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Sweet 16: Tennessee Lady Vols vs. Gonzaga

7 PM EDT, ESPN, Spokane. It's rockfight time.

"Look, Gonzaga's campus is right there, and we're playing like an inch away according to the map."
"Look, Gonzaga's campus is right there, and we're playing like an inch away according to the map."
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

TV: ESPN / virtual imaginary ESPN

Radio: Does Mickey actually fly, or did he drive cross-country for this?

Stats: The cheapest money could buy

So it's been a pretty busy week in Knoxville. You'd be forgiven for forgetting that the Lady Vols' regular season isn't over, as they travel to Spokane to play at Gonzaga—wait a second.

/checks calendar

Huh, it's March.

/checks NCAA bracket

Wait, this is the Sweet 16? So ...hang on again.

/checks venues

Huh. So Gonzaga—an 11 seed—is playing a home game in the Sweet 16? Maybe there was only one 11 seed in the tournament or something.

/checks bracket

Nope, so much for that theory. That leaves the Lady Vols as the only team in the Sweet 16 playing a true road game as the Tennessee Revenge Bracket Of Doom has been nearly entirely destroyed: Chattanooga lost to Pittsburgh in the first round, Oregon State lost to Gonzaga, and Kentucky (somewhat amusingly) lost to Dayton over in the Albany Region. Get past this road game and Tennessee plays the winner of Maryland-Duke (a game I'm sure Maryland cares way more about than Duke, even in the women's game); get past that and ...well, let's just assume Geno Auriemma waits, because I wouldn't try and jinx UConn here, nope.

Anyway: some relevant stats:

  • Gonzaga comes in with a RPI of 43, well below the "Tennessee usually beats these teams" threshold in the 25-ish area.
  • They went 26-7 in the regular season, 16-2 in-conference, but have some understandable OOC losses (Iowa, Northwestern) and a couple of questionable ones (American, possibly BYU).
  • They don't really get out and run as much as you'd expect for a team that goes a legitimate nine deep, averaging about 73 possessions/game. This game is probably a race to 70 as a result—even with what I'd bet is a height advantage against most teams they've played, they haven't been outstanding on a points-per-possession basis, and there are some oddities in the points-per-weighted shot camp.
  • Obvious per-possession metrics are obvious: they struggle to win if they're below 0.95 points per possession (3-7) and typically keep their opponents below 0.9 points per possession (3-5 if their opponents beat that). Maybe first to 60 wins.
  • Less obvious: they're 10-7 at 14 assists or less (2-3 at or below 10).

I'd have to go through the opponents Gonzaga has played, but I think it's somewhat fair to say that Tennessee offers more height than they're used to, even sans Isabelle Harrison. They're a good enough shooting team for their height (seven players in their rotation with a True FG% above 50%, about on par with Tennessee), have the board dominance you'd expect for their height, so by the stats they're fairly similar to this iteration of the Lady Vols. Tennessee has a few advantages, though:

  • Gonzaga isn't a great assist team, while Tennessee has done a much better job of racking up the assists with Harrison out. Some of that is undoubtedly due to need, but it's equally likely that the offense has become a bit more dynamic without everyone being able to bash the Easy Button with Harrison around.  Meanwhile, Gonzaga isn't spectacular with steals, although limiting dumb turnovers would be a nice bonus.
  • Gonzaga doesn't have Bashaara Graves, who's been on a tear since Harrison went down: 20 and 7 against South Carolina, 13/11 against Georgia (in 25 minutes), 24/5 against Boise State, and 21/14 against Pittsburgh, with those last two performances coming with her getting the Isabelle Harrison Memorial Mauling treatment from the refs. As long as her game doesn't get the Isabelle Harrison Memorial Lisa Mattingly treatment, Gonzaga's height won't scare her away, and she's absolutely good enough to put at least two players in foul trouble.
  • This time, the tinkle's on the other team. No, seriously: Gonzaga's Elle Tinkle (edit: actually Tingle, sadly) (EDIT AGAIN IT'S ACTUALLY TINKLE YES) is one of their three main scoring threats, great from beyond the arc, and hopefully goes 3-19 in big games too.

In a lot of ways, this Gonzaga team is set up like a mid-major mirror of Tennessee. The Lady Vols are absolutely good enough to beat themselves, and they'll do that tonight. We'll just figure out if they'll beat the team in orange or the team in white (unless they're wearing white, in which case it's whatever Gonzaga's wearing—blue?).

PREDICTION: 66-58 Tennessee. This is going to be a rockfight. Hooper's going with 72-62 Tennessee, but with a rockfight like this, either the team that hits free throws or the team able to keep their best two players out of foul trouble probably wins.

MORE TIME FOR MOORE: 10 minutes, which will feature at least a couple of questionable defensive decisions, a block or two, no less than two fouls, and four points.

REFCON LEVEL: Level 4. Supposedly there's someone on the West Coast who'll make us pine for Lisa Mattingly, and I'd bet she shows up here. Then again, Tennessee picked up the Bad Thunderdome treatment in Knoxville last week, so it's not like this would be anything new.