TV/Stream: SECN+ (a/k/a the '3)
Last we left the Lady Vols, they were showing all the tendencies you'd expect from a team that just graduated its senior core of Harrison, Burdick, and Massengale. Defensive rotations broke down after the first few passes, a tendency to overpursue caused some open lanes, and some early-season jitters made for a horrid three-point shooting night. Despite the warts, however, the Lady Vols walked away with the victory thanks to the combined efforts of Mercedes Russell (13 boards, 14 points, 2 blocks) and Bashaara Graves (24 points on 100% shooting (!!), 13 boards, 2 steals, and only 1 foul). It's clearly a team that's figuring out its optimal lineups and rotations, which is exactly why conference play never begins early in the season.
(As an aside: Penn State is likely a much better team this year than last year's 6-win record would indicate. It's probably too early to crown them B1G champions but they have a good shot at making noise for an at-large bid, if nothing else. This win will likely look better after about a month has elapsed.)
Tonight, the ACC steps up to the plate with Syracuse coming to Knoxville. The Orange have only played one game so far - a 57-54 win last Friday against Rhode Island. Like Penn State's OT win over Holy Cross, the margin of victory might tend to suggest a team that should be easy to beat, but like Tennessee's effort on Wednesday, a single early-season data point isn't exactly the most reliable of indicators. Syracuse has finished the last few years in the ~30 range of RPI and has become a routine NCAA tournament team. The URI game featured 32% shooting from the Orange (compared to 42% for the Rams) and a subpar rebounding night, which led to a closer margin than the rest of the stats would have suggested.
Syracuse will likely play 6 players for more than 10 minutes, with another 5 getting measurable time. Of the six, guard Alexis Peterson notched 10 steals against URI and Brianna Butler led in scoring with 20 points off the volume-y 6/16 from the field. (That 6/16 is actually 6/15 from three, so don't expect much driving from her.) Over half of Syracuse's shot attempts were from three against URI, implying that a man defense is the approach du jour. Players to watch include the aforementioned Butler, who seems to be pulled out almost exclusively for foul considerations, Briana Day (as opposed to twin Bria Day, which will be fun to hear from Mickey tonight) as the team's best rebounder and inside presence, steal machine Peterson (above), and Cornella Fondren, the guard who gets boards.
Syracuse has some decent size and will most likely have two to three 6-footers and better on the floor at any given time. The Days both clock in at 6'-4", so they will naturally draw Russell's number. Other than that, the Syracuse roster is eighteen players long, which just shouldn't happen. (NCAA rules limit scholarships to 15 for WBB and 13 for MBB, so there are at least 3 girls not on scholarship on this squad. Also, 18 is unmanageable in practice, but whatever. You do you, Syracuse.)
About the Lady Vols
Meanwhile, there are several questions for Tennessee to help answer tonight. We've seen Graves and Russell to things that All-American posts should be doing. We know the potential for Carter, Reynolds, and other returners. Can Te'a Cooper calm down on defense and avoid overpursuit? Will DeShields find her shooting groove? How does the Dunbar-at-the-4 experiment progress?
Fortunately for Tennessee, Syracuse likely does not have an answer for Graves/Russell in the paint. Both Lady Vols have already shown dominance in this season, and Russell's improved conditioning is particularly noticeable. But the single fear for tonight is Syracuse's long-range shooting. They clearly love to jack threes, and a team that gets hot from the perimeter can be deadly regardless of mismatch (hello, Morgan Eye). The Syracuse 3PT% stat will likely be the most telling statistic of this game.
Tennessee should win this one, despite the disadvantage of a short turnaround compared to Syracuse's full week of prep for this game. Either way, the real question is the progress shown from two nights ago. Much of the problems were self-inflicted against PSU, so there are a lot of things that can be improved quickly.
No predictions tonight, as things are still too close to division by zero.