January 23, 2012
South Bend, IN
7:00 PM EST
TV: ESPN2 / ESPN3
Internet Audio: Lady Vols Network
Live Stats: GameTracker
14-4 (5-1 SEC)
19-1 (7-0 Big East)
For a team with such a high RPI, the Lady Vols still lack that key, tournament-resume-defining victory. TBA is a fortress, sure, but tournament bones are made on the road. So far, it's the road games that have troubled this team, with three of the four losses coming away from Knoxville. Sure, two of those losses were to top-10 teams (let's not talk about Virginia), but teams that play into April win road games against good opposition. The good news for Tennessee? Notre Dame on the road is just about as good as it's going to get. If there's going to be a big road win this season, now's the time. Win in South Bend, the Final Four and beyond is a real goal. Lose, and Denver stops being a realistic outcome and turns into a hope.
Non-conference games in January don't get much bigger than this. Lineups and breakdowns are below the fold, as always.
So the whole Tennessee has trouble guarding good guards thing ...well, this isn't good, is it? Skylar Diggins is as good as they come, and the shocking part with this kind of guard rotation is how they don't make their bones from beyond the arc. It's not that Diggins or Novosel can't hit threes (Novosel in particular is in Lofton territory, at 43.5% on the year), it's that they get to the line. A lot. Novosel and Diggins shoot nearly 11 FTs a game combined, with 5 other players over or around 2.5 FTs per game. (By comparison, Glory Johnson shoots 6.5 FTs / game, and then it's a long way down from there to Vicki Baugh at 3.4, Stricklen at 2.9, and Simmons at 2.7. Everyone else is below 2.) That means preventing guard penetration is the order of the day, but at South Bend you can't hope the refs will call the game loose. Adjust accordingly, and avoid fouling
Notre Dame presses, they score (only three games below 75 points on the year), they force turnovers, and Ariel Massengale won't be the best point guard on the court. This is like Kentucky on steroids. Now what? Oh, and lest you think Notre Dame is prone to foul trouble themselves, they go 11 deep. Good luck.
Tennessee will have one critical advantage: rebounding. Well, they have two: height and Glory Johnson. Johnson is one of the few post defenders who might be better off the post, where she can use her length and athleticism in space. (And now this turns into a football preview.) The problem is asking her to do that and soak up the defensive glass, which is why I can easily see Vicki Baugh getting some extended minutes. Deny ball penetration, don't allow second chance opportunities. Simple, right?
The bigger issue affecting the Lady Vols is health, though. Stricklen should be ready to go (and if not, I suspect you'd have to tie her down to keep her off the court anyway in a game like this), and for Tennessee to have any chance, she needs to be the best player on the court when she's on the court. It doesn't count if it's only for 5-7 minutes, which we saw during the Vanderbilt game; that's not going to cut it, not tonight. It needs to be painfully obvious where she is and what she's doing. It's up to Massengale to use Stricklen properly (and then use Glory, Baugh, or Simmons when the defense shades Stricklen), and it's up to the rest of the offense to convert. Glory just needs to do Glory things; she will be the most athletic post on the court, so no sense not using that to every advantage. I'd love a 20-15 from her, but if she's getting that, the odds something else went wrong are pretty high.
That being said, you know who it may come down to? Taber Spani, of all people. She's been out injured for what feels like far too long, but rumors persist she'll play. Even as a spot-up three-point shooter, she's the best option the Lady Vols have from downtown. (Yes, Meighan, I see you. Take a second to compose yourself, then put it up, and we'll talk. None of this 20 shots to score 23 business; do it in 15 shots.) 10 points might be too much to ask for, but she's more dangerous than the minutes she'd be replacing - right now Brianna Bass is getting those minutes, which is a sign something's gone way wrong.
It'll be tough, but there's a way to win in South Bend. This team is capable of it....
Prediction: 78-69 Notre Dame. ...and yet, I don't see it. The will isn't there yet, and time's running out. Prove me wrong. Please.
No BassWatch; not to put too fine a point on it, but I want a DNP-CD here.
Hooper's Thoughts: I'll keep it short because Chris has pretty well hit everything. It should be noted, though, that Notre Dame is a team that might be peaking. Coming off a win over UConn and an absolute disassembly of Pittsburgh, Notre Dame is firing on all cylinder. That might be useful in March if they burn out, but it's not good news for today. Meanwhile, Tennessee is still growing, thanks in part to injuries holding back the team development. Again, good news for March but not today.
In addendum to Chris's info, I'd like to see Tennessee value their near-transition possessions more. When the fast breaks are there, they should by all means exploit. But if a fast break doesn't quite happen, Tennessee tends to force the issue instead of settling into the halfcourt offense. Five-second possessions with wild off-balance shots and subsequent defensive rebounds kill any momentum and force a team to stay on defense longer than is comfortable. If the fast break isn't there (Meighan), pull it up (Meighan), distribute the ball (Meighan), and find the right looks (Meighan). Layups clanking off the bottom of the rim shouldn't happen: those are turnovers, not shots.
Prediction: 74 - 65 Notre Dame. The Irish deserve to be favorites on their home court this year.