Prior to the start of the season, with half the team (and most of the experience) on the sideline due to suspensions or injury, it was reasonable to worry a little bit about an early game upset. Not a likely scenario, for sure, but not the most bizarre thing to ever happen. After the last two games, where Tennessee weathered early jitters to run Penn into the floor, and then laid a beatemdown on Oral Roberts that surely made Mulkey jealous, those remote thoughts are no longer worth entertaining tonight. An upset is a possibility as a technicality, but that's about it.
WHAT WE KNOW SO FAR
- The Lady Vols are going to be really good at guard. We knew that Massengale and Carter would be alright, but the rest of the backcourt consisted of Reynolds, Tucker, and Middleton - of whom the latter two had played a college game. Tucker debuts tonight (more in a bit), but Middleton has already proven in three games (exhibition + 2) that she's going to do quite well. To wit: in the two regular season games, she's averaging 6.5 assists with a 61% eFG% and 0.336 Eff/Poss. Sure, two games make that a nearly useless figure, but it's a great starting point. Her defense will have to improve, but that's true for every third-game freshman ever.
- Nia Moore *might* be making a leap. We had two years in a row of Isabelle Harrison making a leap, and now it could possibly be happening to the backup center. She's firmly in "wait and see" territory, but she held her own quite admirably against 6'-7" Vicki McIntyre last Monday (who was formerly a center at Florida with a few starts under her belt - not All-American, but certainly not bad). Nia's Eff/Poss is at 0.489, which leads the team and which yes go back and re-read that it's Nia Moore. She could still draw more fouls, but we won't get too greedy at this point.
- Burdick and Tucker are back. Cierra Burdick's suspension is over, which adds a great deal of experience and 3/4 depth to the team. This will likely reduce Nared/Dunbar's minutes somewhat in the long term, although Jasmine Jones might not play tonight, thereby mitigating the depth effect. Burdick also adds a lot of energy to the team on the floor, which is something they seem not to lack in the early going, but is always nice to have. (She also gets under Kentucky's skin, which is a point worth remembering later on.)
- About Jannah Tucker... The last bullet point ended up focusing on Burdick, so we'll give Tucker her own point here. She will undoubtedly be very excited to play tonight as she's waited far too long to get on the court. Rumor has it she'll end up being the emotional fire of the team, with a great shooting touch to boot, so those are the things we'll look for during non-conference play. As a redshirt, she may be more up to speed defensively than Middleton right now. If so, the guards could have a full 5-deep rotation available, allowing Warlick to lay out small lines when needed or rotate depth during more conventional 2-guard sets. In short, this team should be able to run most opponents into the ground, Oregon-football style.
- On the blocks, Harrison is likely out with a knee injury, Moore is having a hot start as noted above, and Graves has been ... average? I really don't know what word to use. She's doing fine, mind, but perhaps because Moore and the guards have been lighting it up there just hasn't been much opportunity for her quite yet. She has a soft double-double average (14 points, 10 boards) at the moment, but her Eff/Poss is only 0.284, which is low for a post player. It'll almost certainly go up once the team kinda settles into a rhythm, but that's really the only down point so far.
- Since we're this far, I'll note that Nared and Dunbar have been doing well for freshmen wings. Kortney Dunbar in particular has been more efficient than you think: her 0.418 Eff/Poss is only behind Moore (though Nared's 8.0 A/TO reminds you that these stats only include two games and small sample size ahoy). But if the guards and posts are on their game, the wings only need to be contributors, and the 8-ball is saying they'll do quite well at that, at the very least.
Okay, Tonight's Game
Winthrop plays out of the Big South, which means their only route to the NCAA tournament is through their own conference championship. Of their two games, they beat Gallaudet (who I'd never heard of before) 117-43 and then lost at home to Furman 55-73. (Tangent: what would the final score of a Tennessee / Gallaudet game be?) We're not looking at world beaters tonight, and chances are this will be out of reach by the first media timeout. Still, here are some kinda-sorta scouting notes for the game:
- Winthrop's RPI is better than Tennessee's. Stop laughing; it's true. As of writing this, Tennessee is 191 and Winthrop is 146. I'll probably never get to write that again, so there you go.
- Stop Shaquilla Nunn. She's pretty much everything for Winthrop so far this season. The 6'-3" junior (who is the tallest person on the team) is averaging 29 PPG with an Eff/Poss of 0.668. Her eFG% of 65.8% and 14 boards/game are far and away the best numbers on the team. It's mitigated by having half of her time come against Gallaudet, but it's still the best on the team. So long as she's shut down, there's really nothing else to worry about.
- That means the three ball isn't a threat. Their best deep threat, Erica Johnson, graduated last year. After her, the best on the team are getting about 33% from beyond the arc, which isn't the kind of number you worry about. Could they have somebody go off for a 15/20 and keep the game interesting? Sure, but it's not exactly something you lose sleep over.
- Run them down. Four players (Nunn, Wright, Kilpatrick, and Williams) are getting 27+ minutes/game. The rest are 17 mpg or lower. Efficiency drops off accordingly, with five of their top nine mpg players getting Eff/Poss less than 0.1. (That's also known as "bad".)
- As for Tennessee... we want to see improved defense, particularly from the freshmen. It's always the last thing to evolve for new players, so this isn't a surprising point to make. We also want to see Moore get more physical and draw more fouls. She'll need to make that a part of her game as better teams come to town, and now is the time to get used to it. Lastly, we'd like to see Graves be more dominant throughout the game, particularly on the defensive glass. Other than that, we're really just watching for Jannah Tucker's debut.
And blood. Oh yes, there will be blood.
Prediction: Tennessee 102, Winthrop 45.
TuckerVision: 11 points, 4 assists, 6 rebounds