Path to the Final Four Begins Tonight

The Lady Vols have never been a team to shy away from a tough schedule, and this year appears no different.  It should be no surprise that the first ten games include three preseason top 10 teams (and a fourth - Notre Dame - happens in the middle of conference play).  But the story of the schedule goes beyond the rankings of the teams.  While all games (even the "lesser" games) occur against respectable opponents, the very schedule itself is designed to prepare the Lady Vols for the NCAA tournament and is divergent from the normal Sunday-Thursday rotation that Tennessee typically employs.

Here are the first ten games, which all occur before Christmas:

Date Opponent AP Rank Conference
11/13 Pepperdine - WCC
11/15 Miami 7 ACC
11/20 @ Virginia - ACC
11/27 Baylor 1 Big 12
11/29 MTSU - Sun Belt
12/04 Texas - Big 12
12/11 @ DePaul 18 Big East
12/13 @ Rutgers 15 Big East
12/17 @ UCLA 22 PAC 12
12/20 @ Stanford 5 PAC 12

 

The grey highlighting illustrates games that are played within two days of each other, just like in tournament mode.  Additionally, all two-day pairings occur at roughly the same location.  This makes obvious sense for travel logistics, but is also similar to games played during the tournament.  Additionally, all pairings involve at least one ranked team, and the four pairings provide a good cross-section of conferences that typically send several teams to the Dance.

Digging a little deeper, the opponents also play vastly different styles of basketball.  Miami is a two-guard, high-tempo team that will challenge the Lady Vols with tempo, the press, and aggressive, risky defense.  Baylor is Griner.  Rutgers plays a unique defense that is effectively in part because of that uniqueness, but in larger part to the team's commitment to it.  Stanford plays the Ogwumike sisters (who never seem to graduate) and one of the best front courts in the league.

All in all, it's a highly competitive, very diverse schedule that closely mimics the tournament.  If the Lady Vols want to be ready for March, then November and December may be their most crucial months.

While Pepperdine is a respectable club, the schedule starts in earnest tonight as #7 Miami rolls into town.  The Lady Canes were excited enough about the Tennessee game that they openly admitted thinking about Tennessee prior to their game against Texas Pan-American (during postgame comments).  They also have a particular enthusiasm for Coach Meier, who - unbeknownst to Meier at the time - got her big break into head coaching thanks to Pat Summitt's personal recommendation.  (Aside: beyond the Lady Vols and her direct coaching tree, the amount of influence that Summitt has had in women's basketball is absolutely astounding.)

Miami features two senior guards who are considered by some to be the best PG/SG combo in the nation.  With the recent transfer of 6'-6" Shawnice Wilson from Pittsburgh, the Canes now have an interior presence that can keep up with opponents' height, securing the biggest hole in their roster last year.    They also had the advantage of playing their opener last Friday (as opposed to Tennessee's opener on Sunday) and being able to watch Tennessee play as a part of their scouting.

The strong guard play of Miami will reveal Tennessee's guards for who they are.  Ariel Massengale looked terrific against Pepperdine, but now has to face a serious step up in defensive assignments.  If Meighan Simmons has ball-handling issues like she did on Sunday, Miami is fast enough and smart enough to create turnovers.  Brianna Bass has shown a new commitment to defense and will be crucial to the rotation, and her progress will be on display.  Tonight, the guards will be exposed for who they are at this point in the seasn, whether that is a backcourt that is well on their way to tournament time, or a group that may yet again be a limitation to Tennessee's success.

That said, the guards have shown a tremendous amount of potential and may be the backcourt that Tennessee has been looking for since the departure of Shannon Bobbitt.  Tonight, the refining fire is hot and the Lady Vols are about to be immersed in the greatest women's basketball school ever conceived - the Pat Summitt nonconference schedule.

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