Into the Gauntlet: Tennessee Lady Vols vs. North Carolina, 1 PM EST

plz to not do this 45 times today kthxbai - Don McPeak-US PRESSWIRE

In the first of four consecutive games against ranked opponents, the Lady Vols take on North Carolina at The Summitt. North Carolina's also rotated half their team, so everyone's got the same amount of experience.

TV: Fox Sports South

Audio / Stats: UTSports.com

The Lady Vols have come a fair way from the first game of the season. Two road wins over top-25 teams will do that, although it hasn't been all roses (witness a barely-there 88-81 win over MTSU at home earlier this week). North Carolina is a top-25 team, but unlike the previous games against ACC competition (Georgia Tech and Miami), this one is a home affair.

Both teams came into the season dealing with youth; we know about the departure of Tennessee's five (or four plus Briana Bass, if you prefer), but North Carolina also lost five seniors as well. This might also have just a little something to do with this being the first time neither team has been in the AP top ten when they've played each other since 1986 (no, really, thank you, Lady Vol game notes).

Let's do a quick reset for the Lady Vols, since we might need that going into the pre-Christmas season:

  • Ariel Massengale's been out of the starting lineup for most of the season dealing with a nagging injury (which has been a recurring theme for her career so far), so Andraya Carter has been shouldering starter minutes. That being said, it sounds like Massengale will start this game.
  • The other starters? Well, you can guess three of them offhand - Meighan Simmons, Cierra Burdick, and Isabelle Harrison. The fourth is a true freshman burgeoning force of nature in Bashaara Graves, who I've been dying to see (but won't, since the game isn't broadcast online).
  • The offense will probably set up as an inside-out affair between Simmons and Graves, with Harrison and Burdick as secondary options, facilitated by Massengale and Carter.
  • Other than that, this team isn't as stupidly deep as previous Lady Vol outfits over the last few years; Kamiko Williams, Taber Spani (who really needs to embrace her instant-deep offense role), and Jasmine Jones are the other bench players. Broadly speaking, they're a bit undersized compared to what we're used to - that's a lot of guards, with Jones being the only forward. Graves can shift to the 5 and Spani can act like a three, but that doesn't play to anybody's strengths.
  • Go figure, ball control's been a problem again - even Massengale's gotten in on the act early. Simmons (shock!) and Harrison have been the biggest culprits so far, but Burdick is also up over 2 turnovers/game. That being said, Massengale and Burdick at least have A/TO ratios above 1. Oddly, it's been Kamiko's who's done best (2.5 assists / 0.8 turnovers), but that may be thanks in part to reduced minutes.
  • Because I keep track of this stuff: Simmons is averaging 15.3 ppg on 13.3 shots per game and 4.5 threes attempted (so, doing a bit of math, 15.3 ppg in 4.5 3pg and 8.8 2pg, and halving the number of points per attempt = 15.5). That's ...not great, but I feel like her game should lend itself toward getting to the line more than it does. She's tough; she can handle that.
  • I'll wax poetic about Graves once I see her play, but I'm pretty sure you'll like her game (and I'd be lying if I wasn't looking forward to next year with her and Mercedes Russell doing work) if you like interior players who can dominate a game from the 4. Not that we've been blessed with one of those in the last few years, nope.
So that's taken care of. Now, what about UNC?
  • Undefeated and untied so far this season, they're also barely familiar with games outside Chapel Hill, their only road game being a 77-64 win over Iowa (which: Iowa has a women's basketball team?). Underestimate that at your own peril, though; they have wins over Georgetown (by 13) and #15 Ohio State (by 3), which aren't bad as these things go.
  • Their game runs through Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who is the leader in the clubhouse for duplicated consonants. She also leads the team in shots, scoring, assists, and steals. Not too shabby as these things go, since she doubles as the team leader.
  • Let's archetype! Their tall center who might be a little clunky: Waltiea Rolle (6'6", 12.6 ppg, 8.6 rpg, somehow shooting less than 50% ). Their gunner: Brittany Roundtree (shooting 23% from beyond the arc) - er, their actual gunner: Megan Buckland (shooting 50% from beyond the arc). The box-out nightmare: three-type Krista Gross (10.1()! rpg).
  • Oddly, their biggest weakness - I think - is Xylina McDaniel, who can score and rebound, but will cough the ball up a lot, is foul-prone (it's impressive to average 3.3 PF/game after the first three games of the season), and shoots 48.6%(!!!!) from the line. She'll get boards, but I bet she can get thrown off her game, and it'll be up to Graves to do so.
So here's what it'll come down to: limiting Rolle's impact as the de facto tall person (Harrison), frustrating McDaniel (Graves, who I think can do this), keeping Gross off the glass (Burdick?), and staying in front of Ruffin-Pratt (Simmons, who can still play some D). Do three of those and it's a win.

On the other side of the ball, it's the inside-outside game. I'd like Graves to get the ball early - put McDaniel in foul trouble immediately (remember, it's a home game, and we have a huge advantage there) and would hope that Burdick can do some damage. Then again, I also expect Simmons to do Simmons things; if Good Simmons shows up, it's over, but you can't count on that.

Prediction: 74-65 Tennessee.
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