TV: Pac-12 Network (yeah, what?) - also channel 786 in Knoxville, per UT's pregame notes (see, this is why you read the press releases)
There are - effectively - seven big games in Tennesee's schedule this year before the Lady Vols get to tournament play. Of those, four come in conference play - both LSU games, Kentucky, and South Carolina. They passed their first test with flying colors, winning at Chapel Hill 81-65 thanks to a strong first half allowing an easy second-half coast.
The second game is today.
Stanford needs no introduction; if you've followed women's basketball at all in the last decade or three, you know Stanford basketball and you know Tara VanDerveer, who just broke the 900-win barrier. You also probably know they've made the Final Four in five of the last six years.
Stanford starts with Chiney Ogwumike, the dominating 6'4" power forward, pro prospect, general ruler of all she surveys, whatever. She's averaging a double-double (25.7 ppg on 17.1 shots(!), 10.6 boards per game, 6 FTA/game) and will be the focal point of the Stanford offense. Ogwumike is the best player Tennessee's faced all season, one of a handful of players who can match up and better Tennessee's interior in both height and presence. Limiting the damage she can do is critical to Tennessee's success.
She's flanked by Mikalya Reuf (7 ppg on 6 shots, 9.5 boards, 3.8 FTA/game) on the inside and Amber Orrange (11.7 ppg on 8.1 shots, 47% beyond the arc, 2.4 A/TO) on the outside. Stanford's remaining starters - Lili Thompson and Sara James - look like offensive cannon fodder, so I'm guessing they're there for their defense. Also, be on the lookout for Taylor Greenfield - she's been coming off the bench the last two games (healthy now) and offers another interior presence at 6'3" with efficient minutes. I could see her starting, but Stanford's media guide makes it look like she's coming off the bench. Regardless, expect to see her.
There's no getting around it; Ogwumike is a hellacious matchup problem. Some combination of Bashaara Graves, Isabelle Harrison, Cierra Burdick, and possibly Jasmine Jones will need to at least limit her. The rest of the (Lady?) Cardinal I'm not as worried about.
I can't stress enough how big this game is for Tennessee. Over the last few years, Tennessee has struggled in big road games, but no Tennessee squad since the 2007-8 national champions has been as complete as this one. (I'm not sure it's the most talented squad - 2011 probably has that nailed down - but completeness is different than most talented.) With a win today, this year will feel different.
You may not know that Holly Warlick's struggled against top 10 opponents as the outright head coach (as in 1-4 against AP top ten teams). So yeah, this is a big game. Fortunately, this isn't last year's Tennessee squad.
This season has felt a little bit different than the last few years - that UNC win, the late pull-away wins against MTSU, Georgia Tech, Virginia, and Texas, the outright talent domination wins against Troy and Tennessee State (FWIW, 2008-2012 Lady Vols don't win that game by 51 after letting off the gas; this matters, much like it does in football) - but it's lacking a true signature win. It's also worth noting that Tennessee hasn't won a game by less than 9 points - just for fun, their winning margins: 9, 10, 11, 14, 16, 24, 34, 39, 40, and 51. That's clearly better than everyone, but given the lack of top 25 teams, that still falls just short of title contender to this point.
Stanford, although they're a bit down this year - yes, I know they're #6/#5, but Baylor's in the top 10 so your argument is invalid - is still a signature win on the road. Win today and the top blows off this season. Win today and Tennessee's name goes in the pot for Final Four favorites.
How does that happen?
- Keep Mercedes Russell off Ogwumike. I'm pretty close to being in the tank for Russell's game, but she doesn't have the strength to deal with Ogwumike on either side of the court yet. Defensively, rotate someone else who can keep up with Ogwumike's strength. If Ogwumike is guarding Russell, I'd be fine with Russell pulling her game away from the basket a bit to drag Ogwumike out (and letting Graves sweep up the offensive boards.) Ogwumike is going to need to be held up by Graves, Harrison, Burdick, and Jones. They'll have to draw that matchup, because as high as I am on Tennessee's interior as a whole, I don't know if anyone can beat her one-on-one. If anyone can do it, it's Harrison, but I'd rather it not come to that. (I won't even consider the possibility that Ogwumike ends up in foul trouble; she's too good for that.)
- Use all the depth. Nia Moore is the only player to receive a DNP-CD in any game this year; everyone else has played every game they've been healthy for. (Jones missed the Tennessee State game, presumably to be healthy for a game where she's needed.) More than that, everyone's playing well. It's a measure of team quality when the end of your bench is playing 11 quality minutes a game (Moore) and your team leader is only playing 30 minutes (Ariel Massengale). Tennessee's bottom of the bench is still effective - Moore's averaging 5 boards and 1.6 blocks per game in 11 minutes, Jordan Reynolds is shooting 46% from beyond the arc, and Jones is shooting 44% from the floor with 4.6 boards per game and 0.8 steals per game. Don't believe me? Try listing out the top four scoring options on this team.
- A quick aside: my scoring option list in order. Harrison, Massengale, Graves, Simmons, Russell, Burdick (would be higher if not for the midrange problem), Carter, Moore, Reynolds, Jones. I bet you can make an argument for any of that top four in any order (well, aside from Simmons at #1) and there isn't much dropoff from 1-6. Simmons' weakness right now is her perimeter shot, which is underperforming based on her historical norms. If she gets that back, Burdick's the only weak shooting link on this team, which is a product of the shots she's offered as much as anything.
- Seriously, the depth. Yes, I know that Stanford rolls 10 players - technically, since Greenfield is included - getting 11+ minutes a game, too. However: only four of them shoot above 40% (Tennessee has 8), two average double figures (Tennessee: 4), and three get to the line for more than 2 FTA per game (Tennessee: 6). Also, just for fun, the top 8 ppg averages by team: Stanford (25.7, Ogwumike), Tennessee (13.6, Simmons), Tennessee (12.4, Massengale), Tennessee, (11.8, Graves), Stanford (11.7, Orrange), Tennessee (11.3, Harrison), Tennessee (8.9, Russell), Tennessee (8.2, Burdick). Tennessee comes in waves; Stanford comes in bodies. That's a big difference.
- Limit the stupid minutes and hold nothing back. Stanford is too good a team to get stuck in the stupid zone for more than a couple minutes. It's going to happen, but it'll probably happen to Stanford, too. I expect Massengale's going to get lifted from this game when pigs fly; she can absolutely run this game on both ends, and with Tennessee's next game in over a week (against Lipscomb), there's no reason to not empty the chamber. Harrison needs to stay out of foul trouble, and the midrange shot needs to be the last option, not the first one. Play strong, play smart, and this team can do what it hasn't done since '07 - beat a top-5 team on the road.
Prediction: 78-73 Tennessee. Narrow victories are still victories. Even though Ogwumike will be the best player on the court, Tennessee should have enough depth to overcome that. (Even if Harrison winds up in foul trouble. Please don't wind up in foul trouble, Harrison.)
Odds Mickey gives POG to the player with the most points: off the board, don't even ask.