Welcome back to the Lady Vol basketball team. When we left them, they were busy reaching their season peak, taking a transition team all the way to the Elite Eight and exceeding expectations en route. While you were out? Well, while you were out they got better and added a few big new pieces, one of whom is 6'6" and the #1 overall recruit last season. They're healthier, they're more talented, and the pieces mesh.
Plus there's some serious interior firepower, which is all you should ask for in life. Let's dive in.
WHAT WE KNOW
- Meighan Simmons is going to shoot a lot. She might even be efficient in a few games. It's basically the same story for her; she's going to do scoring things, drive people insane intermittently, and be a volume shooter. She'll win a few games for Tennessee on her own - heck, she beat North Carolina on her own last year - but she'll be judged by how she does in big games. The last couple of years, she's been pressing in big games; there's enough roster firepower so she shouldn't have to.
- Ariel Massengale is going to be a calm leader. Massengale at her peak efficiency is nearly a pure facilitator - think a passing midfielder who doesn't score a ton of goals but is always involved in build-up - and rarely calls her own number. With that being said, she's the leader on this team. Last year, she led this team to the Elite Eight. This year, a Final Four berth is there for the taking.
- Bashaara Graves is going to have nights where she just destroys the opposing interior and leaves bodies out for the vultures. She's also going to have a few games where she gets into some serious foul trouble, because the new rules regarding hand checking and limiting physical contact will suck until the refs figure out what is and isn't contact. Except some weird lines like 13-17 FTs until that gets figured out, but when Graves is going at the 4 double-doubles are on the table in spades.
- Isabelle Harrison might be the best player in set plays on the inside. As a 4/5 who can offer spacing with Graves (who turns into a pumpkin at 8 feet from the basket) or a post complement to Mercedes Russell, she can score a variety of ways and has nice touch. For some reason, she isn't as visible as you'd expect (thanks in part to Simmons and Graves), but she'll be the most consistent performer all season.
- Cierra Burdick returns on the wing. Burdick is a strong and solid enough player but will struggle for touches in this offense, as she's probably the fourth scoring option in the usual starting lineup (Massengale / Simmons / Burdick / Graves / Harrison is the best five, at least for now). With that being said, she should be able to get more open looks and turn into a stronger shooter. 2012 Taber Spani is about what I'd hope for from Burdick as far as her final line goes, but Burdick's skill set is a bit less perimieter and more midrange. (In truth, I'm not sure she ends the season as a starter, but that has to do with her skill sets and what the team has available. More on that as the season goes on, but be aware.)
- Your interior defensive stopper on the bench: Jasmine Jones, who can defend the 2, 3, 4, and 5. I'm not sure she has a consistent shot yet, though. (Also included here, although more as a minutes sop: Nia Moore. She may show flashes against some of the less-skilled teams on the schedule, but I don't know what to expect from her against good teams short of offering breaks.)
- This team will be defensively solid and force a handful of turnovers thanks to the addition of the 10-second rule in women's basketball.
YOUR NEW ARRIVALS
- Technically a last-year arrival but injured for a majority of the season, Andraya Carter is #14 in your program and will be #1 in your heart real quick-like because she gets after it whenever she's on the floor. Actually, gets after it is an understatement; she'll run 40 minutes of hell on her own. She's got a bit of a scoring streak but will be more effectively deployed as a 15-20 minute defensive hellhound who can fill in scoring gaps. She can handle a larger load than that, but look for her to be the first guard off the bench to start. I'm a bit worried about injuries for her down the road, but again, we'll get there.
- The second guard off the bench: Jordan Reynolds, a true freshman who gets to play gunner. I don't know enough about her defensively, but the 40th overall in the ESPN150 rankings is a good sign. She's also going to be the fourth guard in this rotation because it's good to be among the kings where a top 40 player can't crack 15 minutes in most games.
- Waiting in the wings, maybe: Jannah Tucker. If we see her, awesome. I don't want to dwell on it, but she's got a good reason she's taking it easy for now.
- Oh, right: Mercedes Russell. Or, better said, MERCEDES RUSSELL. Russell is the #1 overall incoming player in this class, checks in 6'6", and looks to have an eventual floor of Glory Johnson with a 15-footer. That's a floor, mind you. I have no clue what her ceiling is and don't even want to think about that because being realistic is good sometimes. Against MTSU - her first actual college game, for the record - she went 5-9 with 7 boards. Russell, by the way, had never taken part in a weightlifting program before she set foot on campus. She's going to be a walking cheat code sooner rather than later. (Bonus Russell fact: she can do the Brittney Griner "over the back rebound but they're not gonna call it because she's way taller than her opponent" thing.)
