TV/Stream: ESPN / WatchESPN
We're now at the point in the tournament where any team can realistically beat any other team (Notre Dame and UConn excepted). After all, even Baylor played a decent Kentucky team and won yesterday. So while Tennessee is the higher seed and has the apparent depth and talent advantage, this is hardly a game they can sleepwalk through a half like they did in both games last weekend.
In some ways, Maryland is the kind of team that most frustrates Tennessee. In other ways, they're something of an ideal matchup. Going straight to the bullet points, let's look at Maryland:
Alyssa Thomas. You'll be tired of hearing her name by the end of the game, mostly because the announcers will lock in on her the entire time, but partly because she's easily Maryland's best player and the one most likely to make life tough on Tennessee. The 6'-2' senior forward leads the team in points (18.6/game on the year), rebounds (10.9/game), and assists (4.3/game). She is shooting 51% from the floor and almost 80% from the line, so a night of 28 points on 17 shots is certainly within her range.
After Alyssa... things drop off quickly. Despite being a team with high shooting percentages (most are easily north of 40% from the floor, nobody else averages double figures on the year, though Walker-Kimbrough and Lexie Brown are at 9.7/game. It's clearly an offense that is designed to get the ball in Thomas's hands first and let her dish off if she can't make something happen on her own. Teams that can effectively defend Thomas force the second options, which are really pretty good.
- Maryland has height. The tallest player is 6'-7" Essence Townsend, but she's getting less than 5 minutes a game and shouldn't be a factor. After her are two 6'-4" posts (Alicia DeVaughn and Malina Howard), 6'-3" Brionna Jones, and 6'-2" forwards Alyssa Thomas and Tierney Pfirman. If that sounds like a lot, it's because they have a 14 member roster. Of that entire list, only Thomas and DeVaughn get over 20 minutes/game (DeVaughn at 20.8), While Howard, Pfirman, and Jones hover around 15 minutes/game apiece. All told, that adds up to two girls of 6'-2" or better on the floor at any given time.
- Overall profile: They're an average-paced team that usually plays 8 deep into their roster (2 guards, 2 forwards, and 1 center), tends to be efficient on offense, getting 1.1 points/possession and scoring an effective 83 points per game. They do a good job of getting to the line and have made 74% of their free throws on the year. Defensively, they've allowed 0.85 points/possession (for 63 points/game) and are solid at avoiding shooting fouls. They're probably the best 4 seed in the tournament.
So with that in mind, here are some thoughts on Tennessee's path to victory:
Deal with Alyssa Thomas first. Against Texas, she had zero points in the first half and Maryland struggled to tie te score at halftime. She will likely be guarded by Cierra Burdick and Jasmine Jones early on, with adjustments made depending on early success. My guess is that Cierra will be the key to successfully defending Thomas today.
Keep the ball out of the paint. Maryland prefers to score from inside and is usually tall enough to do so. Maryland is decent-ish from three, but nothing spectacular, and will probably struggle if they're forced to jack threes late in the shotclock. Tennessee is one of the few teams well built to defend the paint, but denying entry will be more efficient, especially if we're treated to another refshow. Speaking of which...
Stay out of foul trouble. It's women's basketball. Of course it's going to be a refshow in the second half. The key is to keep fouls down early so they can absorb the whistles later on.
- Go inside. Pass the ball, Meighan. Tennessee's posts are better than anything Maryland can defend them with. Get the ball inside and let them work their magic. If Tennessee can place one or two of Maryland's interior players in early foul trouble, the floor will tilt severely in Tennessee's favor (and it'll reduce the risk of Lady Vols posts getting in foul trouble on the defensive end).
- Turnovers. Maryland averages 14.5 turnovers/game and benefits from 15.8/game. Tennessee averages 16.1 and benefits from 15.1. If the Lady Vols try hot-dogging too many passes, they'll end up in a deficit on possessions, and Maryland is too efficient to let that happen.
- Own the glass. Maryland, like all teams in the top 20 or so of the rankings, have outrebounded their opponents on the year. Tennessee, however, is better at rebounding, particularly on the offensive glass. When Tennessee struggles, their rebounding effort hasn't been there (e.g. not destroying NWSU on the glass in the tournament opener, despite having every rebounding advantage you can think of). In many of their second half surges over the last few weeks, Tennessee went from equal or deficit rebounding numbers to a marked advantage.
It's Tennessee's to win or lose. Maryland has the one hotshot, which has always been Tennessee's bane. But she's a forward, not a three-point shooting guard. This is in Tennessee's wheelhouse, and if Tennessee plays up to their potential, Maryland won't be able to do much about it. If the Lady Vols instead play sloppy or lethargic, they'll give Maryland the opportunity to stick in the game and even pull off the upset. On a similar vein, Tennessee has to focus on the full 40 minutes and can't let a run by Maryland cause them to panic. Maryland will have a run or two, but it's up to Tennessee to decide how long those runs last and whether they flip the game.
Prediction: 82 - 73 Tennessee. I wouldn't be surprised to see Tennessee trailing at halftime. So long as it's not a big deficit and so long as Harrison and Graves aren't in foul trouble, it shouldn't matter too much.
Mattingly alert: medium high. She was in the Baylor regional last weekend, but appears to not be there this weekend. Louisville is within her normal territory and is therefore the next most likely place. Because she apparently has compromising pictures of the director of officials, she'll be on call for the higher profile game (i.e. the one on ESPN). So yeah, refshow ahoy.