[A rare Harrison sighting against Florida. Shhhh... we don't want to spook her.] - USA TODAY Sports
The Lady Vols play their second conference game against a Tiger team. Only three more to go.
Way back in the day, Auburn stood alongside Tennessee and Georgia as the top three teams in the SEC. They've been a bit lost in the shuffle over the last decade or so, but they always feel like a program that could make a turn back into the upper echelon of the league. The support is there on the Plains and would likely reinvigorate if given a reason to believe. With brand new head coach Terri Williams-Fluornoy, they may bear watching over the next few years.
But for now, the Tigers are who they are: a team in transition. Their current resume sounds very much like a team with a healthy amount of talent but not a lot of stability: some solid wins (Arkansas and UT-Chattanooga), some respectable losses (SDSU and Texas A&M), and a head-scratcher (loss to Missouri and ALL. THE. THREES.). They beat Ole Miss by about 20 and lost to Texas A&M by about the same, which suggests they're right in the middle of the SEC this year. Tennessee is also the middle game of an A&M-UT-Kentucky stretch that is just brutal for a non-top 25 team to face.
The Auburn rotation is effectively seven players deep, though up to five others have seen spot action throughout the season. Four of the starters average right around 30 minutes of the game and will be the pivotal focus. (Two other split the center role with almost exactly 40 combined minutes; more in a bit). At point guard is Najat Ouardad (bonus points for pronouncing right without peeking at media guides first!) who is 5'-1" and accounts for 40% of the team's assists. The one-on-one battles between her and Ariel (most likely) or Simmons should be a lot of fun. But the heart of the team is senior Blanche Alverson, who recorded her 1,000th point against Ole Miss last week and plays the very Spani-like guard/forward slot on the wing. She doesn't have the most points, but is the clear three-point threat (41% average and about 40% of the team's total attempts) vies for the team rebounding lead (5.9 per game) and has the lowest turnover rate among starters despite playing the most minutes. Shutting Blanche down from three would severely restrict Auburn's offense and is likely a top priority for Tennessee. The top scorer is Hasina Muhammad, who gets 17 points on 15.7 shots per game. She also leads in rebounds despite being a shooting guard and is just barely underwater on A/TO partly due to aggressive driving tendencies.
So that's a lot of talk about guards. As for height, well, Auburn has it, but caveats ahoy. Their tallest girl is 6'-8" senior Pascale West (which is an awesome name) but she only averages about 5 minutes a game and doesn't produce much. The more mobile and effective options are 6'-5" junior starter Peyton Davis and 6'-3" Tra'Cee Tanner - the two who split 40 minutes a game almost down the middle. Tra'Cee has been a bit more productive as a scorer (7.9 points/game compared to 6.0) but Peyton is the better rebounder (5.5 / game compared to Tra'Cee's 4.0). They likely won't play much at the same time unless Tennessee is completely dominating the interior, as Auburn tends to lean on guard play.
Tennessee should expect Auburn to play with a lot of emotion. This is a home game for them, and they just lost badly to Texas A&M. A win would completely change their outlook on the conference schedule, while a loss has them well back in the pack and facing a road trip to Kentucky. But it's just not an Auburn team that's rebuilt yet, and they don't have the depth to keep up in an intense game for 40 full minutes. If Tennessee can keep the pace high, they can outrun the Tigers and force them into bench depth, which should spell the end of the game.
Auburn will likely try to use man defense to allow the guards (like Ouardad) the most opportunities to steal and create turnovers. But if Tennessee can find Harrison and Graves early, Auburn will have to sacrifice their greatest defensive strength (turnovers) for a zone defense. Meanwhile, Auburn is much better at twos than threes, so Tennessee may try zone defense to keep the ball at distance. So long as Blanche is well defended, this may work very well.
I seriously doubt that Tennessee will allow Auburn to outrebound them as Florida did. Couple that with better interior defense and (hopefully) a Harrison that doesn't get into early foul trouble, and this should go much better for Tennessee.
Prediction: Tennessee 84, Auburn 68. Both teams like to score a lot of points, but Tennessee's better on both ends.