You might say we're a little enthusiastic about the Lady Vols this year. Perhaps a little bit of it is the respite they provide from the occasional tire fire that is the men's team. (Woo we're a women's basketball school woo!) But the largest piece of our enthusiasm stems from seeing the potential finally seem to turn into some reality over the last few weeks. Since the Baylor fiasco, the Lady Vols took down Stanford in overtime then reeled off five straight games with greater than 50% field goal shooting. They currently sit atop the SEC conference standing at 3-0, with only Georgia still undefeated in conference play at 2-0.
But the biggest news is how the Lady Vols got to 3-0. Never mind the opposition for the moment: this year's LSU isn't what they were in recent years, Alabama is not an SEC power in women's basketball (no room in the trophy case, what with all the national championships), and Mississippi is an underclassmen-heavy crew in rebuilding mode for the future. The important aspect is the way the Ladies are playing: tenacious energy on defense, crisp passing on offense, a frightening one-two interior punch (Cain and Johnson), and a renewed commitment to rebounding. It's not quite "there" yet, but the final product is actually in sight.
If the Lady Vols do take the final step into the team they always knew they could be, who stands a chance at stealing the regular season crown from them?
The obvious contender is perhaps the most traditional of SEC rivals. Andy Landers has quietly assembled a 12-3 record with a Bulldog team that has also been searching for their legs. They already have a most impressive road win against Kentucky and are led by two very capable veterans in Jasmine James and Porsha Phillips. With four players averaging 9.7 points per game or better, Georgia is versatile enough on offense to be very difficult to defend. They have to show consistency throughout league play before they can assume the title of top contender, but they're definitely on the short list and should be there for a while.
The Razorbacks have the best overall win percentage in the entire conference at 14-1, with the one loss on the road at Florida to open conference play. Their hopes for the regular season title are hanging on a thin thread, however, as they do not have the margin for error that their record would initially suggest. Despite a very solid win against Oklahoma, most of Arkansas's schedule is on the lighter side, and their last outing against Mississippi State ended up as a win simply because MSU refused to shoot well throughout the first half. The Razorbacks host Georgia on Thursday in a game that will very likely determine if Arkansas is to be considered a serious threat. A loss here would drop them to 2-2 in conference with a mid-schedule swing of @LSU, Tenn., @UGA left to slog through. The trio of Lyndsey Harris, Sarah Watkins, and C'iera Ricketts have to carry the team if Arkansas is to have a chance.
Perhaps the most difficult team to read in the SEC is the Lady Gators. They have 5 losses, including surprising letdowns against Brown and Hampton, but all have been on the road. At home, they've been as steady and dependable as can be hoped. Perhaps their difficulties have come as a consequence of their greatest strength: team depth. With ten players that average over 13 minutes a game (and an eleventh that gets over 9), Florida can afford to run 40 minutes with a squad like Tennessee. They can be aggressive and take a foul here and there without worrying about losing a key player. (And they probably needed more time to figure out their rotation, given such depth.) They're still inconsistent, with a 17 point road loss to Auburn marring their conference record, but they'll get the Lady Vols at home before facing them in Knoxville later on. Given a few breaks, this is a team that can very much compete.
The Lady Dores are another squad that has only lost on the road. Like Florida, Vandy features team depth and even scoring with 5 players averaging double figures in points. They are also known for playing well against Tennessee and should not be expected to get intimidated. With two games played between these in-state rivals, the series promises to be exciting this year, starting in Knoxville this coming Sunday. Vanderbilt is led by 47th year starter Hannah Tuomi, a cunning post player who finds a way to be in the middle of everything (near Rodman-esque, really). She leads the team in points, rebounds, and - by a wide margin - free throws. (Tuomi has taken 79 free throws; two are tied for second with 41 attempts.) She can get interior players in foul trouble in a hurry, something that has been a problem for Tennessee in the past.
I don't think Vanderbilt has improved as much as Tennessee since last year; if anything, they are no better than before. They ahve an uphill battle ahead of them, but like Florida, a few breaks and a couple key fouls early on can change their fortunes in a hurry.
Winless in conference play, Kentucky's star may fade before it even rises above the horizon. However, they are still a very serious threat to the title. A win against Tennessee late in the season and one other Tennessee loss, and Kentucky has a great chance. On paper, this is the most talented non-Tennessee squad in the conference, and they have significant veteran play from Victoria Dunlap, A'dia Mathies, and Keyla Snowden to draw from. Dunlap and Mathies are the most problematic players, as their knack for drawing fouls has given them 104 and 99 free throw attempts on the year so far. If either gal is driving to the basket, you can bet they'll lean into a defender and hope for the whistle. Against most teams, this is a devastating tactic that can send a team's best interior players to the bench. Few teams in the conference can take the fouls from these girls and survive the closing minutes. Although Georgia and Arkansas have done exactly that, much of Kentucky's losses have come from the loss of their point guard (Amber Smith) to a preseason knee injury. They have settled on Maegan Conwright, a freshmen, to run the point. With two losses already (and one to Georgia), Kentucky is on a razor's edge as the conference season gets started. One more loss and their hopes for the top regular season record are pretty well gone; until then, however, they are still a very talented squad who can run with any team in the league.
So who's the most likely contender?
Under the way-too-soon umbrella, I'd have to go with Georgia. Sure, that's an easy guess since they're the only other undefeated conference team, but the road win against Kentucky was very impressive. They didn't blow the Cats out, but they did hold on for a slim but consistent lead throughout most of the second half and managed to retain their composure when Kentucky took a brief lead late. They don't get discouraged easily, and Andy Landers is quite familiar with playing against a Summitt team.
Overall, I'd place an order of likelihood as:
Of the others, Auburn is still at 2-1, but their 7-6 nonconference record doesn't instill much hope. They'll have to prove themselves over the next couple of weeks before they can defensibly be a part of the conversation.