Almost lost in the afterglow of the football win over South Carolina is that basketball season is just around the corner. As in, one week away. Still, getting in before the deadline (read: before Will gets his basketball groove on) is part one in the preseason writers' warmup reps for the Lady Vols. Here, I'll gloss over the guards and wings in a Bayesian, we-don't-know-much-and-are-waiting-on-actual-games, kind of way. So come for the minimally informative look at some of the new players, and stay for the obligatory free run at Baylor.
Discussion of Lady Vols guards must start with Ariel Massengale. The senior point guard will be back after taking a season-ending Florida backhand and suffering concussion symptoms for a disturbingly long time. Since this is her final year as a Lady Vol, she'll be the first career point guard for Tennessee since Shannon Bobbitt departed in 20081. At this point, everybody knows exactly what she brings to the table: a good PG skillset with a decent three-point shot and an uncanny ability to draw fouls when driving to the basket. At the moment, she's the best PG on the roster and will be the obvious choice for prime minutes at the 1.
After Massengale, we also know well about Andraya Carter, who has split time between the 1 and 2 over her time in orange and blue. This year, I suspect we'll see more of her at the 1 in Massengale's relief, with some time at 2 while younger players get rolled into the PG rotation. Her best contributions come on defense, where she's a perfect fit to place one-on-one against opponents' best guards. The one upside to Massengale's injury last year was the experience Carter had at the point, which adds some serious lineup flexibility to the roster this year2.
After those two? Point guard duties get a bit hazy from there. Jordan Reynolds also rotated into PG duties when Massengale went down, but we won't know if she's ready to take minutes away from Ariel and Andraya until the season gets underway. Alexa Middleton and Jannah Tucker are more natural 2s and will probably end up filling most of the minutes that Meighan Simmons occupied last year.
So looking at the shooting guard slot, let's just get this out of the way now: this team will not miss Meighan Simmons3. Yes, she could light up a game, but she could also shoot the team out of contention, and often in the worst possible moments. This is not to bag on Simmons, but rather to highlight that the 2 should not be seen as a point of weakness until proven otherwise. There are plenty of reasons to believe things will be better at the shooting guard position, particularly during big games (I submit Jordan Reynolds during the SEC tournament final against Kentucky last year as exhibit A to this point). There are plenty of shooters on the roster right now, and there doesn't seem to be that high-school I'm-the-shooter-so-I-take-all-the-shots issue that plagued Simmons when she first showed up.
For whatever preseason chatter is worth, Jannah Tucker is often mentioned as the best shooter the team has had for a long time. If true, then she can have all of Simmons's shots. It'll be terrific to have her on the floor at any rate; her path to the college game has been less than smooth. It's not our place to get into details, but it's commendable how the Lady Vols stuck with Tucker during her off-court difficulties. But getting back to the game: she's a fiery competitor and has had plenty of time in practice with the team. I suspect she'll be one of the first rookies to really find her groove on the floor.
Alexis Middleton strolled into the McDonald's All-game and won the three-point and skills contests - the first ever player to win multiple individual events. As far as I could tell, she likes to play physically and is a very solid shooter. Likely her most difficult transition will be adapting to the bigger opponents, as she seemed thin even against the other McDonald's players in the AA game. We have no idea where her overall play is relative to the college level, but there are at least concrete reasons to believe that not a single guard on the roster will be of BassWatch(TM) level.
And to close the book on guards: Diamond DeShields has to sit out a year due to transfer eligibility rules, so we'll worry about her when that bridge needs crossed.
Depending on your feelings about Cierra Burdick4, there are three wings on the roster: Jamie Nared, Kortney Dunbar, and Jasmine Jones. Of those three, two are freshman and one is Jasmine Jones, which leads to the awkward conclusion: Jasmine Jones may very likely play significant minutes early on. (Scary point: last year, Jasmine Jones was third on Tennessee's usage rate at a shade under 22%. A part of this is most likely that she was somewhat Simmons-like with the ball and not particularly willing to pass. But at any rate, that's a stat we'd probably like to see diminish unless, you know, every other stat of hers improves.) Off-ball, Jones is quite capable and is probably the best option at the wing early on. And until the team knows what they have in Dunbar and Nared in college-level action, Jones is the only option with experience at this position. The upside is that Jones improved significantly on defense and is quick enough to cover guards. The downside is that, unless things changed over the summer, she was a ball-handling liability last year.
The freshman wings will be fun to watch, though. Nared is supposed to be a fantastic perimeter shooter, and Tennessee has missed that since Taber Spani graduated. She was the top-rated wing in the recruiting rankings last year5, and she played for years with Mercedes Russell and Jordan Reynolds, so there are plenty of reasons to believe she can slot in early on. As thin as Nared is, though, there's always the question of her strength, but we can't speak to that until we see her play.
I honestly have no feel for Kortney Dunbar at the moment, unfortunately, though browsing the previews gives a sense that she has plenty of strength, a solid shot, is smart on defense, but needs to work on quickness and agility. Were I to make wild, unfounded guesses (which I totally am doing right now), I'd place her as very freshman-Spani-like, with perhaps a bit less on the three ball and maybe a bit more physicality overall. If so, her game will be a nice change-up to Nared's finesse.
Fortunately for Tennessee, the 3 is the one position on the floor you can get away with having a perennial backup and two freshmen in the rotation. The Lady Vols can rotate Burdick to the three during all-big lineups, or roll out a three-guard lineup when going small, so if the wings struggle early on they can be somewhat hidden. This will lead into the inevitable discussions of floor lineups and what combinations they can possible field (short answer: all the combinations). Against teams with minimal interior presence, this could lead to some melding of the 3/4 roles, with more three-guard lineups and the wings getting to play more like forwards.
ODDS AND ENDS
Pendley will talk more the forwards and centers, and as the games get closer we'll probably start revising our thoughts on roster combinations in light of Russell's medical redshirt. In the meantime...
The only exhibition game is Sunday, November 9th at 2 PM against Carson-Newman. If it's free, I might try to make it to get a first-hand view of the team.
We might be shot-tracking again this year? Maybe? It's not the easiest thing to do, but it's very good at drawing out talking points. If there are any particular players worth tracking, let us know.
Big out-of-conference games (with preseason ranking). @ #9 Texas, @ #24 Rutgers, vs. #6 Stanford, vs. #20 Oregon State, @ #3 Notre Dame.
I am also obligated to point out that Baylor has the never-ending contract with #11 Kentucky alongside #14 Michigan State and #24 Syracuse - both in an invitational tournament. Those, and Ole Miss, are their only road games of the year.
Speaking of preseason rankings, Tennessee is #4 and South Carolina is #2. I have no problem with that, especially since we have to see how things go (a) without Russell, and (b) with a massive question mark at the 3.
- Don't forget about Swish Appeal, who has been on top of women's BB all off-season while we've been on vacation.
1If you want to make an argument, your choices are Shekinna Stricklen and Brianna Bass. Good luck with that.
2We'll talk more about roster flexibility later on, once Pendley is done pillow shopping.
4It makes more sense to consider Burdick a 4, especially since Mercedes Russell is out for the year and interior rotations are shorter than expected. Besides, Burdick is at her best when physical contact is involved.
5Speaking of: I'm just going to break out some popcorn to enjoy when Pendley finds out that part of her rankings are based on her midrange shooting game.