February 23, 2012
7:00 PM EST
TV: FSS / ESPN3
Internet Audio: Lady Vols Network
Live Stats: GameTracker
20-6 (9-5 SEC)
20-7 (11-3 SEC)
The regular season is almost over and there are still as many questions about this team as when we started. After the utterly dominant win over Kentucky last week, the Lady Vols snoozed their way through the state of Mississippi for a couple of uninspired wins. The final two home games will present more of a challenge in terms of opponent level but will also provide more support with a solid home crowd ready to cheer on one of the most unique senior classes in Lady Vols history.
In the first meeting, Tennessee blew Arkansas out of their home gym 69-38, making 19 of their first 20 field goal attempts. Since then, Arkansas has found some cohesiveness and is 9-1 in their last ten games. (Aside: have you ever noticed how such record claims always imply the game previous? 9-1 in the last ten means 9-2 in the last eleven. Anyhow...) The Razorbacks are currently alone in third place in the SEC standings - a feat that seemed unimaginable a few weeks ago. They are the one non UT/UK team that could conceivably win the SEC outright, so this is a very important game for the regular season, let alone preparing for the tournaments.
Arkansas brings a very senior-laden roster and will match Tennessee's size at most positions. They aren't as athletic, but they are skilled and they've learned to play within themselves and play as a team. They're also not a high scoring team, but have done well at keeping opponents from getting hot on offense, underpinning the importance of defense that Lady Vols fans know so well.
The player to watch is C'iera Ricketts, the de facto point guard on the floor and Arkansas's leading scorer. Given UT's tendency to let a team's best guard have a career night, limiting C'iera would be the best news Tennessee fans could have (outside of a win, of course). Part of C'iera's success has come because Sarah Watkins is one of the few post players with a good long shot, allowing her to come out to set screens and act as a viable scoring threat if the defensive switch leaves her open. But Tennessee has done well against Watkins in the past, and alert defensive play should allow that to continue.
Fortunately, defense is the one thing Tennessee has done decently well over the last few weeks. Sure, players like Valencia McFarland became stars in losing efforts, but a part of that is because those players had nowhere to go with the ball other than toward the basket. Tennessee's zone defense has been incredible at denying entry passes, and teams that have only one or two reasonable three-point threats struggle to get the ball away from their best shooter. So while the career-game-for-the-opposing-guard routine is getting a bit old, it's largely because that's the only player with a chance at making the shot. If the opponent's guard doesn't have a good night, these games will get ugly fast.
At this stage, there are no special keys to the game other than effort. If Tennessee wills themselves to win, they will win. They need to approach this game like it's a tournament game. Senior night on Sunday won't feel like one, so this is the last time to really rehearse the mindset they'll need for the postseason.
Prediction: 84 - 68 Tennessee. It's a home game.
BassWatch™: under 4 of the first half. Keep Ariel from risking late first-half fouls.