Television: Fox Sports South
Audio: Good Grief / Lady Vol Network
So the last time we left the Lady Vols, they had just finished steamrolling Southern Methodist in the Junkanoo Jam. That was on November 29th, meaning they haven't played in nine days. Standing at 7-0 and #3 in both major polls, it's really the best start the Lady Vols have had in some time. On the opposite end of the floor is a slightly different UT wearing a slightly different orange (like you haven't heard that a billion times before): the Longhorns are currently 7-2, receiving votes in both polls, and coming in with some respectable games under their belt.
Let's take a look at Texas first:
- HEY WATCH OUT THEIR CENTER IS 6 FOOT - oh, wait. She's only six foot seven inches tall. Carry on.
Imani McGee-Stafford is the tallest Longhorn, so with that gag out of the way, let's mention her first. The sophomore center has started half their games and averages about 10 points and 8 rebounds in about 20 minutes per game. If Texas decides to start big, she'll be on the floor for the opening tipoff, but will otherwise come off the bench if they start with a smaller, quicker lineup. It's anybody's guess, really. But she'll be the best combination of height and skill that Tennessee (read: Russell) has faced this year, so it should make for an interesting focal point in the game.
- Texas senior Chassidy Fussell from Tennessee, vs. Tennessee senior Meighan Simmons from Texas. Fussell is a senior shooting/combo guard who has been one of Texas's better players during her career. She's currently their second leading scorer with about 10 points per game and leads in minutes played and three pointers, so expect to hear her name a lot. She was named on the preseason Naismith watch list (Naismith Trophy = POY for women's basketball), so she's obviously considered an important player on the team. If the Lady Vols can successfully clamp down on her defensively (ahem, Carter), Texas's perimeter game will be severely curtailed.
- The Longhorns live in the interior. Nneka (not that Nneka) Enemkpali, Kelsey Lang, and Imani McGee-Stafford are all trees who put up a lot of interior shots and score almost half of the Longhorns' points. At 6'-1', 6'-5", and 6'-7" respectively, it's one of the taller trio of scorers to be found in the nation. This would really be a good game for Isabelle Harrison to not pick up two fouls in four minutes.
- They're not the best possession team out there. Their A/TO is only about 0.6 (~ 14 assists and 20 turnovers / game), and the main culprit is leading scorer Nneka (A/TO = 0.29 which, to be fair, scoring forwards don't get a lot of assists). However, about 40% of their turnovers come from steals which is better than Tennessee's 55% rate. Again, it's harder to steal once the ball is inside among players who don't tend to dribble. But even with the lack of steals, they're more generous with the ball than they should be, which points to passing or offensive fouls (and the stat sheets don't make it easy to figure out which).
- They shoot 70% from the line, and the majority of their points are free throws. They thrive under the new rules, with about 23 free throws on 21 fouls per game. Even McGee-Stafford shoots about 66% from the line.
- A Texas school with some good games under their belt. Texas lost to Stanford at home 63-54, which really isn't all that bad of a loss. The win over Texas A&M in the Virgin Islands and the loss to Syracuse in the same location were both good games in total. There are the usual underwhelming warm-up cupcakes, but the early resume suggests a team that has every business earning a solid seed in the NCAA tournament. At any rate, it's easily the best resume in the state. **cough**
All in all, it's a Texas team that does have the real potential to beat Tennessee, especially if the Lady Vols' interior gets in early foul trouble and can't effectively play against Texas's interior. That said, they don't tend to score a lot of points (typically about 60 to 65 points vs. teams with a pulse, and exactly 60 vs. a not-good Arkansas-Little Rock in their most recent game), so one or two good runs per half might be enough to keep the Lady Vols in front for good.
With that, some keys:
- Watch the fouls early in the half. The last thing Tennessee needs is to put Texas in the bonus with 12 minutes to go in a half. This means easing up on hand checks and smart interior play.
Hey Kim Mulkey, do you think the increase in foul calls had any effect in your loss to Kentucky?
I have never been a part of a team that has had seven kids foul out and had to play a kid that's injured just to have five on the floor.
- Make them run. I'm not convinced Texas can run their starters at Tennessee's pace and keep them fresh. If Tennessee can turn it into a track meet, things should open up in the latter phases of each half, especially as the centers have a hard time getting back on defense.
- Stop the entry passes. Be it zone defense, a sagging man defense, or whatever, keeping the ball out of the interior is the best way to frustrate Texas. They can shoot decently from three, but they don't like to do it a lot.
- Box-and-crash. Texas is tall enough that it'll be hard to outwork them on the boards in even numbers. If Tennessee's interior players box out effectively, however, the Lady Vol guards are certainly athletic enough to win rebounding contests. Rebounding should be a team effort for much of the game.
Prediction: 79 - 64 Tennessee. It won't really be a runaway as Texas is pretty cagey, but a couple of scoring runs with lots of transition points will put the Lady Vols ahead for good.
Isabelle Harrison foul pace. Texas loves the interior and referees love to whistle Izzy. Still, I think things get a bit better and she can play 20 minutes with only 3 or 4 fouls.