Here at Rocky Top Talk, we're sure you have questions about the Tennessee Lady Volunteers basketball team so far. These questions include, but aren't limited to, "who can start for Rick Barnes' squad?", "how's Nikki Caldwell doing these days?", "how effective is the 3-2 zone against teams prolific at the corner three?", and "can a team win a title without making any three-pointers?"
We're not answering any of those questions today. In advance of the Stanford-Oregon State road trip (aka Big Road Games), we're taking stock of where Tennessee is, how they need to get better, and if they can get there.
As you could probably figure out from the title: this is Part 1. Stay tuned for Part 2, coming up on Tuesday afternoon.
What's gone right for the Lady Vols this year?
Chris: Defense! Probably the simplest way to describe this is comparing the defensive points-per-possession between 2014-15 and 2015-16 (so far). Last year's defense was incredible, allowing only 0.801 points per possession. This year's defense is better at 0.773 points per possession. It hasn't reached the early-December highs of last year's team, but it has yet to allow a team over a point per possession. That's kept Tennessee in a couple of games they don't really have business being in.
Bashaara Graves has looked good when she's decided to take over games. She's not the totally unguardable force in totality she was early on, but when she gets the ball, she's done damage.
Diamond DeShields, who is rounding into health and form ...kind of. Early returns are that she has the alpha dog mentality Tennessee's lacked since, uh, Meighan Simmons, but is a better shooter than Simmons so her taking over games may not be as terrifying in the future.
Hooper: You could have stopped with Chris's first word and skipped the rest of this question. (But no, really! Keep reading!)
The defense is fine. Chris has the pace-based numbers above, but this team is holding opponents to scores low enough that the Lady Vols should be undefeated right now. Consider the two losses: Texas scored 64 and Virginia Tech scored 57. At home, Tennessee should always beat that (especially with much of the final deficit coming from the obligatory end-game free throws.)
Free throws are also going well, at 72.5%. They're modestly out-free throw-shooting their opponents, though some of that is because of a few underpowered opponents, but they're still making an impressive percentage.
What's gone wrong for the Lady Vols this year?
Chris: Offense! Stop me if you've heard this before: Tennessee is running an inside-out offense that struggles to hit shots over the top of a zone and struggles to thread entry passes. They've done a decent job shredding the little bit of man defense they've faced, but rightly enough most teams have recognized that not doing the thing Tennessee wrecks and doing the thing Tennessee struggles against might be how you set up against the Lady Vols.
At this point, this is a known bug. Tennessee spent large chunks of time struggling against zone last year, too (the Rutgers-to-Auburn run last year was awful, culminating in my favorite URL of last season), but they did figure it out later in the year. I suspect this is the sacrifice of spending so much time working on defense—defense leads, offense follows. That being said, it's kind of annoying to watch.
Injuries, again. Tennessee is currently running a seven-deep rotation (eight since Dunbar played limited minutes against Wichita State), but Jaime Nared, Nia Moore, Alexa Middleton, and Jasmine Jones are all out. That's put Meme Jackson in a handful of games, which was not something I expected when this season started.
Point guard play. Tennessee's been in this weird no-man's-land with point guard play, splitting duties between Jordan Reynolds, Andraya Carter, and Te'a Cooper. None of them have been a strong stabilizing force, and there have been times where Cooper's game reminds me of Simmons' game in all the wrong ways. What I'd give for a guard to shoot over 40% from the field, let alone over 40% from beyond the arc.
Hooper: Like above, Chris's first word catches pretty much all you really need to know. In some ways, this offense is broken. The guards haven't figured out how to get the ball inside against zone defenses, and the 23% three-point shooting isn't giving anybody a reason to switch to man defense instead. Until they show they can be competent vs. the zone, they'll face it 40 minutes/game.
Beyond that, the injuries have hurt continuity. It's a fair question, however, how much continuity this team would have had even if injuries hadn't reduced the team to 7 players at one point. When the whole contingent was available, Warlick still played around with a lot of lineups that would leave you scratching your head. Having Jasmine Jones, Offensive Liability, start so many games was one bizarre question; that it left Diamond DeShields on the bench (even with the difficulty of maximizing DeShields/Graves/Russell at once) made it all the more puzzling. (Honestly, Jasmine bespeaks a lot of this coaching squad. They value defense über alles to the point where a good defender / horrible ball-handler relegates a Freshman-of-the-Year to the bench, despite being a decent defender / good-to-game-changing ball-handler.)
The rotation question marks have also likely hurt the point guards. It's one thing to be plug-and-play, but having actual chemistry with the floor is kind of a big deal. Te'a Cooper is still learning. Carter and Reynolds aren't pure point guards, but in prior years they had far better understanding of the offense than whatever's going on right now.
How does the stuff that's gone wrong so far get fixed?
Chris: Time and health, probably in order of importance. If team defense keeps it up, there won't be any issues on that side of the ball. On offense, there are a lot of pieces that haven't played with each other in any useful capacity—basically Reynolds, Carter, and Graves and that's it. Cooper, DeShields, and Mercedes Russell 2.0 are all new players, and not coincidentally they've also three of the top shooters on the squad. This needs to get figured out in practice, but chemistry comes with reps.
I have some concerns about lineups with DeShields, Russell, and Graves from a spacing perspective on offense, but that may be able to get worked out.
That being said: I would love it if Holly Warlick and co. spent some time on dealing with entry passes—the how, the when, and the how-not-to-throw-the-ball-away—instead of defensive coverage earlier in the season.
Getting Nared back is probably the most important from the main-body-of-the-rotation perspective, but Middleton and Dunbar have also done well. Jones, as if you're even remotely familiar with this site, is a mixed bag. If she plays 10-15 minutes a game and takes no more than 3 shots WHEN WIDE OPEN ONLY, I'm fine with her. That being said, that pretty much never happens.
Hooper: For one, getting out of Knoxville should help. In a way, struggling in front of their own fans only hurts: they can hear the frustration from the "most knowledgeable fans" (which, by the way, is TV code-speak for fans who complain about every single foul call) and that frustration is getting in their heads. On the road, they'll have an easier time tuning out the crowd and just playing.
The lineups question is valid. DeShields is best in chaos, but Russell and Graves are better in set plays. It's not entirely compatible, though having the three on the floor for 30+ isn't unworkable
Otherwise, the elephant in the room is playing against zone defense. There are two options. First: figure out how to get the ball inside. This is a function of the guards (who haven't figured out how to open up passing lanes) and posts (who aren't helping quite enough). Second: make some threes. Even a 30% three-point percentage would have won the Virginia Tech game, and might actually have worked against Texas (where 4-15 meant putting Texas to the line, but 6-15 or so would have meant a final-shot kind of situation). At least one of the two is necessary. But if they want to get to the Final Four, they really need to fix both issues.
And yes, Nared can be more important than is apparent. Last year, she had an uncanny knack of reading plays on defense and predicting where the pass was going. Those few extra turnovers per game would be huge for a Lady Vols squad that is just dying for some fast break points.