Don McPeak-US PRESSWIRE
Nobody knows how the Lady Vols will do this season, but we do know just how hard they will play.
Two exhibition games are in the book, and they went about as you'd expect exhibition games to go for the Lady Vols. Carson-Newman was drubbed 104-44, and Coker fell 118-44. As in previous years, it's impossible to tell how the season will go based on exhibition results, but the way the team will play can certainly be forecast. Short story: this team looks absolutely nothing like the Baby Vols era of huge, lumbering trees on the floor. They defend voraciously, force turnovers, transition quickly, and flat-out run.
The biggest difference is in the post, where Tennessee's new interior players and Isabelle Harrison just spent two exhibition games running up and down the court all game long. All of them are fast enough to lead transition fast breaks, and Harrison in particular has decided that she loves to steal the pass from the wing to the top of the key and run uncontested layups. It comes at the cost of some height: Tennessee's tallest players are 6'-3", a bit shorter than the usual group of 6'-4" - 6'-6" gals they've had in the past. But for schools not named Baylor, they're plenty tall enough, and the extra speed will against small, fast teams like Kentucky. Jasmine Jones is flat-out built, and both Bashaara Graves and Nia Moore look perfectly comfortable within the offensive and defensive schemes.
On the wings, Spani is probably the least mobile player due to her past knee troubles, but even she looks faster and more agile than ever. Any lack of speed on her part is atoned for by her senior leadership. She and Cierra Burdick appear to have their shots well under control, giving forward size with midrange and three-point capabilities to the team. Speaking of Cierra: the awkward-looking pile of arms and legs from last year has transformed into an absolutely lethal defender. She's still all limbs, but has much better coordination and appears to be much more mobile on the floor.
The biggest surprise, however, may be Andraya Carter. The freshman point guard is one of the most intense defenders the Lady Vols have had in a long time, with the speed and focus necessary to play effective man defense all the way out to halfcourt - and to play it with brutal efficiency. The proof will be in the pudding of teams like Georgia Tech and Miami in the regular season schedule, but she may very well be the best out-of-the-box defender Tennessee has had in years. If her ability to run the point is anything north of serviceable, she'll make a fantastic rotation with Ariel Massengale, allowing both points to stay fresh and out of foul trouble without asking them to conserve energy.
Overall, the offense was run effectively with few mistakes, but again, it was an exhibition game. And much of the second half was spent in transition as Coker just couldn't keep up with the speed and depth of the Lady Vols team. Questions on the scoring end of the court will only be answered by better teams.
The first regular season game is against Chattanooga in their house on November 9th. Again, we can't know tell just how good this team is, but we do know that they will run all game long and they will defend with a particular intensity that borders on zealous exuberance. If they can keep it under control, the season might go far better than expected.
But until we have definitive answers, I'll be off in the corner trying to keep my expectations in check.