COME BACK SOON (not you, Walker - no offense but I'd rather avoid you this season if possible) - Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
With the SEC regular season crown and a #1 tournament seed sewn up, the Lady Vols look to lock down a #2 NCAA tournament seed in Lexington at 3:30.
This game doesn't matter today, at least not in the practical sense of the word. The SEC regular season crown is on Holly Warlick and the Lady Vols' collective head, and - barring a complete collapse in the SEC tournament - a #2 overall seed in the NCAA tournament seems likely enough. That being said: it's Kentucky. A Tennessee win today, coupled with Georgia and Texas A&M wins, puts those three teams at 12-4 overall. (In that scenario, Kentucky gets the 2 with a 2-1 record against the other two. That being said, TAMU also has the head-to-head over Georgia, which means the Lady Bulldogs would be the #4 seed. Ironically enough, a Kentucky win today accomplishes the same thing in different ways, which would be a nice boon to the Lady Vols. Quite frankly, I don't really care as long as Vanderbilt ends up on the other side of the bracket, and hey look they're playing Kentucky if they win their 7/10 game so good luck with that.)
So it's with that backdrop that Tennessee makes its way to Lexington today, not needing a win in the strictest sense of the word but it'd be nice to have one. This year's Kentucky squad sits at 24-4 overall (12-3 in-conference) and is 4-3 against ranked teams - they've beaten TAMU twice, split the season series with South Carolina (your presumptive #5 seed), and beat Louisville, opposite losses to BRITTNEY GRINER and Georgia. (Tennessee, by the way, is 7-3 in this comparison, and let's agree not to talk about losses to non-ranked teams, because it's convenient for me to sweep that under the rug right now and UK's lone unranked loss helped to seal the SEC for the Lady Vols.)
It's the same story for Kentucky under Matthew Mitchell; lots of pressure, lots of speed, and the more effectively chaotic the game, the happier the Lady Wildcats are. You know the principals by now - A'Dia Mathies (haphazardly driving to a basket near you), Bria Goss, Samarie Walker, DeNesha Stallworth (solid name), Jennifer O'Neill. On the basis of matchups alone, this is going to be the toughest of the effectively winnable games for the Lady Vols (read: nobody on this team is as good as Skylar Diggins). You also know this team runs deep and runs fast - 10 players average 10+ minutes a game.
Mathies, of course, is the star and focal point - 16.0 PPG in 13.4 shots and the only player with a positive A/TO ratio at 2.3/1.4. Goss (9.3 in 7.5, 1.3/1.6) and O'Neill (10.6 in 8.9, 2.7/2.7) fill out the guard side of the starting lineup while Walker (9.5 in 6.8, 8.8 reb) and Stallworth (12.6 in 10.5, 6.0 reb) serve as the interior presence. If none of those ratios jump out to you as particularly awful, you'd be right; there isn't a demonstrably bad shooter in the bunch - both O'Neill and Mathies are the biggest threats from deep, but again, no bad shooters in the starting lineup regardless. (There's a minor hole with both of their games inside the perimeter, but it's not really worth discussing beyond that.)
Note that there is one large caveat to the "no bad shooters" line - that's true for the startling lineup. The reserves trail off significantly in terms of efficiency, so may as well let them have at it.
Of course, you can probably deduce by now that the team in general aren't great ball handlers at 15.7 turnovers/game, give or take. That being said, they're also averaging about 11 steals per game, so if you remember the fun TAMU had swiping the ball on Thursday, well, that's going to happen again. And with that, we move to the bullet points.
- Control the glass. Not surprisingly, Kentucky has two rebounders worth anything in Walker and Stallworth (Azia Bishop's 3.4 boards in 12.3 minutes/game is decent, to be fair), so controlling both sides of the glass and limiting second possessions will matter more than it normally does. This game is about possession management; chalk up the turnovers and get second chance points instead. It should balance out over the course of the game if things go well.
- No free shots. Unlike other games, there's no freebie shot-taker the Lady Vols can slough off of. If there are going to be traps (and, in a game like this, there should be for reasons we'll discuss later), help defense and rotation matters. Assume all the starters can knock down open shots, and limit that opportunity.
- Keep your scalp above water. Look, I don't expect an A/TO of greater than 1 in this game (if that happens, I feel pretty decent predicting a Lady Vol win on the basis of that alone, because we'll dominate ball control). I would like the A/TO to approach 1, though; anything around 0.5 is danger zone territory.
- Don't lose the turnover battle too badly. Kentucky will cough it up - a lot - and they will steal it - a lot. The key is to limit other turnovers like offensive fouls and bad passes. I'm not going to be too frustrated unless the total turnover numbers get north of 20, and if that's the case and the boards are sufficiently dominated, it may not matter entirely.
- Who's healthy? Along those lines, there's some concern about the health of Ariel Massengale and Isabelle Harrison, who both suffered injuries against Texas A&M. Tennessee's been reluctant to divulge information on either of them; obviously, the game plan changes just a bit if they can't go. FWIW, I feel a lot better about those previous two bullet points if Massengale plays, but we don't need this game for anything beyond the scalp.