Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE
Out of the rough opening week comes a gem for Tennessee. Bashaara Graves averaged a double-double to earn SEC freshman of the week honors.
Well, that didn't take long.
Preseason reports consistently raved on Bashaara Graves, and she has come out of the gate strong for Tennessee. The lone true bright spot in the loss to Chattanooga, Graves also led the team to a dominating win over Georgia Tech to keep the team in the AP top 25 with a "we'll give you one mulligan" 24 ranking. Her power game is rare for a freshman and is bound to give many teams trouble.
Having such a strong start brings a huge sigh of relief to Lady Vols fans. The departure of Vicki Baugh, Glory Johnson, and Shekinna Stricklen left a void in interior and power presence, and somebody needed to step up to help Isabelle Harrison in the paint. When Harrison received her fourth foul 4 minutes into the second half against Georgia Tech, it was Graves who brought stability, allowing Cierra Burdick and Jasmine Jones to work around her and keep Tech from controlling the paint.
Overall, the front court has been a pleasant surprise for Tennessee. Both Harrison and Burdick are much stronger and more versatile in the paint than they were last year, thanks in large part to significant improvements in strength and conditioning over the off-season. None of the Lady Vols will provide that dominant force like a Brittney Griner or Kelley Cain, but they all can run, defend the perimeter, and play the transition game quite well. It's still very early in the season, but the strength of this team appears to be the interior, especially on offense. Andraya Carter is a fantastic on-ball defender and Massengale is still an uncanny point guard, but there is not yet a back court player with enough consistency and dazzle to be counted on as the go-to player game after game. Meighan Simmons is at her best as a counterweight to a strong interior game; she thrived the most when teams focused on stopping Stricklen and Johnson last year. If the bigs can continue to lead the way, they can provide the steady foundation this team needs in their first year under Holly Warlick.
First home game
The Lady Vols host Rice on Thursday for the first non-exhbition game in Thompson-Boling Arena. The Owls are led by preseason C-USA player of the year: 6'-2" junior forward Jessica Kuster. In recent action, Kuster led the Owls to a 57-42 win over Prairie View with 21 points and 12 rebounds. She is the tallest player on the squad and will likely be the focus for Tennessee on defense.
The game will also be a homecoming for Rice's Jessica Goswitz, a Webb High School graduate. The 5'-5" senior may see significant time at point guard as Rice searches for an answer to a void at the position. She will undoubtedly have a healthy cheering section in TBA as she searches for an upset of the Lady Vols.
All in all, however, this will be a game of youth. Rice is the nation's 11th least experienced team with only 1.08 years of college experience per player. Not to be outdone, Tennessee is tied for 7th with 1.09 years of experience (and one fewer player, making for fewer overall years). There exists plenty of opportunity for mistakes from both teams, and may provide an excellent opportunity for players to learn to play through difficult phases of the game.