Colors: FSN / ESPN3
Sounds: It won't be any prettier here, but it'll be funnier.
Numbers: http://scores.espn.go.com/ncw/scoreboard, then find the GameCast. (Applies to all remaining games, courtesy UT's worthless statstracker.)
Welcome to the worst game of the season. Alabama comes into Knoxville sandwiched between the Kentucky rematch and the South Carolina game. In football, we'd be going on about trap games and the like, but that's far, far less of a concern here. But to make matters worse, Tennessee's Pyrrhic sweep of Kentucky may have cost them a realistic chance at the Final Four: Isabelle Harrison's UT career is over and the team has too little time to figure out how to adapt.
To recap, the roster absences are:
- Isabelle Harrison*, who used to be a baller like you, but then she took a box-out to the knee.
- Mercedes Russell, who, by the way - do you remember the offseason fantasies of a Harrison-Graves-Russell rotation? Yeah, good times.
- Jasmine Jones, whose concussion issues seem to have no end in sight (reminiscent of Massengale last year).
- Diamond DeShields, courtesy NCAA transfer rules and North Carolina not granting her an exemption (which is perfectly reasonable).
- Jannah Tucker, who made one brief appearance and has seemingly disappeared again.
There's also Jordan Reynolds, who missed most of the Kentucky game after having head issues, but doesn't seem to be facing any season-ending issues. So skipping Reynolds at the moment, look at that bullet list. That alone is a starting lineup that all but about 10 teams (conservatively speaking) would consider violating all kinds of NCAA rules to acquire.
* - It's gallows humor. Roll with it.
MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE FARM
So about the game: Alabama has only won two conference games so far (Auburn and Missouri, both at home). Against top-half SEC teams, they've lost to Kentucky 78-66, Georgia 64-47, South Carolina 102-59 and 85-54, MSU 66-50, and Texas A&M 70-49. Their RPI is 153, placing them on Baylor's watchlist for nonconference opponents. Their offensive PPP is 0.826, which borders on lolnope. They did somehow beat Nebraska 53-51, but a rationalization of that is best left to the B1G.
The point is, there's no reason to believe Alabama poses a threat, even without Harrison. Tennessee will still out-talent them at all positions on the floor. Graves will be the best post player on the floor, and Burdick/Nared will do quite well at the 4. On Alabama's side, only forward Ashley Williams averages double figures in scoring (13 PPG, also leading the team with 6 RPG) and there are no real three point threats on the team. Shut down Williams, and there's really nothing left for Alabama.
That means the real story here is: how does Tennessee adapt to life without Harrison? For most of the season, the offense was spent stubbornly trying to force the ball to her, even when she was guarded by 4 defenders (not an exaggeration; I watched it for an entire game during nonconference play). Now, with their offensive crutch taken away, they have to find other -preferably multiple- options to score. Here are a few:
- Ariel Massengale. Perhaps this is obvious to everybody, but after Harrison went down, the senior PG almost single-handedly owned the rest of the game. She's the best guard a driving to the basket, can play with composure at high tempos, and has enough energy and command to control the team on the floor. Perhaps it just might be time to roll her back onto the starting rotation.
- Bashaara Graves. She's been playing better as of late, and now she won't have Harrison to compete against for rebounds. Like Massengale, when she gets on a roll she can be deadly. And the paint belongs to her tonight.
- Cierra Burdick. Not for shooting so much as energy, rebounding, and throwing Alabama off their game. If she throttles back on those mid- to long-range jumpers and focuses on close-in shooting (which should happen as she'll be playing closer to the basket tonight), her percentages will go up even as her attempts go down. Shooting 4-9 from the field is alright; shooting 6-16 isn't so helpful.
- Nia Moore. She's the center now, and she'll need to get used to extended minutes. Likely she will spend most of her time on the floor when Graves is on the bench, so they won't be able to work off each other much. When she's in, the post is hers.
The rest of the team can just keep doing what they do. Those four will see the biggest shift in duties, and those four will have to find a way to plug a 6'-3" hole in the roster.
PREDICTION: 75-52 Tennessee. Some shaky moments as the team gets used to the new reality, but Alabama's just completely overmatched tonight. Chris is going with 77-61.
MORE TIME FOR MOORE: We'll go with Pendley's metric here and guess 22 minutes of playing time.
REFWATCH: Eh, what does it matter, now that Mattingly doesn't have Harrison to pick on anymore?