Before the NCAA women's tournament gets started, it's a good time to reflect on the year that we've had with the Lady Vols. With a new head coach taking full charge of the team and the departure of five seniors (four of whom were perennial starters), this was supposed to be what is rightly considered a rebuilding year for Tennessee. They had the usual Tennessee schedule to face, including dates with Baylor, Stanford, and Notre Dame, and they had all the expectations from a fanbase that has quite simply forgotten what it's like to have an "average" team. And with a new head coach, there were legitimate questions about whether Warlick would even work out. She had been under Pat for so long, but she had never had a head coaching gig of her own, and a lifetime at the feet of a master is not equivalent to being a master.
(Aside: Does it seem real that last year's team had Shekinna Stricklen, Glory Johnson, Alicia Manning, Vicki Baugh, and Brianna Bass?)
The season started with a loss to UT-Chattanooga - the first such loss since, well, since the year before Pat took the reins herself. The Lady Mocs got out to a lead and held it for the entire game, forcing Tennessee into perpetual catch-up mode and always shifting the target forward. The only "good" night by any Lady Vol was from a true freshman (Bashaara Graves) playing in her first ever collegiate game, meaning all of the experienced players were well below the standards they thought they were achieving. But they took the game to heart, rattling off seven straight wins before hitting the Baylor/Stanford crucible - seven wins that included perennial quality teams like Georgia Tech (on the road), Miami (on the road), UNC, and Texas (on the road).
The games against the three NCAA #1 seeds went poorly - three losses with only the home game against Notre Dame ending within 10 points. But other than that, UT won almost all of the games they were supposed to win, wrapping up yet another SEC crown and earning a #2 seed in the tournament.
It wasn't an easy year for the team. Point guard Ariel Massengale missed the first few games due to injury. Standout freshman guard Andraya Carter was an early-season starter in Ariel's absence, but fell to a season-ending injury herself just as Ariel returned. Other injuries continually plagues the starters in particular: Burdick's hand, both of Harrison's knees, and Ariel's knee. Just as the team would seemingly return to strength, another injury would leave them with a short bench and a depth deficiency at some position.
Yet with a new coach and a constant need to reshuffle the rotation, the Lady Vols showed glimpses of being a Lady Vols team of old, with tenacious effort on defense, crashing the boards, a sense of team before self, and something actually resembling ball control. (For all of the talent of last year's seniors, that team ended with a 0.7 A/TO on the year, while this year was at 0.9 - still below expectation, but a marked improvement.) At times, they dropped into bad habits (e.g. the Missouri game) and failed to take their opponents out of their comfort zone. But in other games, they were downright brilliant. The UNC game ended 102-57 thanks to both a smothering defense and a precise offense. The Texas A&M regular season game featured a Tennessee lead throughout the entire second half despite an A&M shooting performance that will rarely be duplicated, with the Aggies hitting hard shot after hard shot after hard shot.
On top of the year on the court, the Lady Vols cleaned up in recruiting as well. Mercedes Russell highlights the next class and just won Gatorade Player of the Year. She is joined by guards Jannah Tucker and Jordan Reynolds in one of the strongest classes of the year. With the loss of Spani and Williams, the class addresses the needs at both the guard and post positions, while also allowing Burdick to play a more pure 3 role. If all clicks next year as well as this year did, Tennessee has recruited themselves to be a potential monster by the 2014 tournaments.
All in all, it's been a wild ride. Yet with all the injuries and roster turnover, the team has done so well that it's been easy to forget that this is Holly Warlick's first year as a head coach. And it's been obvious tat this team would walk through brick walls to please Warlick, and that they have a focus about themselves that was lacking in the previous few years.
So when the Lady Vols take the floor against Oral Roberts and the eventual Baylor game looms on the horizon, it's worth stepping back and realizing that this team has in many ways exceeded the season they were expected to have (picked preseason 5th in the SEC by the SEC coaches, if you had forgotten). They are certainly underdogs heading into the tournament this year, but it's hard to imagine the future of the team looking any brighter than it is right now.
As Nate Parham of Swish Appeal once pointed out, it's not really fair to call this a rebuilding year, as rebuilding teams don't get #2 seeds in the NCAA tournament. Yet it's not fair to call it a finished product either. But perhaps it's time to not worry about labeling this year and simply enjoy what has already been a terrific season by a bunch of coaches and players working under a very, very long shadow.