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The UT Battle: Tennessee vs. Texas, 2:30 PM EST

The Tennessee Lady Volunteers play their first top-10 opponent of the season, as Texas (and ESPN) comes calling to Knoxville.

Go hard in the paint.
Go hard in the paint.
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

TV: Regular ol' ESPN (and regular ol' virtual ESPN)

Radio: Regular ol' Mickey

Live Stats: Regular ol' oh wait dangit

For a lot of people tuning into the Lady Volunteers for the first time (not you, intrepid hardcore women's basketball viewer, no sir and/or ma'am), they'll tune in, see Tennessee with four wins in November of less than 10 points, and assume this team isn't any good. This does a disservice to Tennessee's opponents to date, which ignores the ability of those four teams to likely make the NCAA tournament, and not in a 16-seed kind of way.

Texas, of course, is better than all of them. The Longhorns are a top-10 kind of outfit, youthful but good, and shaping up to be one of the best teams in a getting-deeper Big 12, the kind of conference with the kind of depth that'll let Kim Mulkey not even bother to schedule a team in the RPI top 250. (Related: Texas' current RPI is 216; would you like to schedule a home-and-home with Baylor?)

Texas plays a one-in/four-out style, with senior Imani Boyette anchoring the middle at 6'7" and Kelsey Lang (at 6'5") coming off the bench. When teams get good, Tennessee won't be able to rely on their height advantages; Texas can equal Tennessee's height advantages, meaning if Tennessee is going to win this game, they have to do so via the usual, late-season methods: better defense and better shot selection. Tennessee has been gangbusters on the former and terrible on the latter so far; they can't afford that.

The five keys for a Tennessee victory today:

  1. Shot selection, shot selection, shot selection. Te'a Cooper, Diamond DeShields, and Jasmine Jones are all shooting less than 40% from the floor. Cooper is fearless, DeShields is better than this, and, well, Jones is Jones, but they cannot win this game sacrificing 60% of their shots outside five feet off the hoop. Size up the shot if given the opportunity to do so, and if given the choice between a three and a 20-footer, just ....take the three. Tennessee hasn't done this frequently, but they have done it.
  2. Win the entry pass battle. Tennessee's opponents have spent a lot of time defending in zone for two reasons: item 1 up there and denying entry passes to Mercedes Russell and Bashaara Graves, who have been fantastic to start the season. They can hurt Texas on the interior—I don't know of a team they can't combine for 30 points and 25 boards against, at least in theory—but in order to do this, they have to get good entry passes from the guards. This hasn't happened yet. Similarly, limit the drive-and-dish combination that it looks like Texas will go for.
  3. Clean up the defensive glass. Boyette's ability to score can be directly traced to the amount of offensive boards she pulls down. That tells me she isn't much for creating her own shot and instead cleans up the messes created by the guards. Keep Boyette off the boards and Tennessee can save themselves a few free baskets.
  4. Andraya Carter, meet Brooke McCarthy's shoes. Texas gets scoring from a lot of different sources, but McCarthy has been the most consistently dangerous. Carter hasn't had an opportunity to defend a truly elite scoring guard yet this season; that'll change here. Carter has to win this battle, and that's something she's capable of doing. (Brianna Taylor and Celina Rodrigo will present problems as well; if Cooper gets big minutes, she'll likely need to defend one of them. This concerns me, as we've seen a lot of Cooper relying on her speed to get her out of mistakes before; that won't fly today.)
  5. Limit empty minutes. I think both teams will go with a nine-deep rotation. Given the margins Tennessee's worked with so far, nobody will be able to get away with joining Club Trillion today. If you're on the court, you need to be on the stat sheet and not just for turnovers.

PREDICTION: 61-58 Tennessee. This game will scare everyone (for good reason) for large portions of the game. In the end, I think Tennessee has just enough, if only because they've played close games against good teams already; Texas's best opponent to date has been Rice, I guess.

[Ed. Hooper: I'll go with a bit more scoring at 67-62 Tennessee, but it's really the same prediction.]