ON THE SCHEDULE
- We're not playing Baylor! Then again, Kim Mulkey is scared of scheduling an actually tough schedule sans Brittney Griner (they play UConn and a Kentucky team dealing with the graduation of A'Dia Mathies) so she doesn't want any of the Lady Vols, clearly. Man, it'll be fun when we're in the same tourney regional as Baylor.
- Then again, the Lady Vols are playing North Carolina, Stanford (December 21st, Stanford), and Notre Dame (January 20th, Knoxville) out of conference already, and you don't want too many top 15 opponents. Can't let that schedule get too hard.
- Because of the addition of two teams to the SEC, we don't play everyone twice. The key games to circle in conference play: back-to-back games vs. LSU and at Georgia to open 2014 (January 2nd and January 5th), a January 26th showdown in College Station (bring your big boy pants to this one, which was one of the nastiest games I saw last season, and I say that in the nicest way possible), a circle-the-date affair with Kentucky in TBA on February 16th, and closing the regular season with a return game at LSU and at home against South Carolina. Other teams we play twice other than LSU: Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. (We play in that terrible excuse for an arena in Nashville on January 12th. Welcome to Rocky Top Talk, where we openly disparage other teams' arenas.)
- Get your tickets now for the SEC Tournament (March 6th-9th, Duluth, GA) and first and second rounds (in Knoxville, March 22nd-25th). The NCAA regionals are from March 29th to April 1st at one of Lousiville, Notre Dame, Lincoln, and Stanford.
- Want to live dangerously? The FInal Four is in Nashville, April 6th and April 8th, and yes, we're mentioning that now for a good reason.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
- Who steps up to solve the perimeter shooting issue. This team won't struggle for interior scoring, but there isn't a consistent, efficient perimeter scorer on this team. (Put your hand down, Meighan. I said efficient.) One of Carter, Reynolds, Burdick, or Massengale needs to step up to solve that gap, because zone defense will make things difficult in more than a few games.
- What the rotation finally looks like. This team will probably settle on a 9-player rotation, but with 11 on the roster, that doesn't mean a ton. What personnel lineups Warlick favors will depend on how growth occurs; right now, I like an experienced starting lineup of Massengale, Simmons, Burdick, Graves, and Harrison with a second unit focused around Carter and Russell, but there are a ton of really neat lineup combinations this year. (Your Towers Of Terror lineup: Massengale, Jones, Harrison, Graves, Russell. And yes, Jones can defend the 2 in a pinch.)
- How this team deals with Expectations. Yes, they're Tennessee. However, last year was a bit off and an Elite Eight berth at the beginning of the year looked like a best-case scenario. This year? Well, this year all eyes are on the Lady Vols. How they manage and respond to expectations which - possibly correctly - include Nashville is going to be critical. We learned somewhat about this already, with a terrible first half against MTSU before rebounding to a 10-point road win (outscoring MTSU 45-23 in the second half), and with a game against North Carolina looming tonight in Chapel Hill, we'll learn about early road composure really quickly. Win this game big and we may get irrational. Irrational leads to Expectations.
- How healthy this team is. Turns out 11 players on scholarship means injuries are going to be tough to deal with.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM THIS TEAM, IF YOU LIKE EXPECTATIONS
Well, you see, Tennessee was picked to win the SEC this year and opened as the #4 team in the nation. We're also the only other team to snag a #1 overall vote beyond, well, um, Geno Auriemma and the UConn Huskies. Stanford and Duke round out the favorites, but this Lady Vol team will be in the mix throughout.
It feels strange to expect a Final Four berth - things get weird that late in the season, and while this Tennessee team is good, they're not head-and-shoulders guaranteed a Final Four spot. (Then again, you could've said Baylor was guaranteed a Final Four spot going into the season last year, and you know how that turned out.)
You can, however, feel pretty comfortable expecting a strong interior game - seriously, there may only be a handful of teams who can match up with the Harrison/Graves/Russell combo, not to mention Jones and Burdick who can play inside as part of their game - excellent, fast defense, and a bunch of wins. You can also expect some struggles in games where Tennessee needs a consistent perimeter threat.
Come along for the ride. This is going to be fun.