Hint: this head does not contain the mental issues with the Lady Vols. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Alternative title: The Sum of Vol Fears
Last night's loss against South Carolina was a stunner, yet not at all a stunner. Undoubtedly, South Carolina is a vastly improved ball club and played a very sharp game. They earned their win just as much as Tennessee earned the loss. But in a night that Steve Spurrier, of all people, attends a Lady Vols game in Knoxville, all the things we feared about the Lady Vols were proven to be true. From the neck down, they're as talented as any team in the country, and quite possible the most talented team in the country. Between the ears, they're perhaps the nation's greatest basket case.
It wasn't the presence of Spurrier, who seems to be Tennessee's lifelong albatross. It wasn't the presence of Dee Kantner, despite my pregame fears. (Aside: Kantner loves her some post player fouls. Tennessee's most reliable impact player is Glory Johnson. 26 minutes and 5 fouls. They weren't the reason for the loss, but my fears were confirmed.) It wasn't South Carolina's quickness, discipline, or even Markeisha Grant's 27 point night (7-12 from beyond the arc).
It was Tennessee.
If you have access to ESPN3 and if you care to do so, watch the first half. Count the number of close-in shots that Tennessee misses, from post-ups to layups to whatever you see. In the second half, watch the three-point shooters defer on open looks (especially Shekinna Stricklen). Watch players wait too long on open passes, allowing defenders to regain position. Watch forced passes in transition, or even missed opportunities to pass. When Tennessee goes up by 7 with 5 minutes to go, watch the team breathe a sigh of relief as they look at the scoreboard and think, "We got this."
In the end, we can sit and discuss any mistake and any deficiency we want. There are certainly enough things to criticize of this team. But as much as I fear we overcoach from our recliners, I have to by a hypocrite to my own rank amateurishness and share my two cents on the Lady Vols' woes. There are two, and they exist in the mind.
How good is good enough?
Remember the freshmen year of the now-seniors? The 10-loss season and SEC tournament? The first round loss to Ball State? The loss of the locker room? That team had one glaring issue with immaturity - they simply felt that they were good enough to win when they needed to win, and they could sit back and enjoy the trappings of being a Lady Vol. It's a mindset that, in its own way, still plagues this team. Tennessee was talented enough to beat South Carolina by 20 points, but they would have been happy with a 5-point win. In some ways, any lead is a good lead, even against teams that don't have the horses to keep up with Tennessee's best.
But any lead is not a good lead. The discipline a team shows when up by double digits extends to their game when the score is tied or they're trailing. Ease up on the jets against Pepperdine, and the lack of energy will show up against Virginia. It's fun to be good, and it's really fun to be great. But there are several great teams out there, and only one will win the NCAA tournament. Winning will involve beating at least three great teams, and there's just no way to do that if you're not used to stringing together full 40-minute efforts. It's not just the body that has to train for it, but the mind as well. And that's where the Lady Vols have betrayed themselves.
It's too late to change for this year. Training the mind is a slow process, and the soft habits have reinforced themselves throughout the year. But it's not too late to recognize the problem and learn to deal with it. I'm not about to give advice (as that would be the height of arrogance from somebody who doesn't know these players personally), but the team needs to find their own way to address this issue. They can't fix it, but they can patch it as best as they can and hope it's good enough. If they don't, there's no reason to even mention the Final Four this year; they'll be lucky to make it past the Sweet Sixteen.
Things controlled and things immortal.
The one mental issue that is correctable (and not entirely shared by the team) is fear. Several of the players on the roster are afraid of failure - of making a mistake and costing the team a chance to score, or a chance to make a stop. It's one thing to hate failure, but it's another beast entirely to be paralyzed at the thought of it. Even if Stricklen and Simmons are in shooting slumps, they have no reason to pass up on good three-point looks, as Stricklen in partlcular did in the second half. It's now a visible effect: players finding themselves in positions to make a play (e.g. a shot or a pass) and getting caught up in their thoughts. What if I miss? I missed last time. Is that passing lane really open? Oh, not now. They're overthinking the game and caught up in the things that can't be controlled. They want to win for Pat as badly as anybody want Pat to win another championship. Are they wanting it so badly that they see her face every time they line up for a shot? They hear the crowd cheering for them. Is the crowd so loud in their ears they can't stop listening? I don't know all the thoughts in their heads, but I can tell that a lot of thoughts aren't about the things they can control. That last missed basket is forever immortalized in history as a miss; no further thoughts are going to change it. Just shoot the next one and let it hit or miss as it may.
Before every game, UTLadyVols.com releases a preview video that is usually an excellent watch. Before South Carolina, Meighan Simmons gave one of the most telling lines of this team. Watch the 1:20 mark if it doesn't start there automatically:
Lady Vol Basketball takes on South Carolina (via utsportstv)
As long as we go out there and do what we did in practice. Which, practice was amazing today. We just gotta carry over what we did in practice today into the game tomorrow.
Exactly. They're actually doing that, save for their minds. In practice, it's all about the moment: making this shot; defending this set; grabbing this rebound. Doing things right. Doing things perfectly. If a mistake happens, learnin and moving on to the next opportunity.
It's almost humorous; while their sporadicness was a consequence of being too relaxed, their overthinking is a consequence of not relaxing enough. It's like a football cornerback or a hockey goalie; if the last mistake stays in their mind, they're done for the game. Amnesia is an asset during a game because they can't call a timeout, practice until an issue is corrected, and start the game again.
This is correctable, albeit with precious little time. Just because they remind themselves not to remember the last mistake doesn't mean they won't make a future one, but they sure make it harder on themselves if they do remember. Playing the best requires a very bad memory for 40 minutes, not a constant remembrance of the sins of the frozen past. Just go out, play, and let the chips fall as they may.
Oddities from the game.
It's worth pointing out a few oddball items from the South Carolina game.
- Tennessee still shot slightly better than South Carolina (41% to 39%).
- Tennessee outrebounded South Carolina 44 - 36.
- Tennessee shot free throws twice as efficiently as South Carolina, making 6 more total.
- South Carolina led on steals 7 - 0. Related: they also led by 7 turnovers - 11 to 4.
- South Carolina had scoring droughts of: 5 minutes (twice), 3 minutes (twice), and 2 minute (twice). 20 total minutes.
- Tennessee had scoring droughts of: 4 minutes (3 times), 3 minutes (once), and 2 minutes (once). 17 total minutes.
- Of all nights for Steve Spurrier to attend a women's basketball game in Knoxville, it would be South Carolina's first-ever win at UT.