We've heard it kabillions of times over already: this year's edition of the Lady Vols just might be too young for their own good. The thing is, we've heard it so many times over because it could very well be true (for this year). It's a very inconsistent team that lacks the player-to-player cohesiveness that we grew accustomed to seeing over the last couple of year, but it's also a team that shows some frighteningly deep talent on occasion.
With all of Pat Summitt's teams, the question is not "will they make the tournament?", it's "how deep will they go?" This year, the answer is particularly interesting. Summitt has never failed to reach the Sweet Sixteen in the history of the NCAA Women's tournament. Even when you consider that women's basketball has not enjoyed the popularity and depth of good teams over the last 30 years that men's basketball has, that's still an extremely impressive mark. It's also a streak that stands a very real chance of being broken this year. When the tournament gets here, will that opening weekend see the Lady Vols that returned from the grave to beat Rutgers in a hostile crowd, or will we see the Lady Vols that gave up a 20-point deficit in one half against Rutgers?
Let me offer some thoughts on where things stand for the gals...
END OF REGULAR SEASON
Currently, the Ladies have an 18-6 record (7-3 in conference) and are 15 in the AP, 18 in the USA Today polls. It's really not a bad record and, given the difficulty of schedule that Summitt always brings, it's a record that could likely earn them a 3 seed at this point. The problem is that their best win was that Rutgers game, and Rutgers has fallen out of the top 25 in both polls. Notable losses include Virginia, Oklahoma, Auburn, and Texas. The Lady Vols are currently lacking that marquis win that justifies placing them ahead of a team with fewer losses, and they could end up with a 5-8 seed if they're not careful. That 3/4 threshold will be very important to them, as it drastically affects the level of competition they can expect to face in the opening weekend.
Duke comes in tonight and, for all practical purposes, offers the Lady Vols their last chance to grab that
marquis marquee win that's so important right now. It's a home game and the Breast Cancer Awareness Game is usually very well-attended. Duke - a far more experienced team than Tennessee this year - will not be an easy out, but you can't ask for much more than what the Lady Vols have on their side. This game means nothing in SEC play, but it might be the most important game left on their schedule.
The closing games in the SEC are relatively easier, with Kentucky, Mississippi State, LSU and Vanderbilt on tap. That's not to say that the SEC schedule is easy. In fact, the MSU and Vandy games are critical; UT sits 4th in the SEC right now, with MSU one game back and Vandy one game ahead. Win those two games and a 3 seed is most probable. Fortunately for the Ladies, those games are both home games. If you're into trap games, watch out for Kentucky. This Thursday, after the Duke game and before the MSU game, the gals travel to Lexington to face a "should beat" squad. If they show up flat in the Bluegrass State, it's a bad omen for their tourney chances as it might be indicative of a lack of mental toughness.
For the first time in several years, the results of the SEC tournament are likely critical to the seeding prospects of the Lady Vols. The winner of the Auburn/Vandy game will be the odds-on favorite for the #1 spot; at this point, UT is probably hoping for Auburn to win this one. Getting #1 is probably out of reach, so knocking Vandy down a peg would be a great help. Simply to avoid Auburn until the final game, it'd be best for the team to somehow earn that #2 slot. To do so, Florida will have to lose a game and Vandy may have to lose an extra game. In short, it's best to not worry so much about where they get seeded and instead focuson how deep they go in the SEC tournament.
At this point in the season, seeding is everything. Naturally, the ideal would be for UT to win out in both the regular season and the SEC tourney. That would probably give the Ladies a #2 seed, so that's the highwater mark. If they lose out on the season and opening day of the tourney (the absolute worst case), they're looking at a 12ish seed and a very tough road to hoe in the first weekend. Those are the extremes, so reality will likely lie somewhere in the middle.
If I were to guess, I would predict 2 more losses in the regular season and 2 to 3 wins in the SEC tournament. That would leave the Lady Vols with about a 23-9 mark and would put them at about a 4 to 8 seed. The first game would be an expected win, but the second game in opening weekend would be a doozy. A 7 or 8 seed is basically the nightmare scenario here.
In my mind, the Lady Vols have to do one of two things to avoid an ugly opening weekend: win against Duke tonight or make a very deep run in the SEC tournament. Either would give enough validation to the team to justify a higher seeding and ease up the opening rounds.
CAN THEY DO IT?
This team is inexperienced and raw, but this team is talented. There are moments in games where they go on runs of absolute brilliance (e.g. Rutgers second half, Oklahoma first 12 minutes). When they fall apart, it's a lack of teamwork, not a lack of ability.
AS BJORKLUND GOES, SO GO THE LADY VOLS
It's not a perfect trend, but in most of the games where the Lady Vols struggled or lost, Bjorklund got in foul trouble early. She's a hard competitor who may have become a little too content in the shadow of the Fab Five last year. Now the team needs her to be a leader, and there's really not much around her to pick up the slack when she falls short. Pay close attention to Bjorklund in the opening minutes of a game. If she comes out solid, especially against Duke, expect good things for UT.
MOST VALUABLE FRESHMAN: GLORY JOHNSON
Good grief, the Knoxville native can play. At times, her defensive and rebounding play has been absolutely Rodman-eqsque (minus all the baggage). She is also a very good post player on offense and gives the Lady Vols a valuable inside game while the guards figure things out. She needs to get the ball early and often to take pressure off the interor.
MY KINGDOM FOR A POINT GUARD!
Like the men's team, the Lady Vols are hurting for consistent guard play - particularly from the point guards. Bass and Manning have pulled most of the point duties, but neither has had a firm grip on the starting role and both have spent time in Summitt's doghouse. Point guard is perhaps the most difficult role to fill as a freshman, and we're seeing the results. Both players have the potential to be terrific points, but we're now hoping that the light bulb clicks on for one of them, and fast.
There are more to talk about with this team. The talent is unbelievably deep, but the refinement is not there. The offseason may be their best friend when it comes, but until then, it'll be one of the most fascinating late-season rides we've had in several years.