The overtime loss was so unexpected that it took a while to process its implications and fairly understand both why the loss happened and what it means for Tennessee's title hopes moving forward. We're an optimistic bunch, and it was easy to see the overwhelming amount of talent on the Lady Vol roster and get all starry-eyed about how the season was going to go. One loss in, and the thoughts of an undefeated run are washed down the drain with the cold shower of reality. Any such loss gives good reason to doubt a team's chances for a national title, but such losses can be beneficial this early in the season as well. Not only are the tinted glasses removed, but we can make a much more honest appraisal of this squad and what we need to see between now and March.
First, credit where credit is due.
In our pregame, we noted that Virginia's early schedule precluded a real gauge on their quality. Virginia is traditionally a very good team and has some good veteran talent, but operating under a first year head coach and playing some rather gooey, frosting-laden cupcakes makes for some very dubious results. But this Virginia team played with poise and energy all game long, and their match zone was executed very well. Virginia was predicted to be 8th in the ACC due mostly to the coaching transition, but with current knowledge there is every reason to believe they can compete for top 4 in the league, placing them close to Miami, Duke, and North Carolina. They will live and die by the halfcourt game; if they can be forced into a run-and-gun, they are at risk, but they know how to run halfcourt on both ends, which will keep them in many games.
Second, a perfect storm.
Quickly, here is a list of several things that went disastrously wrong for the Lady Vols:
+ Perimeter shooting. 5-24 from three, which was much worse prior to overtime. Anything CLOSE to a reasonable perimeter game would have carried the day. But again, Virginia's match zone frustrated Tennessee's range shooters (especially Spani, who they double-teamed all game long). More worrisome was Simmons's return to her "shoot first, shoot always, shoot immediately" form in the first half. Many of Virginia's rebounds in the first half (where they enjoyed a 23-18 advantage by halftime) came when shots were fired before Tennessee could set up for rebounds.
+ Rebounding. Again, Tennessee was outrebounded in the first half, but this was mostly attributable to shooting too quickly and not allowing the opportunity for offensive boards. They're still a bit lethargic on the glass in the first half, but at least they believed in it more than the Miami game.
+ Turnovers. 24 of 'em. Ariel had her first true "freshman game" with 7 turnovers to only 7 assists. She has 13 turnovers all season long, meaning over half her turnovers came in one game. This was partly due to the match zone that Tennessee had not faced before, but more will be made on this point in a minute.
+ Free throws. Glory Johnson, we're looking straight at you. Tennessee shot 11-21 from the charity stripe, mostly due to Glory's 5-13 effort. Glory put Virginia's interior in foul trouble early, but completely failed to capitalize. Meanwhile, Virginia was 16-22 as a team, and those few extra points made all the difference.
Third, this is for better and for worse.
It's always hard to take a loss like this and not think the worst. True, this team showed at least the potential to make a relatively early tournament exit if they don't get some deficiencies fixed. However, with a bit of perspective, most of their problems should have been expected, and these early games are supposed to find such flaws and give the team something to work on before conference and tournament play.
Consider that Tennessee has not had a point guard since Bobbitt. Cait McMahan was supposed to be the heir, but injuries forced her retirement from the team, and the timing of the departure effectively prevented the Lady Vols from recruiting a PG for two straight years. Last year, Lauren Avant was supposed to be the PG (and looked every bit the part), but also had nagging injury issues and had to leave the team. So here the team is, in their fourth year from Bobbitt and having three years in a row without meaningful point guard experience.
It's not just that they don't have an experienced point guard - it's that they don't have experience WITH a point guard. Tennessee has survived the last few years by outrunning teams (Stricklen and Simmons), outshooting them (Bjorklund), and outposting them (Cain and Brewer, when healthy). But the halfcourt game has always been lacking, and now the players have three years of bad habits they have to undo. Against Virginia, the habit that killed them was their passing. A team that plays in transition does not have to worry about telegraphing their passes because the opposition isn't in place to do anything about it. In the halfcourt, Tennessee telegraphs their passes, and Virginia was quick enough to jump into the passing lanes, causing several unforced turnovers. The tells also allowed Virgina to double-team faster than Tennessee could pass to the open player. If Tennessee had played with a point guard the last three years, they would have spent more time in halfcourt and not been so easy to read. This is perhaps the top point for the team to fix, and they have a lot of time to work on it.
But you just can't expect a team to magically play halfcourt when they've spent the last three years avoiding it.
The lack of halfcourt also explains some of Simmons's tendency to forget about the rest of the team on offense. She's used to it from high school, but she was also used to transition basketball last year. She's not used to having a point guard on the floor. Against Miami, when the tempo was up, Meighan was gold. Against Virginia, when the tempo was halfcourt, Meighan tried to play at transition speed and was much less effective. She, like the rest of the team, needs to learn halfcourt with a point guard. She's certainly a willing learner, but will necessarily have growing pains through the year.
Fourth, gardens don't grow overnight.
This is the best collection of talent that Tennessee has had since the last championship year. Additionally, this team is built more cohesively than in years past, not only because of Ariel, but because the athleticism of the posts matches that of the forwards and guards, allowing the entire team to run in transition and play at high speed. (Aside: every single player has run a fast break for Tennessee, including freshman center Isabelle Harrison.) When the team clicks, as in the second half of Miami, they may well be unstoppable by any team in the nation. But there is so much transition to this team (less height, a point guard, and a renewed need for halfcourt offense) that it will take time. It's entirely possible for this Tennessee team to enter the NCAA tournament as a 3 or 4 seed yet leave as champions. From here to January, the focus is on growth first, and results a close second.
I see two focal points for growth over the next two months: first half focus and halfcourt offense. The team needs to have a clear understanding of their game plan from the opening tipoff rather than to feel it out for a while. Against Virginia, they had plenty of opportunity to open an early lead and threaten to run away and hide. Even a modest lead would have forced Virginia out of their gameplan to compensate for Tennessee's successes. A team like Virginia cannot be allowed to hang around, and teams like Baylor cannot be allowed to build early leads. These problems can be avoided by starting out in synch rather than working into rhythm.
Teams will play zone against Tennessee until the Ladies prove they can run halfcourt offense. This will certainly improve with increased familiarity of playing with a point guard, but it has to be more than just playing time for Ariel. The Ladies have to pass better, run offensive sets with more precision, and clean up the habits they developed while playing a run-and-gun offense over the last three years. Add a half court game to Tennessee's significant defensive, transition, and rebound arsenal, and this team may yet grow into an unbeatable force in March.
Oh, and Glory? Work on your free throws. Thanks.