Don McPeak-US PRESSWIRE
Tonight's game against Middle Tennessee State begins a 7-game series that will define the Lady Vols under Holly Warlick's first year as head coach.
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So far, the season has gone largely as expected for the Lady Vols. As has been the norm, they are a very talented team. Their youth, however, has caused a few ruts in games, costing them the season opener against Chattanooga. But all in all, there is a lot to like about this team in the early stages.
But the standard at Tennessee has not been about "good" or "very good" in a long, long time, and these Lady Vols wish to keep that tradition of excellence going forward. Starting tonight with the game against MTSU, they will have their first real crucible of the Holly Warlick era. The next seven games, in order, are: MTSU, North Carolina, @Texas, @Baylor, Stanford, Davidson, Rutgers. Except for Davidson, all of these teams are currently ranked or receiving votes. (Aside: Chattanooga is receiving votes as well.) The Baylor/Stanford combination is obviously terrifying, but the most important aspect is that there is no real chance for letup in this slate. And after this is all over, they jump straight into conference play.
Welcome to Tennessee, Ladies. Enjoy.
First, let's talk about the overall stretch before returning to focus on MTSU. Given the youth of Tennessee and the transition to a new head coach, you have to favor Baylor and Stanford. Likewise, Tennessee is expected to beat MTSU and Davidson. That leaves North Carolina, Texas, and Rutgers; if Tennessee finishes 2-1 of those three for a 4-3 swing in this schedule, it should be considered a success. That would be two losses against the two best teams in the country and (hopefully) a close loss in the middle of a tough slate. Not bad for a young squad.
If they go 5-2, losing only to Bayford, Tennessee will be well ahead of schedule. If the unspeakable happens and Tennessee upsets at least one of Bayford, then kindly send someone to the home of yours truly to talk me back down from the stratosphere. For now, though, let's look at 4-3 as a mark of a solid young team adjusting well to the new coaching staff, and with reasons to expect a deep tournament run.
Ok, with that out of the way, let's talk MTSU. Let's start with the most telling stat of this team: minutes played by the starters:
Jr. Ebony Rowe: 40 minutes per game
Sr. Kortni Jones: 39.8 mpg
Sr. Icelyn Elie: 32.8 mpg
So. Shanice Cason: 34.2 mpg (and 1 foul-out)
Jr. Laken Leonard: 27,6 mpg
Yes, Ebony Row has played 40 min/game. Thanks to playing one overtime game, that could have been more, but she has rested for all of 10 minutes in the first 5 games of their season. This is the archetype of a team without depth. They rely solely on experienced players and have been successful enough to garner votes from some AP voters. But the obvious question is this: can MTSU play their starting five for the vast majority of the game and keep up with Tennessee's depth and energy?
There are two things that MTSU will dread in this game. The first is a Tennessee team playing with energy and focus. The Tennessee that rolled up huge leads against Georgia Tech and Miami will wear down the Blue Raiders. The second, and completely out of the control of both teams, is a tightly officiated game. If the refs are anywhere as tight as the last few that have graced Knoxville, MTSU's starters could find themselves in foul trouble over touch fouls that are normally not called during tournament time.
Tennessee cannot magically cause officials to be tighter than a tourniquet, so they must focus on the former. This Lady Vols team is born to run, and run they must.
And run they will.
Prediction: Tennessee 87, MTSU 59