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The Lady Vols Preseason Preview

Thanks to the change in conference scheduling in football, the Kentucky game on Saturday reminded us that some people prefer a sport with a round bouncy ball.

And the wait for current photos has begun...
And the wait for current photos has begun...
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

As always, basketball season gets here in a hurry, thanks to the lovely distraction of football to mask the last couple of months of waiting.  For the women's side of the UT basketball house, it's largely business as usual: a top-5 preseason ranking, loads of returning All-American talent, some way-too-soon national title talk, and all those free runs at Baylor just waiting to be played out.

(Speaking of Baylor - who's excited for that televised game against Oral Roberts?  No?  Would you have preferred Northwestern State?  Grambling State?  Arkansas-Monticello?)

The Roster

First, let's look at the players.  Gone are Isabelle Harrison, Cierra Burdick, and Ariel Massengale.  Back in action are Mercedes Russell and Jasmine Jones (both medical redshirts).  Gone is Jannah Tucker.  Eligible is Diamond DeShields.  Returning is pretty much everybody else.

# Name Position Height Year
20 Te'a Cooper PG 5'-8" FR
14 Andraya Carter G 5'-9" RS JR
33 Alexa Middleton G 5'-9" SO
10 Meme Jackson G/F 5'-11" FR
0 Jordan Reynolds G 5'-11" JR
11 Diamond DeShields G 6'-1" RS SO
13 Kortney Dunbar F 6'-2" SO
12 Bashaara Graves F 6'-2" SR
2 Jasmine Jones F 6'-2" RS JR
31 Jamie Nared G/F 6'-2" SO
1 Nia Moore C 6'-3" SR
21 Mercedes Russell C 6'-6" RS SO

(Probable starters highlighted in bold.)

The big, hulking elephant in this room is the impact that Diamond DeShields will have on the year.  She's been consistently mentioned as the superstar the team hasn't had since Candace Parker - that go-to player to be the deciding difference in Elite Eight games and beyond.  In her freshman year at North Carolina, she earned national freshman of the year honors before deciding she'd rather play in Knoxville.  She may have sat out the college season last year due to transfer rules, but she was part of the gold-winning team at the World University games along with Mercedes Russell and Holly Warlick.

She seems ready for the spotlight, so hopefully the "DeShields, NO" hotkey won't have to be set.

After DeShields, there's the return of Russell to look forward to.  Coming off surgery on both feet (red flag in a wait-and-see sort of way), she can fill the void left by Harrison's graduation.  The one upside to her absence last year was the emergence of Nia Moore as a legitimate backup center.  The senior had some genuinely good games and should be able to hold the paint in the inevitable Mattingly-decides-she-doesn't-like-Russell-today game.  Add Bashaara Graves at the 4/5, and hopefully a defensive leap forward for the surprisingly-good-at-reading-plays Jamie Nared, and the interior just might be on lockdown.

The guard rotation has also weathered the graduation of PG Ariel Massengale rather well.  Jordan Reynolds was already racking up a lot of quality time at the point last year, so she should be in good shape to lead the offense this season.  Andraya Carter, defensive pitbull, can also handle the point, making her the flex option.  Diamond DeShields is a 2 (or a 2/3 in a 3-guard offense) who could probably rotate in as far as the four on man-switch defenses or ball-screen-of-death offensive sets (if UT ever ran them).  Between those three alone, UT should be set.  Beyond them, Alexa Middleton might get a bit lost in the rotation, but she should be due for a Step, if not altogether a Leap.  That leaves the freshmen Te'a Cooper, who is the next true PG in the fold, and Meme Jackson, who can also flex between the 2 and 3.

All in all, it's a twelve-man rotation, which is probably the perfect number for college ball.  More than that, and it's hard to manage the roster.  Less, and injuries quickly become a Really Big Deal.

Speaking of the Rotation...

We can play the roster game all season long.  This team has many, many options, based purely on what people did in the past:

  • The Big: Russell, Graves, Nared, DeShields, and Reynolds would average 6'-3", with three quick options on the wing.
  • The Little: Graves, Nared, DeShields, Carter, and Reynolds would be "going small" and would be a defensive nightmare for other teams.
  • The Classic: Russell, Graves, DeShields, Carter, Reynolds.  Good luck scoring against that.
  • The Breather: Moore, Jones, Dunbar, Middleton, Cooper.  This is still as athletic as any team in the nation.

The point is that it's actually hard to conjure up a bad lineup out of the roster, short of pulling a five-guard set (and even then, Cooper-Reynolds-Carter-Middleton-DeShields would hold against 90% of all possible opponents).  It's one of the most flexible roster the Lady Vols have had in years, so the freshmen should be in great shape to have a good learning curve.

The Schedule

Here is the schedule (new window). Every single game will have a TV outlet at least at the regional level.  NCAA-tournament-potential non-conference games include: Penn State, Syracuse, UT-Chatt, Texas, Stanford, Oregon State, and Notre Dame.  NCAA-tournament-potential conference opponents include: South Carolina, Mississippi State, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Missouri, and LSU.  (We'll wait on Georgia until we see how the new coaches work out.)  There's really nothing left to say about Tennessee scheduling at this point; it's always one of the most difficult schedules in the nation.

The Conference

Somewhat in the way-too-soon category: this has the potential to be an unusually deep SEC.  Dawn Staley has South Carolina clicking.  Kentucky will roll 47 deep as usual.  Mississippi State is trending upward fast, A&M should be solid, LSU has potential, Arkansas is supposed to be rebounding, and Vanderbilt and Missouri (!) are receiving preseason top 25 votes.  The Big Five are UT, USC, UK, A&M, and MSU in no particular order, but were Charlie Creme to put out a preseason bracketology, he'd likely have 8 SEC teams in the fold.

This year, Tennessee gets the following teams twice: Alabama, Arkansas, and Vanderbilt.  It's far from the toughest two-game sledding they could have had this year, but it means the single-game contests - particularly against South Carolina - will decide the conference regular season title.  (USC is a home game, by the way.)  The toughest multi-game stretch is probably @TAMU/@Vandy/USC, followed by Vandy/@Kentucky/@MSU.  Other than that, there aren't any conference death marches.

The Predictions

Firmly in the way-too-soon category, we first remind you that this season will heavily depend on a DeShields that sat out all last year, and a Russell that had both feet in for surgery.  All rumors point to both Ladies being fully armed and operational, but the uncertainty can only be erased at tipoff.  So with that caveat...

This team has the best chance at a Final Four that the Lady Vols have had in years. There's the asterisk of what-could-have-been had Harrison and Russell not both been injured last year, but this team is good enough to not need DeShields to be the Next Great Thing, yet flexible enough to accommodate her if she is.  They'll see everything anybody can throw their way, short of only UConn.  And by the time they might see UConn, we'll have long since had any questions answered about this team's chances.

The exhibition game is against Carson-Newman on November 9th at 7 PM.  The first live action is against Central Arkansas on Sunday, November 15th at 2 PM.  By the time Penn State rolls in on the 18th, we'll have a good idea what to expect out of the Big Questions.