I am not a gambler.
It's not a moralistic opposition; I have no problem with the entertainment quality of it all. I just never started and am not inclined to. However, there is a certain clarity to a situation that comes out when personal finances become involved. †
So with a 102-57 bell-to-bell thrashing of the Tar Heels, it seems that Tennessee would be a good bet. Certainly there are some national writers who are giving honest consideration to a Final Four run for the Lady Vols. It would make the Chattanooga loss seem like a far away proposition and give credence to the thought that this team has evolved beyond those questionable games.
Yet it was only Thursday that they had to fight just to catch up to MTSU and wear them down in overtime. That win came against a seven-player rotation where the two minor players only played a total of three minutes. Three MTSU gals logged 45 minutes in the game, which goes a long way to explain why Tennessee could pull away at the end.
All in all, the UNC showed us one thing: the potential. This team can play like a top-four team. The MTSU and Chattanooga game showed us the inexperience. So which do you bet on - the team that rolled Georgia Tech and Miami on the road, and embarrassed UNC at home? Or the team that looked like a Baby Vols redux?
The first question: if you were to bet for Tennessee, what would make you confident that they wouldn't play below themselves? The answer depends on how you feel about their sources of consistency. So far, Bashaara Graves has been the best overall players: 2nd on the team in points, rebounds, and steals per game. She was probably at her most disappointing against UNC, even though she did reasonably well. But UNC had the best interior players Tennessee has seen this year, so we may have seen a glimpse of Graves's limits as a freshman.
Of the upperclassmen, Spani would normally be the most consistent. But Taber has struggled shooting on the season and is only recently making a decent percentage of her shots. Career injuries and knee issues are keeping her from moving as quickly as she'd like, so she's losing some time to more nimble players. Her height and range make her ideal against taller, slower teams, but she has limits against very fast players.
So far, point guard play has been excellent. This team is controlling the ball much, much better than the previous few years, and has managed a decent A/TO in every game of the year except Chattanooga (6/26) and as good as 24/7 against Rice. Ariel Massengale is recovering and stood out as a top player against UNC - just as Andraya Carter had to leave for a shoulder injury. Carter will likely be healed in time for Texas, but it's too early to tell here. Kamiko Williams has also stood out and was the game savior against MTSU. The question is whether you'd trust two true point guards who have had injury issues, plus the chronic backup Kamiko and the very, very streaky Meighan Simmons. As we saw against UNC, a hot Simmons will end a game on her own. But against Chattanooga, a 9/25 (1/8 from three) night can likewise cripple the entire team.
Isabelle Harrison has been solid throughout the season, but has been in foul trouble a couple of times. When she has to sit for extended periods, there is the risk of Jasmine Jones picking up two quick fouls and hamstringing UT's rotation. Jasmine Phillips has been out of rotation recently to work on grades; will she be rusty when she returns to the court?
So, the consistency comes from a healthy point guard rotation, Bashaara Graves, and Isabelle Harrison. If those pieces are set in place, this team has a real chance. The difference between pasting UNC and tripping over Chattanooga is Meighan Simmons. Placing a hypothetical on Tennessee really becomes a question of trust in Simmons and how well the team can work around a bad night for her.
The single biggest trend has been A/TO. The loss to Chattanooga, as mentioned above, was an abysmal 0.23. Since then, they posted 1.0, 3.4, 0.94, 1.05, 1.3, 1.05. The wins against Tech, Miami, and UNC were all near 1.0. This team can afford some turnovers, so long as they're not completely out of control. And this critical stat has been very consistent over the last few weeks. Much more consistent, in fact, than the play of any individual player. So barring any hangovers from this long finals layover, they are shaping up into a pretty good bet against a good Texas team on the road.
But against Baylor and Stanford? It's way too early in the season to risk hypotheticals on the Lady Vols at this point. Consistency is less than a nonconference season old - not nearly enough at this point to risk it.
† I'd put the Gecko speech here, if a decent copy existed on YouTube. Also, this clarity obviously does not apply to the lottery, you $577 million dollar suckers. ;-)