As has been noted here and many other places, it's going to be a long and wild season for the Lady Vols. With the combined departure of both Pat Summitt and last year's five seniors, the team this year is experiencing what is likely the largest transition in Tennessee women's basketball since its inception. While we are all eager to know how this team will fare throughout a very tough schedule (nonconference and conference), it's too early to be definitive. There are, however, some vague images of the season that are beginning to take form.
First, this team has two capable point guards - something that has not really been true since the 2006-2007 season when Shannon Bobbitt was backed up by Cait McMahan. Ariel Massengale proved her worth as a freshman last year, anchoring a team that had previously had to rely on Shekinna Stricklen playing out of position to fill in the gap. This year, Andraya Carter joins Massengale at the point and has been playing well enough to earn starting time and about 24 minutes a game while Massengale recovered from presesaon injury issues. So far, Carter has proven to be the real deal. She may indeed be the best on-ball defender of all the guards, making it very difficult for opposing point guards to set up their offense. Additionally, she has not really had any bad stretches in the first four games. There is still a lot for the freshman to learn, but between her and Ariel's season last year, the next few years look extremely bright for Tennessee at the point.
Second, Cierra Burdick is quietly emerging as a fantastic small forward. Last year, her hallmark was hitting two quick shots as soon as she subbed into the game, but she was often limited by her seeming ungainliness. Over the offseason, somebody has apparently fixed her running gait and she is now quicker on the floor and rarely off balance. The change in her posture and stride have paid big dividends, and her defensive game is catching up to her shooting stroke. She is quickly becoming a favorite interviewee and may be the emotional Al Wilson of the team over the next three years.
While the point guards and Burdick at the small forward may be the biggest gains the team has seen over the offseaon, Bashaara Graves is the headliner, and for very good reason. The freshman power forward is a very physical and athletic player and is leading the team in statistical production with 17.5 points and 8 rebounds per game. She is rapidly filling in the hole left behind by the graduation of Glory Johnson, trading a bit of vertical play for more strength on the block. I'm not sure that she's been properly tested yet, as Georgia Tech didn't know what to expect and Miami has a very green team this year. But the early results could hardly have been better.
There is much more to say, but all in all this team has a fantastic nucleus in place. At this point, I am not worried about the transition from Summitt to Warlick; the young gals are playing a full year above their experience, next year's recruiting class is top-notch and fills the needs very well, and the slumps they've seen so far are all indicative of a young, emotional team - something that was always to be expected and can be overcome with time.
Starting on Sunday, the Lady Vols enjoy a three-game homestand against Alcorn State, MTSU, and North Carolina. After that, they hit the road again to complete the toughest sequence of the regular season: UNC, @Texas, @Griner, Stanford, Davidson, and Rutgers. The experience-laden Baylor and Stanford squads are serious uphill climbs, but the rest are all winnable. If they come out of this stretch 3-3, they'll be in great shape for the SEC schedule.