In a way, I really couldn't be happier about how the regular season has gone for the Lady Vols. Despite dropping a real head-scratcher to Georgetown in the Paradise Jam, the no-show against Baylor, and the multitude of dubious wins throughout conference play, Tennessee is positioning themselves for their best shot at a deep NCAA run since the Candace Parker-led championship teams. The depth may actually be the greatest in the history of Tennessee basketball, and the mix of players affords Tennessee the opportunity to match up favorably against just about anything the field can throw their way.
Thanks to the Georgia game, the road to readiness for the NCAA tournament is now clear. The Lady Vols do indeed have a chance to play to their full potential during the tournament. They're not quite there yet, but the remaining improvements can realistically be fit within the remaining timetable. With a little bit of luck, a lack of further injuries, and a lot of hard work, the Tennessee team we could only dream about four weeks ago may very well be a reality when it counts.
Right now, the prime piece of the puzzle is Angie Bjorklund. Her three-point shot, on-court leadership, and ball control are three elements that Tennessee needs available for loser-goes-home play. The foot injury that sidelined her has cost her the ability to maintain peak conditioning for games, which is why she only logged eleven minutes against Georgia. Bjorklund is one of the few players that has played a full 40-minute game this year for Tennessee (Spani is another), but even if she doesn't go the distance in the tournament, she needs to be ready for a 35-minute performance from time to time. Tennessee's offense took a noticeable hit when Bjorklund left the lineup; although other players have since improved and filled in the void, Tennessee is simply a much stronger offensive team with Angie - and offense has been their weakness all season long.
After Angie, the trio of rehabbing post players are the next concern. Alyssia Brewer and Vicki Baugh are making terrific strides and played 25 and 16 minutes respectively against Georgia. Both have started games, and both have really stood out as dominant interior players. They should be in good shape for the tournament and will need to be conditioned well enough to be available for 25-30 minutes a night, twice a weekend. Meanwhile, Kelley Cain is showing symptoms of fatigue from her extensive play throughout this season when the other post players were not available. Having played reduced minutes last week and sitting out against Georgia, Cain is now the Lady Vols most physically distant from her peak performance. She's taken a heavy pounding this year and may not be up to full potential by the playoffs, but if she be available for up to 15 minutes a game or so, she can bring her shotblocking to bear and provide a different dimension to the interior. And if all three can provide enough minutes such that at least one is on the floor at all times, Glory Johnson will be freed up for Beast Mode, alternating between post and perimeter defense and generally being Miss Rebound.
Meighan Simmons has played two very solid games in a row now, scoring in double figures and shooting a decidedly not-abysmal 12-24 from the field (for both games combined). The freshman slump may very well be ending; if she can continue to make shots at a 40% or better pace, her confidence should return and she will probably relax. Her awareness of the floor has improved markedly since the beginning of the season as well. With 4 assists in each of the last two games, Simmons is finding ways to distribute the ball to the open player rather than just jacking up everything in sight. She's not a point guard and will take over Bjorklund's spot next year, but playing point with the starters has made her a more complete player; the development has been worth the struggle.
Lauren Avant continues to play for roughly 10 minutes a game. The girl is absolutely fearless and confident in her ability, which will suit her very well as a point guard for the team. The "dance with what brung ya" theory suggests that she won't become a starter for the tournament, but her time in relief means that the Lady Vols will always have a floor general on the court. Just two weeks ago, that was the stuff of dreams.
Meanwhile, Alicia Manning is going full Beast on the court; she has always been a tenacious rebounder and defender, but her extra practice time on her free throws and three-point shots have made her a legitimate offensive threat for the Lady Vols. Having typically been substituted into games for defensive change-ups, Alicia Manning gives Pat Summitt an asset on both sides of the court. These next few games are chances for her to build by repitition; once Manning knows that her newfound offensive prowess is here to stay, she's going to be a real terror on scouting reports.
Between now and the NCAA tournament, Tennessee has two regular season games and up to three SEC tournament games. After the SEC tourney, the Ladies enjoy a week off so that the men's and women's tournaments start on separate weekends. That week off should benefit Tennessee more than any other top-10 team, as the rest and recovery affects nearly everybody on a roster that is now running eleven deep.