Eliminating the Singularity

After the Vanderbilt game, Dan Fleser of GVX noted that Christina Foggie was the 11th player to score 20 or more points against Tennessee in the 17 games played. Digging a bit further, there are two key observations that can be made of the Tennessee defense. The evidence follows, but the conclusion is that (a) Tennessee often reduces opponents to one person taking a lot of shots and hitting 20 points by virtue of the number of attempts, and (b) that, for all intents and purposes, Tennessee is yielding points almost exclusively to guards.

Here is the list of players who have scored 20 on the Lady Vols this year:

Players who scored 20+ on Tennessee so far this year.
School Player Position Points
Miami Riquna Williams 24

Guard

Baylor Brittney Griner 26 Center
Baylor Odyssey Sims 23 Guard
Texas Chassidy Fussell 22 Guard
Rutgers April Sykes 27 Guard
UCLA Rebekah Gardner 24 Guard
Stanford Nnemkadi Ogwumike 42 Forward
Stanford Tony Kokenis 26 Guard
Auburn Camille Glymph 21 Guard
Kentucky A'dia Mathies 34 Guard
Vanderbilt Christina Foggie 27 Guard

There are two obvious exceptions in the list: Nneka and Brittney. Given that they are two upperclassmen of very rare ability surrounded by tremendously skilled players, it's not entirely surprising that they would have the best post games against Tennessee this year. Add in the particularly lackluster performance by Tennessee against Stanford, and those totals are easier to understand as exceptions to the norm. But even with Nneka and Brittney getting their points, it should be noted that they were not the only ones on their team to score 20. Just like every other game with a 20-point scorer, Stanford and Baylor saw guards get 20 points.

I won’t put all the numbers up here, but if you wish to review the stats (even the games without 20-point scorers), you'll notice that a lot of high individual point tallies came at the price of a ridiculous number of attempts. Sometimes it's ok to see an opponent get 20; if they took 35 shots to get there, it's a net win for the defense. Conversely, A'dia Mathies's 26 floor points on 20 shots isn't what you want to see. The scoring rate isn't 100% conclusive on its own, however; Odyssey Sims earned only 9 FG points on 15 shots, but was also 14-15 from the free throw line, so a lot of shooting fouls on her caused missed buckets but she made up the points at the line. The point is that the Tennessee defense is reducing opponents to one, maybe two viable scoring threats and effectively rendering the rest of the team irrelevant.

A part of this is the effect that Tennessee's defensive length and speed has on an opponent's game plan. Vanderbilt's Christina Foggie notched 27 points (21 from the floor on 16 net attempts, and 6-8 from the line) because Vanderbilt absolutely sold out to give her opportunities from three. Re-watching the game, it became apparent that if Vanderbilt could not find a way to get the ball inside they would set a double screen to open Foggie up. Counting the two screeners, the ball handler, and Foggie herself, this was a four-player effort that usually required at least one interior player, sacrificing the paint for the clean attempt. It worked for a while, but asking a single three-point shooter to carry an entire game is a murky proposition at best. Again, the point of explaining this is to illustrate that opponents are conceding that Tennessee is really, really strong on defense and are often countering by conceding a lot just to get a decent opportunity for their best shooter.

But there is more to the story than just double screens at the perimeter. In every game with a 20-point scorer, a guard has done the damage, and usually the interior players really aren't much of a factor on the scoresheet. If there is a chink in Tennessee's defense, it is guard defense. Unfortunately, Tennessee's best on-ball perimeter defender is their best post defender is their best rebounder is their best shot blocker is Glory Johnson. The girl can't be everywhere at all times, and Tennessee really doesn't want to pull her away from rebounding range too frequently, so the guard defense has to be assigned to somebody else, which usually means Ariel Massengale or Meighan Simmons. As a freshman, Ariel is showing a lot of defensive promise but is not yet the defender she will become. Meighan Simmons, meanwhile, gets into trouble with her speed as often as she makes great plays because of it. For every chase-down shot block, there's an overpursuit leaving an open shot. For every steal and fast break, there's an overcommitment that allows a ball handler to shake her off. Simmons is a much better defender this year than last, but she has further to go than Ariel.

The Tennessee defense will again be tested by a stellar point guard when Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins hits the court. Tennessee's hopes in this game all rest on their ability to stop Skylar, who is the best point guard that Tennessee will have faced all year. It's not an optimistic assessment for this Sunday, but this is the kind of game that can teach many lessons to the Lady Vol guard defenders and can possibly give Tennessee the experience they need to improve enough for a Final Four run.

All in all, it's not a tremendous concern that opponents find ways to have one standout player light up the scoreboard, but it is certainly a concern nonetheless. With a lot of quality guards left on the schedule and in the NCAA tournament, Tennessee will have to find ways to improve their guard defense and defend the creative ways in which opponents are opening up individual players. This will be no more obvious than when Tennessee travels to Notre Dame this coming Sunday.

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