For the first time since I've been writing about the Lady Vols, this isn't a homecoming trip. (Now, there might still be 50 of Shekinna Stricklen's family in attendance, but they won't be there to see her this time.) Last year - actually, last year yesterday - Arkansas gave the Lady Vols their last SEC loss of the season, a 72-71 affair in Knoxville that was notable for three reasons: this game was the impetus of the all-senior lineup we saw the rest of the year; we saw Glory Johnson defend a PG for extended periods of time; and this was the most obvious time where Holly Warlick was outcoached last season.
Don't think Warlick has forgotten that last point; for that matter, don't think that Ariel Massengale has forgotten how she was lit up. That game in general was fascinating to watch, as C'ierra Ricketts just bulldozed Massengale, resulting in multiple coaching adjustments on both ends. Fortunately, Ricketts graduated so that particular problem won't happen again. Massengale's defense has improved significantly, but I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't feel a little better if Andraya Carter was around for this game. (If you missed last year's Arkansas game, think Simmons vs. Diggins from earlier in the year. It was ugly.)
This isn't the same Arkansas team, of course; this team is sitting at 5-8 in the conference and has had issues enforcing pace (witness a 91-80 win at Alabama followed shortly by a 66-34 loss at home to Georgia). Their results tell me that in theory, defense should matter.
That defense begins with ...um, stopping their point guard. Erm. Cali Berna is a horrid shot (7.2 ppg on 6.5 shots, but with 3.5 FTA; if you'd like to know what "I drive to get bailout fouls" looks like in print, there you go - A'Dia Mathies would be proud), but an excellent distributor, getting 6.0 A to 2.4 TO. Other than that? Somewhat surprisingly, it's all in the interior, and none of them are great shots. The Lady Razorbacks rock a four-strong interior rotation for all intents and purposes.
Their main players there are Sarah Watkins (12.7 ppg on 10.3 shots, 4.0 FTA, 4.7 reb), Quistelle Williams (10.1 ppg on 9.2 shots, 1.6 FTA, 7.2 reb), Keira Peak (9.5 ppg on 9.2 shots, 3.1 FTA, 5.9 reb), and Jhasmin Bowen (7.2 ppg on 6.0 shots, 2.0 FTA, 4.4 reb). For interior players, none of those numbers are outstanding, and let's just not talk about their perimeter game. I'm pretty sure that Kenny Hall could beat the whole team in a three-point shooting contest, possibly combined.
Those FTA numbers are in there today because this team can and does get to the line. It goes both ways, though; Watkins should do better than she does, but she can't avoid foul trouble (3.4 PF, which is ...absurd). Williams (2.4 PF) and Bowen (2.2 PF) can probably be put in foul trouble as well, turning this game into a depth contest if things don't go well.
So with that, we go to bullet points.
- Your stats reminders for Bashaara Graves and Meighan Simmons. Graves: 14.5 ppg on 10.3 shots, 5.6 FTA, 8.7 reb. Simmons: 17.8 ppg on 15.5 shots, 2.6 FTA, 3.6 reb. I bring this up as comparisons to Arkansas's numbers - Graves should be able to hold her own, barring double teams. And if there are double teams?
- Burdick reprised. Cierra (no apostrophe) Burdick had an excellent game against Auburn, who opted to focus on dealing with Bashaara Graves and paid the price with Burdick's game. Burdick has been a bit overshadowed this season between Graves, Simmons, her hand injury, and Isabelle Harrison's injury, but she does need to be accounted for. She's also a neat 3/4 flex type, which works well with Taber Spani's 2/3/4 combo game (although it's more 2/3/3.5, to be fair).
- Flex defensive positioning. Arkansas is at their best when they get as many big bodies on the floor as they can. Tennessee in turn has two responses: go small (meaning Kamiko Williams gets plenty of PT) or use flex positions and defenders. Spani and Burdick work well in this role, as does Jasmine Jones. I'm not sold that Arkansas is comfortable on the perimeter at all; while I'm not exactly keen on putting the game in the hands of guard play, going outside-in early makes sense, at least until Arkansas responds.
- Coaching counterpunches. In related news, Tom Cullen has shown he can make effective in-game adjustments. Don't be in a position to let those adjustments dominate the game. Warlick's improved significantly as a head coach so I doubt it'll be as one-sided as it was, but Cullen won't show any fear either.
- Your secret interior presence. I don't want to jinx anything, so I'll just note that Nia Moore has gotten PT recently and will likely get PT if a certain player mentioned in these bullet points isn't quite ready to go yet.
Your viewing guide information: the game is on the SEC Network (and ESPN3), Mickey will do Mickey things here, and Gametracker can be found here. For those of you who are superstitious: that is not the Gametracker we're used to. Tennessee seems to struggle when we're using off-standard Gametrackers.
Predictions? I have a vaguely unpleasant feeling about this game; I don't think it'll be the Florida Escape part 2, but this may not be a comfortable game either. Tennessee by 7, 78-71, but on the strength of late free throws.
[Notes/prediction by Hooper]: Watkins is an anomaly. She doesn't start anymore (played in all games but started in only four, and zero in SEC play - see Pendley's note about fouls, but make it 3.8 FPG and 4 foulouts in 13 games for the conference schedule) and leads in scoring. She plays with a lot of contact and may or may not be ready for the brick wall that is Bashaara. But in SEC play, Arkansas is only averaging 58 PPG. I can't see them winning a scoring battle with Tennessee, so they have to hope the UT defense doesn't show up. If Watkins fouls out, they have no hope. I'll diverge a bit in points and take Tennessee, 77 - 62.
Tip is at 2 PM (EST). See y'all then.