12-3 (3-0 SEC)
14-2 (3-0 SEC)
The SEC has four teams at 3-0 in conference play: Tennessee, Kentucky, LSU, and South Carolina. After tonight, there will be only two; Tennessee visits Kentucky and South Carolina heads to LSU. While there is still the possibility of a different team winning the SEC, all signs point to the Tennessee/Kentucky contest as the one that will determine who is in the driver's seat for the conference and who is riding shotgun. The winner will have the chance to effectively clinch the SEC on February 13th, when these teams rematch in Knoxville.
40 Minutes of Politically Correct Hell
Kentucky calls their up-tempo pressure style of play as "40 Minutes of Dread". Those who watched Nolan Richardson's Arkansas squads would instantly recognize the rebranding of the "40 Minutes of Hell" moniker that earned the Arkansas men's team an NCAA title in 1994. Kentucky loves to apply full court pressure, to double-team the instant the dribble is picked up, and to use a deep rotation to allow for full-speed play as much as possible. So far, only Arkansas has committed fewer than 22 turnovers against Kentucky this year (they committed 18). Kentucky's turnover differential is +12.9 which, along with the turnover rate, is first in the NCAA.
The secret to Kentucky's pressure is using fast, smaller players that can rotate into double-teams quickly and are hard to beat off the dribble. Looking at the possible starting roster / players of note above, you'll see that Kentucky usually opens in a 4-guard offense, with Drake available for rebounding and interior defense. Many of their reserves are well under 6 feet tall, so Kentucky will not enjoy height advantages over many teams.
But Kentucky hopes to avoid the need for height. In their route of Mississippi State on Sunday, the Lady Bulldogs had difficulties pushing the ball up the floor. When they did come across, their point guard had trouble calling plays near the halfcourt line with a defender up close and personal. (To be fair, MSU was as overmatched on Sunday as Arkansas was when they played Tennessee. Mississippi State played three true freshman for much of the game, so it's hardly surprising they weren't able to handle the pressure, but the point stands; Kentucky does not wait for halfcourt offenses to start.)
Imposition of Will
For all of Kentucky's success with pressure, they still have a glaring Achilles' Heel: they're not a good halfcourt team on either end of the floor. Part of this is the lack of height; once a team gets the ball in the paint, they can usually play above Kentucky's head. However, part is simply the 'pick your poison' effect of the limited hours of college practice. They put so much time into developing their pressure that their halfcourt time inevitably suffers.
Tennessee, on the other hand, is a different type of beast. Where Kentucky's pressure is intended to create turnovers and tire opponents, Tennessee's is designed to sap the shotclock. If Tennessee can keep an opponent from crossing halfcourt before 10 seconds expire on the clock, they consider it a win. Kentucky considers it a win if they can keep the ball from crossing halfcourt, period. While Kentucky suffers in halfcourt, Tennessee thrives.
That is not to say that Tennessee should attempt to slow down this game, nor will they. The Lady Vols are built to play with speed and energy; abandoning that for contrast would be a huge mistake. But Tennessee does need to avoid cheap turnovers and to force Kentucky into their halfcourt offense. The man-switch defense that Tennessee employs has been a halfcourt nightmare for opponents, giving zone-like denial of passing lanes while still avoiding the open shots from the perimeter.
In sum, the game may very well be won or lost when Tennessee brings the ball up the floor. If Kentucky creates the turnovers they crave, it will be difficult for Tennessee to score efficiently enough to overcome the cheap transition points. If Tennessee can effectively advance the ball and find good shots, they can force Kentucky into their halfcourt offense, where Tennessee should enjoy a huge advantage. Much of this may end up falling on Ariel Massengale. The freshman has been outstanding this year, and she is the best option for safely bringing the ball up court. If she remains as cagey and impressive as she has all year, she could single-handedly frustrate Kentucky's pressure and tilt the game handily in Tennessee's favor. Kentucky will likely try to tire out Ariel in order to get her to the bench. When Ariel is catching a breather, the rest of the team needs to be careful with the ball, likely having Stricklen bring it up the court.
Tennessee has one other advantage in this game: while most Kentucky opponents have never seen a team with such speed and pressure, Tennessee has. They beat a similarly-built Miami team in Knoxville early in the season. Additionally, Tennessee plays against speed and pressure every day in practice, albeit of a slightly different variety. The faster Tennessee can tune into Kentucky's style of play and get acclimated to the game, the sooner they can neutralize Kentucky's primary threat and attack the weaknesses of the Wildcats.
Rebounding Wins Championships
Every Lady Vols fan is familiar with the full phrase, but rebounding will likely be the key in this game. Kentucky cannot effectively apply full-court pressure unless they make a basket. If they are allowed to capture offensive boards and avoid missed-shot transitions, they will continue to press and hunt for turnovers. If they are denied the ball on a miss, they are forced to play halfcourt defensive and are far more vulnerable. On the other end, Glory Johnson has proven to be a master at offensive boards turned putbacks. Kentucky has averaged 42 rebounds/game to their opponents' 35, but much of that has come at the expense of lesser competition, such as Morehead State and Jacksonville State (100-25LOL).
In summary, this should be an exciting, fast-paced game of two teams that are perfectly comfortable running up and down the floor all night long. Kentucky plays a slightly deeper bench, has no problem taking fouls, and hangs everything on their pressure. Tennessee is more versatile between pressure and halfcourt play, and is far better in the paint.
Prediction: 79-68 Tennessee
BassWatch: Final minutes of the game. Kamiko will provide rotation for the guards tonight.
Chris: The more I think about this game, the happier I get. Not because it's another top-ten team on the road (it is) or it's Kentucky (it is) or because the Ladies match up well here (they do). It's because this is the game that will get Stricklen out of her rut in a big way. It started against Arkansas, but was overshadowed by Glory Johnson and the defense. That won't happen tonight (well, the defense part should); the last time she played Kentucky, Stricklen and Angie Bjorklund just went off to the tune of 15 threes between them, turning the SEC Championship Game into an absolute laugher. Both teams remember that, though.
The one weapon the Lady Vols bring into this game they didn't have last year: ball control. Ariel is a much better ball handler than either Simmons or Kamiko, and the little things matter. The Ladies need this game tonight if they want to have a chance to get on the #1 seed line come March. It's that simple. Championship-caliber (big-C Champions, mind you, the ones that play in April) teams win games like this; the matchups will be nice, the talent is within range, the pace will be frenetic, the crowd will be hostile. Stricklen will be the best player on the court tonight; let's hope she lives up to the billing.
83-65 Tennessee. I'm in line with Hoop on BassWatch, and yes, that margin should give you a clue on how I feel about Championship hopes right now.