This summer if you'd asked most women's basketball analysts to rank the top five teams in the SEC, Tennessee would have consistently popped up as either #1 or #2. They lost three seniors to the NBA draft - Isabelle Harrison, Ariel Massengale and Cierra Burdick, but had ESPN's Freshman of the Year taking the court in the form of North Carolina transfer Diamond DeShields. Pre-Season All-SEC team members Bashaara Graves and Mercedes Russell would help with both skills and leadership.
And yet, the Vols are 12-6 on the season, and 3-2 in the SEC. The Vol faithful are reeling after watching their team drop 2 at home this year, against current #6 Texas and #22 Florida. TBA, usually a bastion of victory, has some cracks in the armor. And they'll be bringing all that rage and angst against their perennial foe, UK Hoops, on Monday night.
To sum up: an angry Tennessee team (and fans) will be descending on Lexington in search of blood. Very well, challenge accepted.
UK Hoops will also be in a bloodthirsty mood. They're fresh off a stinging loss in Oxford, where the Cats shot 47% from the field and 88% from the charity stripe and yet still walked away with the L. They know that loss has them ranked at #7 in the conference, and a win against Tennessee will do wonders to reset their confidence. They know this Tennessee squad is not the behemoth of hoops excellence they have faced in the past. Don't get me wrong: DeSheilds is the real deal. She leads the squad in overall points, averaging 15.1 points and 5 rebounds per game. Graves is practically putting on a shooting exhibition every time she hits the court by hitting 61% from the field and 81% from the charity stripe. And yet overall Tennessee is only shooting 41% from the field, good enough for 10th place in the conference. They hit less than 24% of their threes, putting them at dead last in the SEC. Fifth in blocks, fourth in steals. These stats are solid but they simply aren't Tennessee as we know them to be.
A less than powerhouse Tennessee, however, is still Tennessee. This is a game the Cats must come out ready to play from the opening tip to the final buzzer. Any sign of weakness and the Lady Vols will still be poised to strike.
So how can Kentucky head to the locker room with the W?
- Very aggressive guard play: Janee Thompson is currently listed as questionable after Thursday night's ankle injury. I'm not sure we can plan for Janee to be healthy by tonight, although her skills are very much needed. I anticipate Makayla Epps taking lead at point, and expect Taylor Murray and Batouly Camara to get a lot of minutes. Tennessee has a size advantage but we've all seen how intimidated Taylor gets when facing opposing bigs. (Hint - "Tiny but fierce" isn't just a description for Karrin Murphy.)
- Three pointers matter: If you can't be bigger, be smarter. We need Maci Morris to have a big night from beyond the arc. She had a monster first quarter against Ole Miss, and a decent overall game with 10 points and 6 rebounds, but also had 4 turnovers and 5 personal fouls. We need first quarter Maci on the court tonight. If you know any of her family or friends, please help get them to Memorial...she plays really well when she's battling for the pride of the Kentucky mountains.
- The turnover stat need to change ASAP: 21 turnovers against Ole Miss is just not ok. Particularly as the majority were self-inflicted - poor passing, lack of communication, missed assignments, the list goes on.
- Our bigs need to UT down in the paint. This falls on Evelyn and Alexis. Not an easy challenge but these two are up to the challenge.
March 2nd is drawing steadily closer, and the Cats truly need every win they can get to ensure they end in the top 4 SEC rankings and earn those important first and second round byes in Jacksonville. This game is not one you'll want to miss. Tipoff is at 7 PM EST on ESPN2, with Beth Mowins and Doris Burke calling all the action courtside.
Until 7 PM tonight Cat fans - GO BIG BLUE!