TV: SportSouth / ESPN3
Stats: Like Star Trek movies and Windows, every other edition of GameTracker is horrible. But it's the only one out there.
Normally, we take time to scout the upcoming opponent and offer our thoughts on the key things the Lady Vols need to do to win. We'll do a bit of that here, but it seems auspicious to address the Lady Vols a bit more directly. (No offense, Florida. We respect you, we really do, but there are things that need addressed. You're not the closest - or biggest - gator to our boat until tipoff.)
Okay, with that out of the way, let's talk Lady Vols a bit. There is plenty to discuss, after all.
- First alligator: let's talk coaches for a second. There are very legitimate questions about the current coaching staff. Is there an underlying philosophy to the season, or are they simply coaching to address the most recent problem? Is there more to halfcourt sets than a screen at the top of the perimeter? Why run a 3-2 against Notre Dame, one of the best ball handling teams in the country? (Thanks for that last observation, Nate.) Peruse our comment threads, and you'll see all sorts of very good questions from a very knowledgeable and passionate fan base. It's something we plan on discussing more during the offseason, but the reasons to question are there. For my part, I don't expect things to magically fix themselves overnight. This team has issues with Hero Ball (and it's not just Simmons), some of their best shooters are in deep slumps (e.g. Burdick), the overthinking is causing bad fundamentals, and they still have yet to play a 30 minute game, much less a 40 minute one. That's too much for one night, but we can see some improvements. I'd settle for not missing so many 2 foot shots.
- Second alligator: adversity. Every team faces some in every game. Notre Dame was buried in adversity in the first half, but didn't lose their heads. Tennessee faced 4 minutes of it to start the second half and buried their heads in the sand. To me, this is the biggest issue the team faces. Tonight, adversity will happen. They'll hit a spell where Florida scores roughly 8-2 or 10-2 on them. It's not that big of a deal, really. What is a big deal? Letting that little old run put you into a shell for the rest of a game.
- Third alligator: pressure. We're a demanding fan base. Tennessee still carries the shadow of Summitt around, with everybody still hoping for the old UT - UConn rivalry to rekindle. Yeah, there's pressure. And how much does it mean tonight? Not. A. Thing. For one, I just want to see the gals go out there and play the game. The rest of that junk can hang for all I care.
- Fourth alligator: Florida. They're a plucky team this year, with the only truly bad loss coming to Illinois State and some close ones against Florida State, LSU, and Georgia. They have a shallow roster (8 deep), but with all players getting quality minutes. Their weaknesses are a bit odd: they're 44% from the field but 30% from three, but for an inside-game kind of team, they don't rebound very well (-4 relative to opponents on the season). Jaterra Bonds is their leading scorer at 16.7 per game and is relatively efficients (300 points on 208 shots), but Christin Mercer is probably their best scorer (141 points on 93 shots, all off the bench, and no threes). Kayla Lewis is the best rebounder with 8.8 / game. The fun stat: Ronni Williams has 11 foulouts on the year in 18 games and 18.7 minutes / game.
All that said, Florida will play hard tonight. For the most party, they've done well against Tennessee in recent years, and they don't have the crippling sense of self-loathing that the Lady Vols seem to have. Like Tennessee, they're really more of a "next year" kind of team, but they're good for about 30 solid minutes and two 5 minutes lulls.
For Tennessee to win:
- That first half against Notre Dame? Build on that. The defense could have been better, but again, that was largely a product of not covering the ball handlers and shooters in the corners. Notre Dame hit threes to keep themselves alive in that game until Tennessee wilted. Still, that was easily the most intense and focused 20 minutes of ball they've played this season. Do that again, but with an appropriate defensive scheme.
- Two! Two offensive sets! Hah, hah haaaaaaah! (Ask your parents to explain that reference, kiddos.) the ball screen is nice until the opponent finds a way to neutralize it. What's the counter to their counter?
- Freaking RELAX, already. Most of the errors that cause Tennessee to go into a shell are entirely self-inflicted. Against Notre Dame, when their shooting went cold at the end of the first half and beginning of the second, it wasn't that they weren't getting good looks. Once a couple easy misses happened, it got into their heads and everybody started missing the bunnies. Suddenly Notre Dame had pulled it tight and Tennessee was playing scared. Again, these things happen. Forget about that last miss and just play.
- The Usual Suspects. Massengale and Harrison will have great nights, assuming Izzy doesn't get in early foul trouble. Simmons, to her credit, has been much more composed over the last few weeks. Graves looks healthier, and Russell is steadily become more assertive on the floor. Those four (and Carter, really) just need to play solid basketball for 40 minutes and Florida won't be able to match them. They don't need to be superstars.
Prediction: 82 - 71 Tennessee. There was enough good in the ND game for them to build on, and I think they will. There will be a slump, but Florida is not nearly so good as the Irish; if Tennessee lays up a first half like they did on Monday, the score won't be within 15 and they won't have to worry about their inevitable second half doldrums.
Burdick / Jones Watch: One of these two has to play the 3 when you don't roll three guard sets (and they won't for much of tonight). For my money, I'd roll Burdick out there for more minutes than Jones. It's a slight dropoff on defense, but a massive gain on offense, where Jones is a sheer liability right now. Besides, I feel that one good game is all that's needed for Burdick to put this shooting slump behind her.
Obligatory free run at Baylor: For all Tennessee's woes, it's good to remember that all four losses have come against very good teams on a #5 Strength of Schedule. Fingers crossed, but so far there hasn't been a loss to bring a conference foe up to .500 on the season.