18-11 (8-7 SEC)
27-2 (15-0 SEC)
It's Senior Day today, meaning that this is the last-ever home game for Angie Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone. The two seniors have stood watch over the best and worst of times in Tennessee Lady Vols basketball, starting with a national championship in the 2007-2008 season and following up with Tennessee's only first-round exit from the NCAA tournament. (Aside: yes, we understand how fortunate we are to have a first-round NCAA tournament exit as the no-kidding absolute low point of the program.) The team will attempt to send the two seniors out with an undefeated run through the SEC against Tennessee's biggest rival of the last decade. Even though LSU isn't what they were just a few short years ago, they have provided some of the most entertaining game and should have a measure of appreciation from UT fans for their contribution to the sport.
That's not a typo; Sydney Smallbone is expected to join Angie Bjorklund in the starting lineup for senior day. The ginger has certainly deserved her moment in the sun; though she never cracked the roster for a lot of playing time, she was the consummate team player, never complaining and always playing hard. Angie Bjorklund's exploits have been far more visible, and the Lady Vols career three-point leader will join her fellow senior in an attempt to leave regular season play in style.
On the other side of the court is an LSU team that is fighting for SEC tournament position in the middle of the pack. The LSU collapse (from their elite level a few years ago) would have been the stuff of legend had it happened to a men's basketball team. When the Lady Tigers were routinely making the Final Four, then-head coach Pokey Chatman was forced to resign in 2007 amid some rather torrid circumstances. Since then, the talent pool understandably dropped, leaving a void in the SEC for a true rival to Tennessee. Still, LSU has a good fan base in place, with good university support for the program. Hopefully they will rebound and bring back some of the conference depth.
This year's LSU team bookends the conference schedule for Tennessee. In the opening SEC game, Tennessee won a close match in Red Stick 73-65 in a game that Tennessee never made a three-point shot. The Lady Tigers will concede height and length to Tennessee, as is the norm in conference, though future years to have the promise of 6'-5" Theresa Plaisance and 6'04" Shanece McKinney to return some of LSU's typical interior size. But if we're going to compare the January 2nd game to today's matchup, we can't avoid the truth that Tennessee has made incredible progress as a team, while LSU is substantively the same team they were two months ago. Starting with the second half against Vanderbilt, the recent string of SEC demolishment suggests that Tennessee should win this one going away.
If so, we're still looking at this game to see how Tennessee continues to dial in for the NCAA tournament. All the players want this one for Angie and Sydney; motivation should be no problem. (Besides, they don't want to end the regular season with a loss.) I fully expect Tennessee to come out firing and to come out on a mission. So when I watch, I will be looking for the following things:
- Will the recent uptick in assists continue? Can the passing be as crisp as it was against Georgia?
- If Tennessee builds a large lead, will they continue attacking the boards or will they relax?
- Will Meighan Simmons continue to work out of her slump, or does her 20% shooting against Ole Miss portend more struggles?
Unfortunately, we won't be watching to see if Kelley Cain is doing better; she'll miss one more game because of her right hip, which has kept her sidelined for the last two weeks. Also, Lauren Avant will be out this game. What we didn't notice during the leaky roof phase of the Ole Miss game was that Avant was taken to the locker room by the trainers while the bucket and towel brigade was trying to keep the floor dry. She had concussion symptoms (though I never saw the cause), and will be out of this game following standard post-concussion, don't-let-their-brains-become-jello procedure. Avant should be back for the SEC tournament, but Cain's nagging injuries are becoming problematic.
At risk of arrogance, anything short of feeling comfortable of a win throughout the game will be a warning sign. If this team is as focused on the tournament as they seem to be, they'll take the opportunity to further focus themselves on tournament play by taking LSU seriously and leaving no room for doubt. I fully expect this to happen; if there was to be a letdown, it would have happened on the road at a wounded Ole Miss team, but that possibility was laid to rest by the time the score was 31-7.
Prediction: 78 - 49 Tennessee
BassWatch™: 6 minutes of the second half. Everybody's playing today, but the seniors will be on the floor at the very end.