26-2 (14-0 SEC)
10-16 (3-11 SEC)
* - ESPN3 will be blacked out in some areas - most likely including Knoxville. [sigh]
Having secured the SEC regular season crown outright, the Lady Vols now prepare for the tournaments by wrapping up the last two games of the season. As far as the SEC tournament goes, this game is meaningless for Tennessee and only affects Mississippi's final SEC standing; there is no chance of a bye round for the Lady Rebels. Tennessee also needs to merely win to maintain their grip on a #1 seed for the NCAA tournament. It doesn't even have to be convincing, though they are much better off developing a 40-minute mindset in anticipation of the future games.
Unfortunately for Ole Miss, this game is a worst-case scenario.
** - For reasons that will become very obvious, I do not guarantee any accuracy to Mississippi's projected starting lineup.
Before I continue, let me first thank the UT Lady Vols website crew for keeping up with news on the team. If our unquestioned team leader and leading scorer were out for five games in a row, our athletic department wouldn't continually update the game previews with news about how she was scoring so well. [/stinkeye at Ole Miss] Kayla Melson had the misfortune of colliding with a teammate against Vanderbilt and getting carried of the court on January 30th. She made it back for the next game against Florida, where she again collided with a teammate and had to be helped off. Exhibiting signs of a concussion, Melson has since missed every game, and there is no news about her availability to play tonight other than the same exact line that has preceded all of the last five games.
Ole Miss is led by Kayla Melson who is averaging 15.6 points per game.
Ok, so Tennessee is peaking and Ole Miss is without their best player. Ole Miss also played their last game without starter Pa'Sonna Hope (who was listed as a starter by Mississippi's media guide for the game). Pa'sonna is Mississippi's leading rebounder (6.6/game) and 4th-leading score (7.7/game). Without both Melson and Hope, Ole Miss is lacking a combined 23.3 points and 11.7 rebounds per game as they face the best scoring and rebounding team in the conference. Unless somebody actually provides word to the contrary, I do not see any Hope for Mississippi in this game.
Ok, so why should I watch?
We're watching this game to see if Tennessee continues to dial in for the NCAA tournament run. With Vicki Baugh and Alyssia Brewer both making giant strides in productivity and minutes played, we can assume that they'll be ready by tournament time. Their returns could not have come at a better time, as we now watch Kelley Cain to see if she can find the balance between rest and playing time to optimize her performance and conditioning for the NCAA games. Angie Bjorklund will also be worth watching as she works herself back into game-ready condition after her foot injury. Her 11 minutes against Georgia were a great start, but she needs to be ready for 35 a night in two weeks. Lauren Avant played 9 minutes against the Lady Bulldogs, but she likely won't see more than 15 against quality NCAA teams, so we can feel confident about her health status at the moment.
Beyond injuries, Tennessee needs to reinforce the kind of performance they unloaded on Georgia on Monday. The 23 to 12 A/TO mark was abnormally good for them. In a purely statistical sense, it's an outlier; can they make that the norm rather than the other way around? Both the zone and trap defenses worked well on Monday (as they have all year); what defensive sets will Tennessee use against Ole Miss? This may be a great opportunity to polish up their man defense (not the man-switch, which also works very well).
Lastly, there are the non-starters to watch. Alicia Manning scored 6 points and nabbed 8 rebounds against Georgia, including another three. Can she make her offense legitimate enough to force teams to scout her? Kamiko Williams had a quiet night offensively (5 points), but racked up 7 rebounds; can she also find more consistency on offense? If the bench players can bring their scoring tallies to the same point-per-minute pace as the starters, then the vision of the deepest team in the nation may indeed be for real. If Cain can be healthy enough, Tennessee may legitimately be 11-deep headed into the NCAA tournament with no real drop in performance between the starters and the bench.