I have a feeling that, win or lose, this is going to be a very good game.
Before I get into that, I feel compelled to once again reflect and note that this year's team has already accomplished more than we probably give them credit for, simply because we've been spoiled with having that program over the last few decades. It's a team that basically lost all the major players from last year, both on the floor and as a head coach, then promptly started by the first loss in the annual Chattanooga game since before disco was a thing. Comparing this year's team to last years: they don't have the experience and injuries have definitely impeded their progress, but they're a harder working bunch and seem more closely knit as a group. They'd also fall on a sword to prove how much they support Warlick. All that is to basically say that I'm already pretty pleased with the year they've had. I still expect the win today, but so long as they play their best, I can go into the offseason satisfied with how far they've come.
Now looking at the game at hand: last weekend, I was pulling for Oklahoma because UCLA was surging (and had recently beaten another NCAA #2 seed Cal during the PAC-12 tournament). When the Sooners took the early lead and never let the Bruins sniff an opportunity for victory, I immediately felt better about Tennessee's chances at the Elite Eight. Then I started looking at Oklahoma in greater depth, and I realized that they're probably every bit the challenge that UCLA would have been.
First, the Sooners have had a worse injury run than Tennessee. Two starters were lost to injury (senior Whitney Hand in December and freshman Maddie Manning in November), and freshman Tara Dunn was also lost on the year at the outset. Those who follow women's basketball will likely recognize Hand's name immediately; she's basically been Oklahoma's star for her career. The loss of the two freshmen reduced Oklahoma's depth to lolNOPE levels, and they had to borrow two volleyball players to hold 5-on-5 drills in practice. The loss of Hand was the final straw, and nine of OU's ten losses came after she tore her ACL.
But much like how Jarnell Stokes became better after adjusting to life without Jeronne Maymon, the Sooners seem to have finally adapted to their thin rotation. Their last few games have been better played than during early conference play, and they have role players doing all kinds of role player things on the court. Joanna McFarland averaged 11 boards and 11 points in conference play. 6'-6" Nicole Griffin is getting two blocks per game. Point guard Morgan Hook earns 7 assists per game, and Aaryn Ellenberg leads the team with 19 points per game. No one player is the clear star, but each has their own strength and those strengths have become stronger as the season had come to its closing stages. That's exactly what makes them dangerous, and exactly why this game should be entertaining.
A few bullets to chew:
- Height advantage: Oklahoma. The Sooners have a 6'-6" center and loads of 6'-1" to 6'-3" players. It's a very small advantage, but they will have a couple spots here and there where they have a couple inches on Tennessee.
- Depth advantage: ...Tennessee? This may actually be true. Oklahoma will dress nine, but will very likely only play seven. Against UCLA, Ellenberg, Hook, and McFarland had 40, 39, and 37 minutes, respectively. Tennessee will roll with eight, with only Ariel Massengale and Meighan Simmons as likely 30+ minute candidates. This may be key, because
Oklahoma is foul prone. They had 17 foulouts on the year, but 12 came in conference play once their short bench kicked in. McFarland led with 4, which makes her stat line even more interesting: she would have had more rebounds if she hadn't had such foul trouble. With so little depth, foul problems could mean the difference between winning and losing. This slants even further in Tennessee's direction because
- Oklahoma lives and dies by the three. 35% of their attempts are from long range, compared to 22% by Tennessee. This makes OU a bit like Creighton with a lot more height inside (and probably fewer clearouts). Expect a lot of man defense from Tennessee, with maybe a zone on a rare possession just to see if it confuses the Sooners. The three to watch are Ellenberg, Hook, and McFarland. That last one is scary because McFarland is 6'-3" and shot over 40% from deep during conference play.
- A/TO and rebounding favors UT, slightly. Equal assists on the year, but Tennessee had about 1 TO/game fewer. Also, both teams saw about 80 rebound opportunities per game average, and Tennessee tended to get about 2 more per game than Oklahoma. There really isn't an advantage here. (Honestly, most stats seem pretty comparable, except that Tennessee got it against the #3 SoS while Oklahoma had the #22. It's not a large margin, but it is notable.)
And yes, Oklahoma is effectively a home team. Who cares? Home court advantage won't decide this game.
So there you have it. These two teams really look like a great match on paper, and both have reasons to expect a good outcome, so they should play with confidence. I'll go with Tennessee over Oklahoma, 75 - 65, with a bit of that coming by late free throws. Let's say one Oklahoma player fouls out (likely on those late fouls), just for good measure.
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