Last we left the Lady Vols, they stumbled to a 64-5 home loss vs. Texas. Defensively, Tennessee was up for the challenge: 64 points on 75 possessions for a 0.855 O-PPP, a -14.7% (Texas) O-Rebounding rate, and a 15/14 edge in turnovers are very winnable numbers. Oh the other side of the floor, however, Tennessee only put up a 0.714 O-PPP, an assist/turnover ratio of 0.7, and a 33% e-FG%. Texas also had a 27-11 advantage in free throw attempts (with a make advantage of 16-7, two points off the final margin), largely because Tennessee's offense struggled to put the Texas defense in positions where fouling was necessary.
These were issues seen in the previous games against Albany (who led in the 3rd quarter for a brief moment), Chattanooga (2 point win) and Penn State. Texas was the best of the four teams, and was good enough to exploit them for a win. It's certainly fixable:
I feel like this team is going to figure it out.....UT needs fluidity on offense....that should come with playing together and time.— Candace Parker (@Candace_Parker) November 29, 2015
... but playing a lot of games with little break has meant that Tennessee simply hasn't had much time to address the problems. Tonight is the first step.
East Tennessee State is certainly not Texas. At 3-4 and coming off a 38-50 loss to Elon, they are a team that the Lady Vols should beat comfortably. They do have some size (6'-4" Yamile Rordiguez, who gets about 20 min/game) and a senior point guard (Chandler Christopher, 5 APG on 33 minutes, with the 5 assists being tempered by a 33% FG percentage), but they're not a good offensive team who either don't have rock-solid leaders or like to give everybody equal billing: Shomari Kendrick is the least used at over 14 minutes per game, which is difficult to maintain when you're running a 10-deep roster. All that said, 5'-7" guard Shamauria Bridges is the player to defend, taking twice as many shots as the next most frequent shooter and hitting about 33%.
Simply put, Tennessee has the defensive chops to hold ETSU to an under-40 night if they put their minds to it.
On the other side of the floor, ETSU will almost certainly test the waters with a zone defense. It worked for Albany and Texas quite nicely, and Tennessee should expect it until they prove they can do good things against it, be it three point shooting, breaking the zone and getting the ball inside, or finding ways to create driving lanes. Of those options: the first is not likely a reliable option (though it's almost certainly the one the guards want to use); the second is the best choice, but requires the most work from the guards to make viable; the third is best viewed as the "Diamond DeShields" option and would make a great complement to one of the other two.
Tonight isn't so much about how Tennessee wins (and we'll assume a win, given the massive talent differential) but about how Tennessee develops from their last outing. The Lady Vols have plenty of time to get in form for conference play, but not a lot of time to start down that road. Soon the west coast deathmarch will happen (roadies to Stanford and Oregon State, among others), and they'll need to play better than Sunday.
Things Tennessee needs to show:
- Consistent intensity. This is the team that ran out ahead of Chattanooga 21-8 like it wasn't a big deal, and then proceeded to treat much of the rest of the game like it wasn't a big deal. They're not the kind of team that can "switch it on" at will; they need to learn to leave the light on at all times.
- Offensive flow. Much of the dysfunction on offense is likely a lack of comfort with each other. It happens when you group together a bunch of players who learned to be the go-to option in high school. There are growing pains.
- Lineup consistency. Early-season lineup tinkering is fine, but eventually they'll have to settle on a standard starting lineup and bench rotation. Jasmine Jones's unfortunate injury against Texas will ironically help here: DeShields will start in her place (and should have been a long time ago, as Jones is a total liability on offense).
- Get the ball inside. Graves and Russell haven't seen the ball much since opponents went to zone defense. Currently, the best entry pass the team has managed (against the zone) came from Graves at the high point to Russell. Somebody else has to be able to find a way to make it work; UT can't rely on Graves/Russell as the only entry option.
PREDICTION: 82-46 Tennessee. Pendley's going with 72-51, and we both labored really really hard over these predictions. (In a related note: sarcasm font doesn't work very well within the posts themselves.) There'll be a couple moments where you're wondering what in the world they're doing out there, but this is one of the bigger mismatches on their schedule. Margin is much less important than method.