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So it's come to this. An 11-5 Tennessee squad (2-2 in the SEC with a home loss to Florida and a road loss to Arkansas) goes to South Bend to face a Notre Dame team whose only loss is to Connecticut.
I don't need to write 1,500 words to tell you how this story is going to end. Tennessee isn't going to win this game, but they'll hang in there for a little while before eventually getting blown off the court. The Irish are better than any team Tennessee has faced so far and they have two(!) players in Madison Cable and Marina Mabrey who already shoot greater than 50% from beyond the arc. Save yourself the hope.
What can Tennessee do to get out of their slump? Honestly, I don't see an answer on this roster right now—the problems appear to be compositional. (Bruce did a great FanPost on this parallel to what I put up here, but take a break and give him some pageviews.) The occasionally-appearing-in-the-comments Nate Parham (late of Swish Appeal) raised a good point: it's not clear how Diamond DeShields and Mercedes Russell can co-exist on offense. Russell needs to be fed the ball, DeShields likes playing a pick-and-roll game where she can create. Both need to get into the paint regularly (DeShields will shoot threes, but not particularly well). We'll start here.
Bashaara Graves? She can play with either of them, but (and at this point it just appears to be who she is) doesn't really have that takeover gene. DeShields does, and Graves can do well enough inside of eight feet, but she can't hit shots reliably outside of 15. Nia Moore is the backup version of Graves, but that's who they are. Next.
Andraya Carter isn't going anywhere because of her defense and she doesn't need to get into the paint regularly to score. On this team, those are two big positives: guard defense, length, and (in theory) perimeter shooting. She's leading the team from beyond the arc, which is good ...until I tell you she's only shooting 30.8% from three. Again: not the problem.
Jasmine Jones? Injured. Y'all know where we stand here. Next.
Kortney Dunbar got some time at the four to start the season before backing into a bench role. She isn't getting a ton of play these days, but shooting 38% from the floor (29% from three) in limited minutes against second-team defenders doesn't scream BREAK GLASS FOR INSTANT OFFENSE. The good news is that Dunbar can play outside the paint, but like so many forward types, you pay a penalty for it.
Jaime Nared is basically Dunbar++; her shooting percentages should return a bit with more playing time and she'll give you a little more across the board, but Nared is starting these days (or probably should be) and is getting 22 minutes a game already. She'll get a few more minutes/game going forward, but Mercedes Russell leads the team in minutes/game at 31; Nared probably isn't going to crack 26.
Meme Jackson? Emergency backup guard duty at this point. Nothing to see her.
Noted sharpshooter Alexa Middleton? Shooting 24% from beyond the arc, and has done better inside the paint, but remember the Russell/DeShields/Graves core; we need scoring that isn't already there. There might be an answer here.
Te'a Cooper and Jordan Reynolds? Both get a lot of minutes (Cooper gets 22 minutes, Reynolds gets 26 minutes) and both are offensive black holes. Cooper's a high-usage, bad-shooting point guard at this point—the tools are there, but it's a lot of noise for little flash—and Reynolds just doesn't shoot. Cooper's seemed to get lost on defense here and there, and Reynolds' length does let you do a couple of things on that side of the ball you may not be able to do with Cooper.
If you're looking for adjusting rotations, Cooper and Reynolds seeing less PT would be the obvious approach, but who takes that time? Let Dunbar and Middleton get another 5 minutes a game apiece and see what happens? Another 10? Middleton could slot into a lot of Cooper-or-Renyolds lineups without too many issues, but putting Dunbar in a lineup that may already have DeShields, Graves, and Nared in there means she's stuck on the two guard and she's going to need all her length that far from the basket.
That's the state of the Tennessee offense these days; a lot of (a *lot* of) scoring from inside eight feet, some inside 15 feet, and absolutely nothing beyond that. That isn't a problem easily fixed via rotation. I guess you could (stealing Nate's idea) put Russell on Unit 1, DeShields on Unit 2, and surround them with players who cater to their strength, but who on this roster is going to stretch the defense even with that setup? If I were an opposing coach, I'd play five feet off Reynolds whenever she's in, throw up a 2-3 zone, guard the corners, and collapse as soon as the ball gets inside 10 feet. Tennessee doesn't have anyone on the team who's going to punish that approach—DeShields leads the team in attempted threes, but I'd be happy letting her take that shot all game long. She hasn't proven she can hit it enough to respect it. (Lest you think this is a Tennessee thing, DeShields hit 28% from three at North Carolina.)
Defense is still fine, for the most part. I don't like Cooper's tendency to overpursue but she's a freshman, and I think DeShields is still learning some of the finer points on that side of the scheme, and yes, the team can get frustrated on offense and let it affect their game on defense, but on the whole it's fine.
Notre Dame's going to win this game, that'll be how it happens, and I don't see an answer to it on this roster. I don't think Holly Warlick is in trouble at this point for various reasons we've already discussed, but I'm getting a little tired of having to write the same article over and over.
Notre Dame 81, Tennessee 67. Y'all ought to be happy I wrote this instead of Hooper, since he's clocking in at Notre Dame 88, Tennessee 56, which I think is the biggest blowout loss either of us have ever called for.