January 8, 2012
3:30 PM EST
TV: ESPNU / ESPN3
Internet Audio: Lady Vols Network
Live Stats: GameTracker
11-3 (2-0 SEC)
11-3 (0-2 SEC)
The Lady Vols are taking to the court for their fourth game in eight days, which also makes for seven total UT basketball games in that time span. Last week's games were probably the best three-game stretch played by the Ladies in a long time, with a convincing win over Auburn, a starter-resting demolition of Chattanooga, and a never-look-back cruise over Georgia. While the toughest SEC test will come on Thursday (@Kentucky), a solid 40-minute performance could have us wondering if the Ladies have turned the proverbial corner after their loss to Stanford.
Meanwhile, Arkansas is probably happy to be at the end of their brutal conference-opening run, where their first three games are @Georgia, @Kentucky, and hosting Tennessee. (Don't feel too sorry for them, though; they don't have to play Georgia or Kentucky a second time.) They started 11-1 with a season-opening loss to Minnesota, but also had their best win of the year two days later against Florida State. As usual, Arkansas does have some good talent, but will have a tall order to earn their second-ever program win over Tennessee.
Arkansas is an easy team to figure out: C'eira Ricketts and Sarah Watkins. Ricketts is one of the better point guards in the conference. She leads the team in scoring, but prefers to drive rather than to shoot threes and has a team-leading .459 shooting mark from the field. Meanwhile, Watkins is a versatile post who often spends much of an offensive set well away fro the basket and is currently 7-20 from beyond the arc on the season. She has taken more shots and free throws than any other Lady Razorback and hits her free throws at a .741 clip. These two lead the team on both offense and defense; the rest of the team tends to fall into supporting roles, with Lyndsey Harris being the only regular three-point threat on the team. She has 74 attempts; the next closest is Calli Berna with 41.
Stopping Arkansas means stopping Ricketts and Watkins. Stop both, and they can't win. Stop one, and they struggle to win. Stop neither, and Arkansas is perfectly capable of the upset. Because of Watkins's range (both with and without the ball), teams with immobile posts have a hard time containing her. Enter Glory Johnson. This will be one of the more entertaining matchups on the floor on both ends. If Arkansas tries to use screens to free Watkins from Johnson, Tennessee's rotation will likely try to keep Stricklen, Manning, or Baugh on her. (Aside: Isabelle Harrison will get some time with Watkins; this will be a great chance to see how far the freshman has come.)
Ricketts will be lined up against Massengale for most of the game, a matchup I like more and more as I continue to think about it. Ariel is following the Meighan Simmons Path of Freshman Sensationalism, albeit in a very different way. She has been very solid on defense all year and has taken care of the ball with a 2.5 A/TO. Her recent shooting streak is a delicious bonus, but there is nothing in Ariel's game that suggests she's just been on a hot streak. The girl is legit and will be a fantastic defensive counter to Ricketts. (And this year, I trust Simmons on Ricketts a lot more than last year, so bully for her.)
On offense, Tennessee should enjoy mismatches in the other three positions. If Arkansas uses man defense, Ashley Daniels will likely defend Stricklen and will have to choose between tight coverage (and risk getting beat off the dribble) or loose coverage that opens up the three ball. With the Stricklen Family Reunion in attendance, I do not envy Daniels today. This could get ugly. When Baugh subs in for Manning, Daniels will have to rotate into the interior, leaving Dominique Robinson on Stricklen. The sophomore is not quite to the level of Daniels on defense, meaning a Baugh-Johnson-Stricklen lineup makes Stricklen almost undefendable for Arkansas. Meanwhile, Meighan Simmons will face up against shooting guard Calli Berna. The freshman has actually led the team in minutes against Georgia and Kentucky. She doesn't score many points, but she also doesn't commit many fouls and takes decent care of the ball. I don't know if she's seen the speed that Meighan has, so if Simmons can stay under control, there should be open shots available.
Arkansas had a lot of trouble with Kentucky's full-court press, and I expect Tennessee to try the press as well. Unlike Kentucky, who presses with small, fast players intent on stealing the ball, Tennessee usually presses to bleed the shotclock. If Tennessee does press, watch the shotclock and see if Arkansas can get the ball across with more than 20 seconds left. Anything under that mark is a win for Tennessee, as Arkansas won't be able to develop some of their offensive sets. Unlike Georgia, Arkansas is not likely to make a lot of buzzer-beater desperation heaves.
And having said all that, the game comes down to one thing: this is Stricklen's day and she will be in full beast mode all game long. The only thing that ever holds Stricklen back is her own quiet personality, but with her family in attendance she will repeat last year's performance and put this game to bed early.
Prediction: 87-53 Tennessee. Bake a lot of breadsticks; Stricklen plans to share them with her family.
BassWatch™: Under-4 timeout of the second half. (BassWatch is a little less exciting with Kamiko back in the lineup.)
Chris: Let's not mince words; Arkansas doesn't like to run. We saw this against Georgia, too, when they tempo-controlled the first half in Knoxville. Not that it mattered then, either; after a quick 10-4 opening, the Ladies held serve at worst against Georgia before opening the floodgates in the second half. On the plus side, Arkansas isn't as talented as Georgia, but the game is in Fayetteville instead of Knoxville. Let's call it a wash.
So Arkansas's going to try to do what Georgia tried to do, and it'll probably work for a little while but not the entire game. This isn't the same team that struggled in a bleed game against Virginia; they know what they're up against now. Tennessee's press looked a lot better against Georgia than it had in previous games, which should bode well; Hooper covered the rest of it up above. Getting up 10 early should basically seal it, provided they stifle Arkansas runs.
Oddly, I don't see Stricklen entirely exploding today along the lines of a 20/12; she's been stuck in something approximating a shooting slump the last few games, and she's not getting to the line enough to work her way out of it. For that matter, the same goes for Simmons. I'd be happy with a game in the 70s (should be plenty for Tennessee to win; I don't see Arkansas topping 60), but I'd count it as a win if both Stricklen and Simmons get 8 FT attempts apiece. I've been waiting on Simmons to use her speed to force opponent contact; now's as good a time as any. However, Stricklen should at worst approach a double-double (think 17/8 or so), Ariel should take care of the ball, Glory should get hers, and we get to look ahead to the first of two big showdowns in January. (Yeah, you read that right.) Here's hoping we get a Spani Surprise.
76-57 Ladies. Bass gets in at the 6 minute mark of the second half.