Basketball is back: #4 Lady Vols visit MTSU at 8 PM Eastern

I think this is a technical foul under the new game rules. - Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Exhibition season is over and squeakyball returns in earnest as the Lady Vols take on the Blue Raiders tonight.

Time: 8 PM Eastern

Television: MyTV30

Internet Video: C-USA wants your money.

Internet Radio: Dearstone'd

Live Stats: MTSU internet is Gumby.

Like last year, the Lady Vols start the season on the road against an in-state opponent. Unlike last year, the expectations are a tad higher for the team. Last year, Tennessee was picked to finish 5th in the conference; this year, they're ranked #4 (preseason) in the country and tabbed by the coaches as the favorite to win the conference (two points shy of a unanimous selection). Part of the boost in preseason expectations comes from Holly proving that she can at least hold things together as head coach. Despite the season-opening loss to UT-Chattanooga last year, they were still just one bad first half away from a Final Four, won the conference regular season over the Texas A&M and Kentucky, and showed flashes of vintage dominance inbetween a few head-scratchers.

One of those head-scrather games came against MTSU early last year, where the Lady Vols needed overtime and a breakout game by Kamiko Williams to overcome a team that played their starters for all but 3 collective player-minutes (including the overtime, and including 1 minute thanks to a foulout).

Lady Vols Basketball vs MTSU Highlights (via utsportstv)

MTSU lost two of last year's starters to graduation: point guard Kortni Jones and primary scorer Icelyn Elie. The likely starting lineup will consist of last year's starters (Seniors Ebony Rowe and Laken Leonard, and Junior Shanice Cason) and likely TiAnna Porter and Olivia Jones, making for one of the most sorority-sister named starting lineups ever. The Blue Raiders are also advertising the game as a "Blue Out" in anticipation of the large crowds that tend to follow Tennessee games.

Tennessee's lineup won't be much different than last year. Taber Spani and Kamiko Williams are gone, with incoming freshmen Mercedes Russell and Jordan Reynolds looking to make early impacts. The depth is still thin, with only 10 Lady Vols on scholarship, but the class distribution is finally returning to normal with Meighan Simmons as the only senior and a relatively even distribution of players in the lower classes.

The interesting storyline in this game will be the application of the new rules changes. Women's basketball is going to have both a 30 second shot clock and a 10 second backcourt violation, which should make for a faster and more interesting game. But the big news is the nerfing of defenses: defensive contact is going to be very stringently called this year. Any extended hand-check is a foul (with various definitions of "extended" in play), as well as any forearm contact and much of the body blocking we've become accustomed to seeing. Teams will take a while to adjust, and a thin bench isn't exactly ideal when an exhibition game features 46 fouls despite the referees swallowing their whistles in the final ten minutes. Free throw shooting should be something of a big deal this year.

The expectation is the same as pretty much any Lady Vols year: Tennessee clearly outclasses MTSU in talent, size, speed, and development. It *should* be a comfortable win to open the season and prepare for the road game against North Carolina. The sentiment was similar when visiting UT-C last year, however, and that didn't exactly go as planned. Expect Tennessee to shake out a few bugs and for the freshmen to be a little jittery, but expect Tennessee to pull it out, partly on the strength of drawing all the fouls from MTSU.

Prediction: 89 - 64 Tennessee

Mickey Dearstone "Good Grief" Over/under: 11

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