Tennessee got taken down by its nemesis UConn by the score of 75-56, but we decided to take a deep dive into Tennessee and where they really are; moreover, not what the teams’ records say as both the Lady Vols and UConn now have only four losses.
First, let’s tell the truth about Tennessee: They are good, really good, and the extraordinary job that Lady Vols Coach Kellie Harper has done with her roster has overshadowed the glaring weaknesses on the Lady Vols. Let’s do a breakdown of Sunday’s starting lineups to put it into perspective:
UConn’s starting five:
- Nika Muhl (3-star recruit)
- Christyn Williams (5-star recruit; No. 1 player in the class of 2018)
- Azzi Fudd (5-star recruit; No. 1 player in the class of 2021)
- Aaliyah Edwards (5-star recruit; No. 23 player in the class of 2020)
- Olivia Nelson-Ododa (5-star recruit; No. 5 player in the class of 2018)
Tennessee’s starting five:
- Jordan Walker (two years ago, she was in the MAC starting at Western Michigan at the two-guard spot)
- Tess Darby (3-star recruit)
- Jordan Horston (5-star recruit; No. 2 player in the class of 2019)
- Alexus Dye (last year, she was starting at Troy)
- Tamari Key (5-star recruit; No. 47 in the class of 2019)
So, let’s be objective and honest: Harper and her coaching staff have done an elite job of getting this team to 19 wins with ONLY four losses. This is the definition – and epitome – of “coaching them up.” Also, the loss of post-player Keyen Green has been far more significant than many have anticipated, including me.
"When we lost Keyen Green, and we have just not recovered from that yet. I think right now, the team is still searching."
— Reece Van Haaften (@Reece_VH) February 6, 2022
I have to admit that I sorely underestimated her importance. As Maria M. Cornelius of 247 Sports posted Sunday: “Green was the undisputed leader of the team.”
Keyen was the undisputed leader of the team. That's the difference. It's really that simple. Occam's razor applies here. (And the head coach is in the best position to know that.)
— Maria M. Cornelius (@mmcornelius) February 6, 2022
Tennessee’s issues right now are three-fold: leadership, post production (Key has scant backup help with Green out), and point guard play.
Point guard play
Like Florida, UConn’s strategy was to go at Walker, frustrate her and get her out of her comfort zone. And it worked again as Walker tallied zero points in 31 minutes of action today. The proverbial cat is out of the bag; teams target Walker and hope she will lose her poise at the point. Moreover, they hope Walker will become passive in other areas of her game if she’s not scoring.
The Lady Vols will have to get this fixed quickly, as teams are targeting Walker and believe they can adversely affect her play. Walker, who is working on her MBA and is an outstanding student, has shown that she can hit big shots and play lockdown defense. The graduate transfer has to get back to that level for the Lady Vols.
Tennessee doesn’t have to worry about Horston; she’s a big-time player who always rises to the occasion, but who will consistently help her? One would surmise it would be Rae Burrell, the long 6-foot-1 guard/forward who can be un-guardable; however, Burrell is not fully at ease after suffering a knee injury last November – and she took a hard shot to the same leg Sunday – and is not as consistent as her elite talent should allow her to be.
Nevertheless, whether starting or coming off the bench, Burrell can be a guaranteed 15+ point scorer – EASILY; she’s that gifted! – and the Lady Vols need her back in form and working for shots within the offense.
Tamari Key is un-guardable when she’s aggressive; she’s such a rare talent at 6-foot-7 (yes, I know Key is “listed” at 6-foot-6, but trust us, she’s 6-foot-7) with light feet, a great touch at the free-throw line – which, to her credit, she worked hard to improve – and unbelievably agile. The only person that can guard Key is, quite frankly, Key herself. If she’s aggressive, there’s not another center in the country that can contain her.
What are the adjustments Harper is going to make to fill the voids of leadership and scoring?
Yes, Tennessee is back, but the Lady Vols also have a huge target on their back and have to adjust accordingly. The SEC is a brutal league in terms of physicality and athleticism, and every game is a grind top to bottom. It’s the only Power 5 women’s basketball conference in the country where the last-place team has a chance to beat the first-place team. Every win is earned. Every single one.
As Harper said after the UConn game, Green isn’t coming back. The team has to adjust. The issue at this point is more mental than physical – Tennessee needs to believe in itself again.
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