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The Lady Rebels have been something of a castaway in the SEC over the last few years. If it wasn't bad enough to be relegated to the bottom tier of the conference, they lost then-head coach Adrian Wiggins in October of 2012 due to recruiting and academic violations (yes, recruiting violations for a team that would win 2 games in the league and be bad enough to earn a spot on Baylor's non-conference schedule this year). Yet they've been home to one of the best players in the SEC over the last four years, and it's really a shame that Valencia McFarland never really had the supporting cast she was capable of leading.
ABOUT OLE MISS
- Valencia McFarland is all you really need to know. The 5'-4" senior point guard has been the team for her career. She's the kind of point guard that we really could have used when Stricklen was running the Baby Vols show. On this season, she leads the team with 16 points, 33 minutes, 6.5 assists, 2.8 turnovers, and 2.2 steals per game. (Given the lack of talent around her, the 2.3 A/TO is really impressive.) Against Baylor in Waco, Odyssey Sims grabbed the post-game writeups with 39 points on 32 shots (well, 11/32 with 15/16 from the free throw line in a game reffed by both Lisa Mattingly and Dee Kantner). McFarland was far and away the more efficient point guard, however, with 6-13 shooting and 5-7 free throws for 17 points, 12 assists (and only 4 turnovers), and 9 rebounds. Baylor would win that game 87-80 thanks to a +10 advantage in free throws made and Ole Miss's second best player, Tia Faleru, fouling out. But had Ole Miss had anybody really worth McFarland's ability, they could easily have pulled the upset. (Seriously, did Mulkey forget that McFarland was on Team USA in the Pan American games? The scheduled scrimmage in Waco actually turned into a basketball game.)
- The team appears to be improving. The start to the season was rough under new head coach Matt Insell (a former Kentucky assistant and therefore coaching tree grandchild of Pat Summitt) with a 1-4 record and a home loss to Central Arkansas. But even then, most of the losses have been close, including neutral site games vs. West Virginia and Washington State. The loss to Missouri still indicates that Ole Miss has a long way to go in the league, but there are more reasons to respect them this year than last.
- Stats. All this is through the lens of a #241 SoS (worse than Baylor!), but here we go. They play at a faster tempo (80 possessions/game, which should be fun tonight) with a low 17% turnover rate. Their points/possession and defensive points/possession are subpar (0.97 and 0.92 respectively - both bottom half in SEC despite the SoS) and they tend to let opponents score from the free throw line more frequently than they get there themselves (free throw rates of 22.5 and 17.1 respectively), though they have actually attempted more shots from the stripe (366 for Ole Miss vs. 348 for all opponents).
- Other players. 6'-1" junior Tia Faleru is the second best scorer (also 16 points/game), the best rebounder (9.9 per game, almost half on the offensive glass) and easily the most worrisome inside presence. 5'-10" senior Kenyotta Jenkins has the wacky stat line of 14 minutes/game, 13 blocks (team leading), and 4 foulouts, so she should be lots of fun when she comes off the bench. The team will likely run seven deep as long as they can and desperately needs to avoid early foul trouble (or late foul trouble, which will happen when you play a team in Waco in a game reffed by Lisa Mattingly and Dee Kantner).
Focus points for Tennessee
- Don't obsess over McFarland. She'll be the Ole Miss player of the game, no question, but she can't shoulder the entire game alone. It's just as easy to shut out the other four on the floor and probably a healthier approach for the development of the Lady Vols going forward. But the McFarland vs. Massengale/whoever matchup should be a lot of fun this evening and is definitely the place to watch when Ole Miss has the ball.
- Press the interior. This is the most obvious strategy ever, with Harrison going gonzo the last few games and Russell slowly becoming more physical. But if either starting forward (Faleru or McCray) has to sit early, then the foul-o-matic Kenyotta Jenkins subs in, and Tennessee can find themselves in the bonus quickly. It also neutralizes Ole Miss's best defensive advantage - McFarland's ability to steal.
- Give Simmons and Burdick some chances. The pair were crucial to Tennessee's scoring last year, but have been remarkably quiet this year. We've discussed Simmons, but both need to find their stroke again, even if for no other reason than to keep teams from trying to collapse on Massengale or Harrison. Harrison's been laying some scorched-earth games lately; while nobody's going to complain if she does that again, scoring depth will matter. (Also, in no circumstances show Simmons Odyessy Sims' line against Ole Miss; the only way Simmons is getting 16 FTA in a game is if there's a campaign for a rule change between when this post goes up and when the game starts.)
- Play for 40 minutes. Usually, Tennessee forgets to show up for the first 10 minutes or so, then slowly comes to a full boil by halftime. Against Georgia, they went Sherman's March on Georgia for 30 minutes and then cozied up for a nap by the fire, almost letting the
DawgsDwags tie it back up. Playing a 40 minute game is easier to learn today than, say, when Notre Dame comes to town.
Prediction: 87 - 72 Tennessee. McFarland will be frustratingly fun to watch, but Ole Miss still has a serious talent gap here, and Tennessee is still humbled by the LSU loss and the Georgia near-collapse.
McFarland A/TO: 2.25 I'm thinking a 9/4 night from her, and she deserves some recognition for her unseen career, so she's the bonus prediction tonight.