The regular season is history; it's time for the Lady Vols to focus on tournaments. At bat is the SEC women's basketball tournament this weekend in Nashville, and on deck is the NCAA tournament. As has been our custom for both basketball teams this year, we're focusing only on the task at hand - winning the SEC tournament.
The Lady Vols are the #2 seed and enjoy a bye for Thursday's opening games. For the entire bracket, the SEC has an easy-to-read pdf here. Like the NCAA tournament, there is no re-seeding so some educated guesses can be made of UT's potential opponents throughout the entire weekend. For the sake of analysis, we'll assume that Tennessee makes it to the final game, which allows us to look at the more likely permutations available.
For the 'all possible combinations' scenario, here are UT's potential opponents by round:
- #7 Vanderbilt
- #10 Mississippi State
- #2 Georgia
- #6 South Carolina
- #11 Alabama
- #1 Kentucky, #4 LSU, #5 Arkansas, #8 Florida, #9 Auburn, #12 Ole Miss
So with the field in play, let's go on record as to how we think the Lady Vols will fare.
Opponent - Vanderbilt
Let's just assume that Vandy beats Mississippi State. This, incidentally, may be the most dangerous game for Tennessee. In Knoxville, they beat Vanderbilt by 23 (87-64), only to suffer their own embarrassment in Nashville, when Vandy won by 14 (93-79). Location appears to greatly matter between these two teams (and if you remember, a similar loss nearly happened last year in Nashville until Lauren Avant reminded us how important a point guard can be), and the rubber match is in a 'neutral' location in Bridgestone Arena - in Nashville.
The main reason I believe Tennessee will win is that I can't see them playing as unemotionally as they did in Memorial Gym. There are a lot of reasons for the lack of emotion, but one large component was Glory Johnson's persistent foul trouble (and she did eventually foul out). Without her aggressiveness on defense and rebounding, Vandy's Tiffany Clarke had a strong performance to complement the obligatory 'guard having a career night' from Christina Foggie. Unless we see the name Dee Kantner in the media notes, that should not happen this time around. Glory is the emotional leader of this team (though it really should be Stricklen).
The big issue is defensive scheme: Foggie is a good enough three-point shooter to break zone defenses; if Tennessee uses a rotating man D (their second best scheme), Vandy will rotate until Foggie is guarded by Ariel, who has been weak against guards lately. Does Tennessee use a straight-up man D? Defensive scheme may very well decide the game.
Overall, Tennessee should fare better than in Memorial Gym. Improved interior play will make the difference for a win.
Likely Opponent - Georgia
Likely Result - Win
I could see South Carolina beating Georgia, but I don't think it's very likely. SoCar is an emotional, high-energy team, and I'm not convinced they're ready for two games in two days. Georgia will be fresh and, while they won't try to run South Carolina off the floor, they'll be a half-step quicker. So Georgia it is.
Georgia is the second most talented team in the SEC. Unfortunately, they have issues with living up to their talent level, and they really have issues playing well against Tennessee. With a very pro-UT crowd in attendance, this will be yet another road game in their eyes, and they have yet to show they can keep up with the Lady Vols. Can they? Yes. Will they? At this time, I have to see it first.
A win over Vanderbilt should give the Lady Vols some confidence, and that will be enough to win here. In the two previous matchups, Tennessee found a couple hot streaks (about one per half) and held serve for the remaining time. That story should play out again.
Likely Opponent #1 - Kentucky
Likely Result - Win
Yes, I'm an optimist. For both teams, this will be the third game in three days, and Kentucky uses their depth as much as Tennessee, if not more. Kentucky is more than happy to give up fouls and risk turnovers if they can cause a few turnovers of their own and eventually wear out the opponent. For them, the path to victory is to fatigue Tennessee and make up and point differential in the second half. (Kentucky is as good in the second half as they are bad in the first. Remember this point if this game happens.)
We can't expect the Tennessee team that rolled Kentucky 91-54 in Knoxville, but neither should we anticipate the lackluster Lady Vols that lost by only one point (61-60) in Lexington when somebody (we don't know who) forgot the only instruction coming out of the final timeout: double-team A'Dia Mathies. The truth of this matchup is likely in-between the inspired home blowout and the lukewarm road squeaker, so on a neutral court a 10+ point win is a reasonable expectation. Comparing home games and road games, Tennessee has played better in both such contests against Kentucky than they did against Vanderbilt, which leads me to believe that this is actually a better match for Tennessee than the likely opener against the Commodores.
Likely Opponent #2 - LSU
Likely Result - Win
I was tempted to list LSU as the #1 likely opponent, but that would appear a bit trollish. Still, despite their season-ending loss to Georgia, they're a tough team to beat and math up well against their opponents. (They're pretty even against Arkansas, but enjoy a bye week while Arky has to take care of Mississippi.) I also prefer tournament teams that are built on defense when all else is even, as defense tends to be more stable game to game.
For many reasons, this is the match I'd most like to see. For one, a strong LSU is very marketable and will only help the SEC's overall image (even more so than Kentucky, who is still building themselves as a brand). Also, I would love to see some early success for Future Lady Vol Head Coach™ Nikki Caldwell, especially if they have to call her out of the bullpen sooner rather than later.
But even with all the improvements that Caldwell has made at LSU (and she has my vote for Coach of the Year, even if you ignore our aspirations to poach her in the future), they just haven't have enough time to rebuild from the Van Chancellor years. A final against LSU would probably have about 110 combined points, but would be a fantastic gut-check game for those who like raw struggles.
Overall, the tournament is set up well for the Lady Vols. The toughest match is probably their opener against Vanderbilt, but they'll have the advantage of rest while Vandy plays on Wednesday (though Vandy will have acclimatized to the environment, so who knows where the advantage lies). Assuming Tennessee wins that game, the rest of the tournament is in their hands and it's purely a matter of their commitment to the games they play.