So there's progress, which is what the Lady Vols have made since the beginning of the season, and there's lack of progress, which is where their pursuit of a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament is. That's how it goes for a team that can beat anyone (well, almost anyone) at home but can't get it done against the elite teams on the road. That's how this last week went for them, and it's less an unfortunate event and more the continuation of a trend.
The frustrating part is that both these games were winnable. The road game against Kentucky was ugly, hectic, frantic, and the worst possible scenario playing against a team that likes to play at tempo. There wasn't a prayer of maintaining an A/TO greater than one (Ariel Massengale was, of course, the only player on the court to do this), but 20 turnovers and a .383 percentage from the field isn't going to cut it. At this point, we expect Meighan Simmons to shoot sub-50% from the floor; we don't expect Shekinna Stricklen to go 3-12, though.
That being said, even with the chaos and Kentucky going up 10 around the under-8 thanks to an absurd prayer of a 3 that A'Dia Mathies threw up JP Prince-style (that is, fouled on a three and made both the three and the FT), the Lady Vols did a great job to force the game back to even - heck, they were even leading late and had the ball on the next-to-last possession. Then again, that didn't work out quite like you expect; Stricklen got called on a charge (which was ...um, questionable and let's just move on) and Mathies hit a runner in traffic as the game expired, giving Kentucky the 61-60 win. Frustrating way to end it, but not unjustified.
Of course, the Ladies came home and promptly housed Vanderbilt to the tune of 87-64. This was closer than it needed to be for a lot of the game until the Lady Vols turned on the afterburners in the second half. This game was Powered By Glory (Johnson), who has been a house afire since the Stanford loss. (On a related note, Glory and Vicki Baugh both get a pass for their play over the last week; Glory put up a 17/7 in Lexington and a 16/13 with 5 steals in Knoxville; Baugh went 16/9 and 16/7 respectively, and there's some serious chemistry between them. The team struggles are not their fault.) Massengale hit double-digit assists for the first time in a Lady Vol jersey (I think), Stricklen went for 20, and that was that.
And yet, it's not enough. This team is still on the 2/3 seed line, and there's basically one more opportunity to get to the 1 line. That opportunity comes on the 23rd, in a game in South Bend against now-#2 Notre Dame (aka the team that knocked the Lady Vols out of the tourney last year). Win on the road and that's the marquee victory Tennessee's resume quite frankly lacks. Lose and it's fine - it's not like the team is in danger of missing the tourney. However, a loss there means the Baby Vols are also going to graduate being one of the few classes under Pat Summitt to not make a Final Four while on-campus. That doesn't sound good, does it?
It's not that a 2 or 3 seed is particularly harder to make the tournament than the 1; this team is more than talented enough to make the Final Four. However, at the highest levels potential victors are defined by what they did on the road against elite teams. That record ...well, that record isn't good. That looks like a close victory over Rutgers, a close loss to Kentucky, and an absolute blowout against Stanford. Notre Dame is much closer to Stanford than they are Rutgers or Kentucky (who both may challenge for a Final Four spot, but not for the title). Win in South Bend and we'll start to entertain Final Four or title hopes (okay, we'll entertain them regardless, but they'll be real reachable goals than instead of hopeful dreams); lose and it won't be anything that we haven't seen so far this season.
Elite Eight as a potential peak for a Lady Vol club just sounds wrong, though. How do the Lady Vols get out of that rut and reach their potential?
- Stricklen needs to be the best player on the court every night. No slight intended to Glory (unless she takes it as a slight and uses it to get better, in which case it's definitely a slight), but Stricklen is the most talented player on the court nearly every night and she needs to act like it. I don't care if there are claims she's not that kind of player; those claims are wrong. She's not like Tobias Harris was last year (great flow-of-the-game scorer); when she wants to, she can dominate a game for minutes at a time on both ends of the court. Now it's time to do it.
- The Glory-Baugh combination needs to keep on. This is what we were hoping for with putting both of them on the court at the same time; two 4-5 matchup nightmares who can get their own shot, crash the boards, play reach D, play off each other on the offensive side of the court, force opposing posts into foul trouble, and rotate between positions. (An aside: if you see Tiffany Clarke around Nashville, make sure she sent in her property tax check to Glory on time, because Glory owned her so badly on Sunday she'll need to take out a 30-year mortgage to pay off the debt.) Glory really stepped up in the wake of the Stanford loss, and it seems like Baugh dropping to the bench has really helped her game. I'd like a double-double from both of them every night, but the boards and matchup nightmares are about all I can hope for.
- Three-point shooting needs to be a legitimate threat. Taber Spani, a lonely Vol Nation turns its eyes to you (woo woo woo). This feeds back into the Stricklen point above, but there's no three-point threat with Spani sidelined. I'd like to see Stricklen take 5-7 threes a game at least (and I'd like to see Simmons put up open threes when she gets them instead of the out-of-control drive and whiffed layup she's getting good at), but without Spani there's no reason to actually respect the deep ball. The guard rotation and Stricklen can launch threes, but the three-ball isn't anyone's primary weapon. Putting those up - and making them - will go a long way toward opening up the interior, where the Lady Vols really do their work.
- Ariel needs to keep maturing. That's simple enough, isn't it? The one wild card in this season is Ariel's development curve; quite frankly, she hasn't looked like a freshman often this year. I don't see that changing, and some kind of leap from her - even after Notre Dame - may make some of this null and void.
- The coaching staff needs to settle on a rotation. Yeah, who expected to see the coaches on this list? It's weird, but it's true. Right now, it looks like the starting 5 is basically settled until Spani comes back; once she's back, Alicia Manning will likely drop to the bench, leaving her as the 6th. Baugh needs her minutes (that's 7), and Kamiko Williams will likely need to spell the guards (that's 8). Beyond that? Well, random minutes for Cierra Burdick, Isabelle Harrison, and Briana Bass is probably all that's needed without foul trouble. Moreover, with a legitimate PG on the roster, decisions there are a lot easier than last year. There's no reason to roll a Bass - Massengale - Manning - Stricklen- Harrison lineup, which we saw for way more time than necessary (read: at all) against Vanderbilt in the first half. There's no reason to have Bass and Massengale on the floor at the same time (barring excessive injuries); there's a reason we have BassWatch. I think this was a one-off thing - at least I hope it is - but this is awfully late in the season to figure out who's effective with who. Don't force Massengale into a hybrid 1/2 to make her more aggressive (or if you want to do that, do it once the game is well in hand). This is the simplest thing to correct; fix it.