With the, er, growing pains of the opening nonconference slate behind us, the Lady Vols begin their defense of the SEC regular season title today with a trip to the Plains to meet a long-time rival. Much like Old Dominion, Auburn is a women's basketball program that has seen better days in their past. They have never won the NCAA tournament, but did finish runner-up three years in a row from 1988 through 1990 (including a loss to Tennessee in 1989). Unlike Old Dominion, however, Auburn is closer to regaining their old form, even if they're not there this year. Today is neither about the past nor future, however, and Tennessee enjoys a significant talent advantage. Here's hoping they use it well.
Tennessee's starting lineup appears to remain in flux, as according to the media release, Manning is expected to get yet another start today. The senior is the team's best disruptor in transition and should provide plenty of help in the press and against inbound plays. Her presence on the floor means that Glory will be asked to anchor the post alone, with the forwards providing assistance from the outside in. But it also means a more dynamic lineup that will likely employ press, man defense, and a lot of opportunity for turnovers in the early phases of the game. (Against Old Dominion, this lineup ended the first half with an A/TO of 7.5 (15/2), providing the ball control that has eluded Tennessee for ages.)
There are many advantages for Tennessee in scoring and defense, but the glaring statistic is A/TO, where Tennessee stands at nearly unity (171/174) and Auburn is at 0.8 (174/232) even though Tennessee's strength of schedule is #1 and Auburn's is #201 according to Sagarin. It's even more astounding that Tennessee would very likely have an A/TO close to 1.1 had Ariel not been injured through most of December. This is yet another game where Tennessee will actually have a ball control advantage over an opponent. That, along with superior rebounding, scoring, and defensive percentages make it hard to see an upset in the SEC opener.
Harder games are coming down the pike (e.g. Kentucky - twice), but Tennessee needs the first one to start on the right foot.
Prediction: 88 - 62 Tennessee
BassWatch™: Final media timeout of the first half.
Chris: Auburn's time may come, but it won't come yet. The Ladies have been dominant at times, but those times have generally coincided with being in Knoxville; in many ways I treat the win at Rutgers as the biggest and best win of the year simply because it wasn't in the friendly confines. That experience matters; while I'm not particularly enamored with Auburn, I'd be lying if I wasn't getting unpleasant flashbacks to Virginia when I think about this game. (Maybe that has to do with the Peach Bowl last night?) Road wins of any size and shape matter; this is eminently obtainable as far as wins go - certainly not close to the order of the date in Lexington coming up shortly.
It's also the first of three games this week and of four over seven days. Getting out to a hot start and putting the game out of reach early is critical. The downside? I'm not sure that'll happen - again, see Virginia. On paper, this is a 20-point walkover. Played out? I don't feel it. Not yet, at least; I'm trying to figure out if I trust this incarnation of the Lady Vols, and while they're nowhere near the Baby Vols, this team - right now - isn't as good as last year's team. This can change, and if it's going to change it starts today. Last year's team didn't lose in SEC play; play for the tie.
76-63, Tennessee. Bass is in at around 9 minutes left in the second half.