When we last left the Lady Vols, they dropped a 73-62 decision to an Alyssa Thomas-led Maryland in the Sweet 16. Was that disappointing? Yeah, probably, but there's some solace to be found in Thomas being the best player on the court that day. She was drafted fourth in the WNBA draft earlier this month, and in a bit of an ironic twist, ended up on the same team, the New York Liberty, as third-round draft pick Meighan Simmons.
The net for Holly Warlick's first two years: one Elite Eight appearance, one Sweet 16 appearance, one regular season SEC title, one SEC tournament title. It's not great by our standards, but this isn't the same era of women's basketball that Pat Summitt walked into when she started. (For one, Summitt didn't have to deal with 25 of her disciples as head coaches.) Furthermore, the 2011-12 class graduated five starters-okay, fine, four and Briana Bass-leaving the 2012-13 class with some shoes to fill. Same story for the 2013-14 Lady Vols; Simmons was the only senior.
It took a couple of seasons for Warlick to get her classes sorted out, but the good news is that's done with. Simmons, for all her polarization, was a prominent threat who could win a game on her own. Did she do that way more than she should've? Yes. Is it probably a good thing that the 2014-15 Lady Vols now have another 15-20 shots/game to redistribute? Absolutely.
Last year was deep across college basketball. This year's still pretty strong, but the Lady Vols will come loaded for bear across all their classes.
First, an overview of who returns by their class:
Seniors: Isabelle Harrison, Cierra Burdick, Ariel Massengale
Juniors: Bashaara Graves, Jasmine Jones, Nia Moore
Sophomores: Mercedes Russell, Andraya Carter (redshirt), Jordan Reynolds
Freshmen: Jannah Tucker (redshirt), Jaime Nared, Alexa Middleton, Kortney Dunbar
That's as balanced as you'd like, with likely starters from every class and three draft prospects including a potential top 5 WNBA 2015 draftee in Harrison. This team is loaded. Want to get excited about next season now? We won't stop you.
There are a few new names in this roster, so let's do some approximate breakdowns by position, keeping a special eye on those with multi-positional flexibility:
PG only: Massengale, Reynolds
PG/SG: (combo guard) Carter, Tucker, Middleton
SG (straight 2) : Tucker, Middleton, Jones
W/SF (classic 3): Burdick, Jones, Nared, Dunbar
SF/PF (3/4 hybrid): Harrison, Burdick, Graves, Nared, Dunbar
PF/C (interior power): Harrison, Graves, Russell, Moore
C: Harrison, Russell, Moore
Goodness. This is easily the most flexible roster Holly Warlick's had as head coach. Tennessee's weaker roster spots over the last couple of seasons have been getting depth at the 2 and on the wing; Simmons and Burdick were both fine starters, but Jasmine Jones wasn't scaring anyone offensively. Carter and Jones are both better on the defensive side of the ball, which: again, fine. However, lineups with both of them struggled to create shots, which is okay for a couple of minutes at a time; it's less okay if they were both on the court 10 minutes a game.
This year offers way more flexibility. Tucker will make her debut after redshirting last year; rumors are that she brings a bit more bite than we had seen in previous years. Massengale, if healthy, will start, but the presence of Carter and Reynolds will help in case things turn south, and both picked up a bunch of experience last year.
Incoming freshman Alexa Middleton (HoopGurlz #28) by all sounds appears to be a three-point gunner, solving yet another problem; perimeter scoring has been intermittent the last couple years. As a freshman, she likely won't see a ton of time, but she'll have an easier path to playing time than others. Bonus: this team will have a ton of scoring options with a bunch of different lineups, likely giving Middleton some juicy corner threes as long as she's not a defensive zero.
There's a clear interior/perimeter break when we get to the wing. Jaime Nared is the #6 overall recruit in the 2014 class (again, HoopGurlz) and per scouting reports seems to have a set shot and range. I ...well, I need to see it. However, worst case it appears she'd provide scoring punch if Burdick has to sit, putting Jones/Nared in a defense/offense tandem, unless Jones has figured out her shot or Nared can defend well enough. I'd guess lineups with both Middleton and Nared would be a rarity next year.
Kortney Dunbar is the #72 recruit (HoopGurlz), rated a 94 and 4 stars, and is the lowest-rated recruit in this class, because that's how Tennessee rolls. I'm guessing that puts her in the bottom of the depth chart at a few positions.
And then there's the post game. Nared/Jones might be able to slot in as a 3/4 swing in smaller lineups, but really: this is the territory of Harrison, Russell, Graves, and Burdick. Poor Nia Moore will continue to throw garbage time block parties and it's not even her fault at all. Just one more year, we promise.
Wait, what's that you say? You want to know when 2014 national freshman of the year Diamond DeShields is coming to play? Patience. For one, she's transferred already, but per transfer rules she'll have to sit out a season. 2015-16 will be fun, but look a lot different than the previous incarnations of the Lady Vols since it'll be centered around guard play. We'll cover that in a separate post, because seriously: this year is going to be incredible. Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, said as we're writing and you're reading a women's basketball preview five months before anything like meaningful action.
I could spend another 3,000 words on various lineup combinations, but the simpler version is this: the Lady Vols will run a legitimate, tested, eight deep, without even touching any of the freshmen, two of whom have obvious spot roles already. Injuries will hurt, but won't cripple, the team unless we start seeing three starters knocked out.
And before you ask, there is no way Kim Mulkey wants any of this.
Sky's the limit this time around. The wait's going to be tough.