Ariel Massengale holds up two fingers, signifying a type of shot the Lady Bulldogs are unfamiliar with. - Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
The Tennessee Lady Vols take on #10/#11 Georgia at 1 PM EST. Contrary to popular belief and what feels like the last five years against Georgia, the Lady Bulldogs are supposed to be good.
I keep on forgetting this team lost to Chattanooga - based on the last few weeks, it's hard to figure how that happened. The last time we saw the Lady Vols, they were busy beating South Carolina 73-53 thanks to a 28-2 run that encompassed a lot of the second half. The good news is that run happened; the better news is that 28 points might be half of what the Lady Vols will need to beat Georgia, because this team doesn't shoot well at all.
Well, that's not totally true. Their best players - G Jasmine James (12.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 3.3 apg, 50.3% FG%) and F Jasmine Hassell (11.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 0.8 apg, 52.7% FG%) do. Beyond that, it gets a little murky - Erkia Ford (52.7% FG%) is solid, but doesn't play a ton, then you've got one player in the 40s (Merritt Hawpe at 44%) and everyone else is sub-40%. So, well, get ready for some bricks.
For added fun, both Jasmines shoot sub-60% from the line, too. Part of the problem is that they shoot from beyond the arc, most notably Khaalidah Miller and Tiaria Griffin. I'd be remiss in not mentioning they're both bad at it. Miller in particular averages 9.5 ppg, which is third-best on the team - not bad, I suppose, except she needs 10.1 shots to get there. (Griffin is 7.4 ppg on 7.2 shots, so at least everyone's bad.)
You'd think that for a team that shoots as bad as the Lady Bulldogs do, they'd be either a) good rebounders, b) good from the line, and/or c) good defenders. From what I can tell, only the third point applies - Hassell and Shacobie Barbee are the only players to average even 5+ boards per game (Tennessee has three players who rebound better than Hassell), and in a weird twist, their best shooters from the field are also their worst at the line. That being said, they defend and slow the game down; the only team to top 60 against the Lady Bulldogs are the (7-6) Illini, who also beat UGA by 11 at home. (Again, Illinois is 7-6, with an 18-point home loss to Iowa State. And they beat Georgia by 11.) For comparison's sake, South Carolina hadn't allowed an opponent above 60 points until Thursday - and that includes Stanford. Georgia's best win is either Rutgers or Georgia Tech (who both also lost to Tennessee, lest we forget). Forgive me for not being too impressed with that.
It's a weird recipe that Georgia has: go pretty deep (nine will get regular PT from what I can tell - aside from the players I've mentioned, Anne Marie Armstrong and Marjorie Butler will also see action - Armstrong is going on her 12th year of eligibility from what I recall, continuing the strong Georgia tradition of having players on their teams who have been there for ages), defend, shoot a lot of threes, and somehow brick your way to a 60-55 win. That sounds dreadful, doesn't it?
Tennessee can stop that with the Isabelle Harrison - Bashaara Graves combination, although they'll probably have to run a 3-guard lineup simply out of perimeter concerns. Harrison and Graves' inside game should be enough to overwhelm Hassell and Barbie - their action on the glass alone should be significant (and I'd expect a much better game on the offensive glass than Thursday, which was dreadful), and hopefully the ensuing collapse will open up the perimeter in turn.
Oddly - or not, if you've followed anything I've written over the last three years - I don't expect anything from Meighan Simmons. Ariel Massengale and Taber Spani, on the other hand, I do expect things out of. This is doubly true now that Andraya Carter is lost for the year and Cierra Burdick (who'd present all kinds of matchup problems today) is also out. Depth matters, and a Jasmine of our own - Jones will be needed to step up to provide bench minutes. Heck, for that matter Jasmine Phillips may have her number called for Maximum Jasmine Deployment. (This is also the kind of game that needs a fifth guard.)
Enough preamble. Time to get to the bullet points:
- Who cares about Miller and Griffin? Let them shoot. The Jasmines are the danger - of course, don't give either of them open looks, but I'd at least make them think they can do something and gladly take advantage of the ensuing rebound to get out and push. Worry first about stopping the Jasmines, then see if the gunners get hot.
- Race to 60. Tempo - like the South Carolina game - matters. This Georgia team is not good enough to get stuck in a shootout. Tennessee will run away with it if this happens. For what it's worth, I don't expect them to run away with it, but a 5-6 minute stretch and a 14-2 run might be enough to do it.
- The quiet Simmons. Yeah, I know, I don't like to mention her, but the last time I mentioned Simmons going off and deciding a game was UNC - and holy moses, did she ever. Again, don't expect it, but she can win a game on her own. In this particular case, she can beat Georgia into a bloody pulp. (Note that this is not an invitation to take 45 shots, Simmons.)
- Inside presence and the glass. While I don't expect Simmons to have a fantastic game, I do expect Tennessee to finish with a substantial edge on the boards. Anything less than +12 is a disappointment, and if Tennessee gets 12-15 offensive boards and about 13 second chance points, that might do it. It's all about getting to 60. Graves averages more offensive boards per game than Hassell does defensive boards; this is less insane than you realize. Bonus: this also means aggression, which Georgia may not deal well with.
- Better and worse than you think. Georgia has the better record, but Tennessee has the better schedule, better comparative wins over the same opponents, and - Stanford excepted (which, given the gap between the top 4-5 teams and the rest, isn't the end of the world - has won their last three home games by at least 19 points. Georgia, meanwhile, lost by 11 to Illinois.