TV: ESPNU / ESPN2+1
Gametracker:in which we welcome the return of rate stats
This game isn't a dead rubber, even with South Carolina wrapping up the SEC regular season crown on Thursday with a win over Georgia. (Contain your shock.) Tennessee has the inside track to the 2-seed in the SEC Tournament - and, while we're at it, is also on the 2/3 seed line for the NCAA Tournament - but a Tennessee loss today coupled with a Texas A&M win in Gainesville flips the 2/3seeds for the SEC tourney. Since the Texas A&M game is a 1 PM tip, we'll know more about Tenneesee's chances of a 2-seed by the time the Lady Vols tip off. (And I have no idea what Tennessee's potential opponent looks like; there's a five-team logjam in the 8-7 / 7-8 range. We'll have more early next week.)
This is also Meighan Simmons' last regular-season game. We've written a lot about Simmons over the years, but independent of the holes in her game, she's going to go down as one of the highest-scoring players in Lady Vol history. (Let's just ....not talk about the rate stats.) This can go in one of two directions: either she repeats what she did on Thursday - 31 points on 18 shots is her most prolific performance of the season - or we get the Stanford game redux. She's made a leap since the Notre Dame game, putting up great points-per-shot ratios and having 8 of her most 11 efficient games of the season in the last 13 games. She actually looks like a WNBA draft prospect right now, and file that under statements I never thought I'd write.
Of course, South Carolina presents the biggest challenge this Tennessee team has faced since that Notre Dame game. Dawn Staley's the coach of the SEC this year, the Gamecocks are a top 5 team, and - oh, right - Tennessee hasn't fared too well against top 5 teams over the last couple seasons. South Carolina's in the running for a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and this win would be huge for Tennessee. I've thought that part of Tennessee's struggles against really good teams involve said good team becoming a Good Team in their head. South Carolina doesn't have the recent history of other teams - what up, Notre Dame - so that may be a mental hedge.
On the season, South Carolina's offensive and defensive efficiency (1.075 points per offensive possession, 0.77 points per defensive possession) both beat Tennessee's (1.055 and 0.826, respectively) along with pretty much everyone else in the SEC.
Offensively, South Carolina runs deep; Tiffany Mitchell, Aleighsa Welch, Alaina Coates, and Elem Ibiam effectively get 10 ppg apiece (Ibiam only averages 9.6, but that's close enough). None of them are volume shooters; Mitchell, Wlech, and Coates all average at least 1.2 points per weighted shot - and they all shoot 50+% from the floor.
If there's one team-wide Gamecock weakness, it's that they struggle for efficient scoring in two key areas: outside the top four and outside the arc. There's a weakness there, but based on South Carolina's points-per-possession metrics, teams have struggled to actually get to that weakness. Then again, there aren't many teams who can matcch South Carolina's interior game, and Tennessee may actually have the quality depth edge. (I'd say Tennessee runs seven deep comfortably, six without Ariel Massengale, and yes, I cut the line right before Jasmine Jones.)
Offensively, South Carolina will do what Tennessee tries to do: get it inside a lot. This means Impending Thunderdome - and yeah, the Lisa Mattingly/Dee Kantner double alarm is in full effect. Before we get there, how's this turn into a win for the Lady Vols?
- Isabelle Harrison: no foul trouble. Oddly, while Simmons has gone off, Isabelle Harrison's gotten squeezed out. This happens when she goes three games in a row with foul trouble, Tennessee's had a margin for error in the last three games - okay, barely with LSU but that wasn't entirely Tennessee's fault; that game is going into the Refolution files - but that is not the case today. It should be noted that Harrison's been efficient when she's played, but she can't play 15 minutes with the Lady Vols walking out with a win. Stay out of foul trouble, even if the refereeing is terrible.
- Maintain team composure. Tennessee did a really good job of that on Thursday as everyone got really into the LSU comeback, including the refs. (Seriously, seven offensive fouls, highlighted by a hilariously awful charge call on Harrison where the defender was both sliding over as Harrison went up, but was also positioned inside the circle.) That was clearly a coaching point that's been taken, most notably by Simmons, who was visibly pissed but didn't act on it. Tennessee took LSU's best shot and then won in crunch time; that's the mark of a good team rounding into form at the right time. While we're here: this also includes getting the shots Tennessee wants instead of settling for a bunch of midrange twos. Force the issue on offense.
- Guard play, guard defense. Yeah, I don't know if Massengale's going to be back for this game, but it'd be nice. At this point, there isn't much point in bringing her back for this game - it doesn't mean too much beyond the mental game, and I suspect that if Tennessee can make it to next Sunday they'll get a return bout - but Andraya Carter and Simmons both need to stay out of foul trouble. Carter's probably drawing the Mitchell assignment, and the only way I'll tolerate Jones playing either guard position is if it's to lock Mitchell down. Just, um, don't let her handle the ball.
- Welcome back, Burdick. Worth noting: Burdick's almost up to a TrueFG% of 50%, no mean feat after the first three months of the season. Tennessee's already going to carry an offensive zero with Jones; Burdick can't have an off shooting day.
- THUNDERDOME. Admit it. You want to watch Bashaara Graves just go off. It's okay, you're among friends. Besides, we haven't really had a 40-minutes-of-Thunderdome game all season, and with two teams that make hay in the interior (remember that Tennessee-TAMU regular season game last year?) it'd be a shame if everyone ended up in foul trouble by the under-12 of the 1st half. DO YOU HEAR THAT, LISA MATTINGLY.
Prediction: Tennessee 71-66. This better be Thunderdome and the home crowd better come to play, because South Carolina probably wins this game on a neutral court right now (i.e., without Massengale).
Lisa Mattingly / Dee Kantner / Anyone Who Had A Whistle In Thursday's Game Watch: All hands on deck, y'all. Mattingly was in Indiana on Friday, Stillwater on Saturday. Dee Kantner? Blacksburg on Thursday, Tampa on Saturday. Metta Roberts: in Hattiesburg yesterday. Carla Fountain: in DC. If I had to guess, we're getting a Joanne Aldrich or Sue Blauch squad, which isn't the worst (35 fouls/game, -1 to -2 fouls for the home team, which means a slight home-court foul advantage). SO HELP ME IF ANY REF RUINS THIS GAME I'M GONNA COME AT YOU LIKE KIM MULKEY AFTER A QUESTIONABLE CALL IN A REGIONAL FINAL.