Who wants some cannon fodder? We've been here before with Missouri - no, literally, we were here, in Knoxville - and this is the return game. In the first game, we established that Missouri shoots a lot of threes and I assumed they would shoot way better than they actually did.
Since then, Missouri has gone 2-3 - losses to Kentucky, Arkansas(!), and Texas A&M (roadie) with wins at Ole Miss (by 1) and against Florida (by 5, in probably the strangest result here). As a result, Missouri sits square in the middle of the SEC conference standings, which normally means Tennessee should roll comfortably.
Of course, also since then Isabelle Harrison suffered a meniscus tear and had surgery. That's a big deal. It kind of goes without saying that she won't play today; what we don't know is if she'll play at all the rest of the season, although the safe bet is that she won't. That makes Tennessee's prospects the rest of the season a bit trickier; let's take this time to remind ourselves that this was a retooling year anyway. Her injury matters, but this team isn't quite ready to do something like contend for a national title. (Harrison may impact the SEC titles, though; we'll get there later - as in, not today.)
The universe provides, though; for one, Jasmine Jones had a fantastic reserve performance against Notre Dame and should slot in as a solid interior option. For another, Nia Moore is right there and could use the kind of seasoning and PT a game like this should hopefully bring. For last - and this is the big one - Cierra Burdick is back.
I don't know yet if she's ready for starter's minutes, but there's certainly an opening for her (if she doesn't get the starting nod, I'd guess Kamiko Williams will - heck, Kamiko may start anyway since Missouri's perimeter threat far outstrips their interior one). Burdick's midrange and less-herky-jerky-than-last-year's-game game is sorely needed, and she slots in as the third-best player off the bat, behind Bashaara Graves and - yes - Meighan Simmons.
With that, we move to the bullet points.
- Play it safe. There's enough of a skill gap here that Tennessee should float to a comfortable win, so anyone who touches the paint better stay healthy. Losing Harrison is a big, big deal; lose Graves or Jones and this team may not get any hardware.
- Burdick and Moore's rhythm. Of the two, Burdick matters way more than Moore (punnery!) and I'm way more concerned about Burdick's game. Moore, however, has a prime opportunity to get PT with Harrison out; I don't expect the world from her (and - quite frankly - she's probably 6th on the interior chart next season anyway, with a healthy Harrison and Mercedes Russell (fresh off a high school scoring record; you thought you were safe from news about high schoolers here, didn't you?), she's behind those two, Graves, Jones, and Burdick for sure) but quality minutes are every bit as important. She doesn't need to score more than a handful, but she needs to get the boards that come her way and play solid D. Burdick, meanwhile, just needs to get back in the groove.
- Nothing's changed. This is the same Missouri team - Morgan Eye will shoot lots of threes, everyone else shoots badly. Don't make it complicated; figure out how to play without Harrison, play solid D, and if Tennessee gets above 70, that'll probably be enough. Missouri needs to get way above 70 to win, and even giving them the benefit of the doubt, I don't think they'll score above 60. Not against this defense.
- yeah yeah let's talk about Meighan I suppose. Or the guards, at least. Again, guard D matters more; I don't think that Missouri's interior players match up well with Graves at all - heck, I don't think they match up with Jones - but they'll need to be at least some perimeter threat. Simmons counts as that (right now she's on 15.2 shots per game to get 17.4 ppg, which isn't awful but isn't great). If Taber Spani can reclaim her shot, so much the better, and I mention Ariel Massengale here because her game is so consistent it's scary this season.
- Alpha Graves. Graves is the go-to interior player for the Lady Vols, as she should be. Let's see her grab that role with authority; I really want her to slap up a 25/15 or something absurd like that against an overmatched team. For the record, she got 19/13 against Notre Dame; this isn't nuts. (And yes, I am thinking about a Harrison/Graves/Russell interior in 2014; don't judge me.)
Predictions? Yeah, sure: Tennessee 82, Missouri 50. They lost by 26 to Kentucky, so it seems reasonable given where both teams are right now. Hooper's got 77-52 Tennessee, Why does Hooper hate Tennessee? Tell us in the comments.
[ed. Hooper] A bit more about Moore (recycled puns!): she was a tad inconsistent on Thursday but played well overall. Time on the court is her biggest need, and she'll get it here. Burdick seems to think she's a great shot blocker, which won't mean much today, but might be important later on in Harrison's absence.