Posted: 3:10 p.m. Friday, April 5, 2013
By Chris Pendley
So at this point it's late news that the Lady Vols' season is over, dropping an 86-78 to Louisville in the Elite Eight. By the basic metrics, this season was a success; considering the squad was left for dead prior to the start of the season (or whatever passes for left for dead around these parts, which roughly correlates to 5th in the SEC), winning the SEC regular season and making the Elite Eight was considered the absolute ceiling for this squad at the outset.
Resetting a little bit, this team came in to the 2012-13 season with a new coach, a new starting lineup (entirely new if we consider the Briana Bass-included squad the 2011-12 team closed the season with), and a couple of new conference mates, one of whom recently won a national championship. 5th would've been a disappointment by the prior standards we judge Lady Vol teams by, but in this case we would've gotten it, at least a little bit.
Instead, we were treated to a 27-8 season that really only had two inexplicable losses (UT-Chattanooga, which if nothing else showed the team things won't come easy, and Missouri, which still baffles me), an end-of-season who-cares loss to Kentucky after the regular season was sewn up, a host of injuries that turned depth into a punchline for the better part of a month, a regular season SEC title, a 7-5 record against the Top 25 (7-2 when you include teams 4-25 only), a 2 seed, and one of the most successful first-year coaching runs in women's basketball history. As standards go, this wasn't bad.
It feels a little bad though, doesn't it? Maybe we just assumed Louisville was a pushover after they beat Baylor - which, it should be noted, they beat Baylor in order to get there, and let's mention Brittney Griner in there because I watched too much ESPN coverage and now have to shoehorn her in to every conversation I have which makes things awkward when people ask me about the weather - and thought that the Final Four was ours for the taking. In retrospect, that may be on us for assuming it was predestined - yes, Tennessee exceeded expectations, but Louisville was always going to be a tough out - but it's also on us to credit Louisville for one heck of a gameplan; the game was effectively out of sight by halftime. Full marks to Louisville for that game, and best of luck in the Final Four to them (because really, at this point all I care about is Geno staying as far away from Pat's record as he can; everything else is secondary).
Tennessee's performance wasn't without its faults; the entire team was unsure what to do in the first half, and I'm choosing to single out Meighan Simmons for mentally checking out of the game until it was beyond over. She had 3-4 defensive plays in the first half where she blew the coverage on her defender when the team was attempting to full court press. When you're shooting 8-12, you can at least kind of get away with that; when you're 0-3 with 3 TO and refusing to shoot because you have no confidence, you're a detriment. Point blank, end of story. The loss isn't entirely on her, but that did herself no favors.
Okay, so that's out of my system. That loss didn't invalidate the season, though - sure, it was disappointing, but hey, a regular season crown and another Elite 8 appearance? Yeah, I'm okay with that. So, with that playing fresh in our mind, what are we looking forward to in the offseason?
1. Kamiko Williams and Taber Spani's departures. Well, we're not looking forward to these in the technical sense of the term (seriously, where was this Kamiko two years ago?), but they've both played their last game. However, with their scholarships, we now get...
2. MERCEDES RUSSELL (and Jordan Reynolds and Jannah Tucker). Mercedes Russell is simply the #1 prospect in the nation, a 6'5" forward/center type with a strong shot, range, all the length you can dream of, and the requisite possibly-overblown comparisons to Candace Parker. I wouldn't buy those yet; let's wait at least three games. Jannah Tucker is also a top-10 recruit at guard, but was injured all senior season; she's a wild card at this point. Reynolds was the least-acclaimed of the lot, or at least she was until she up and joined Russell on the McDonald's All-American team and they both rang up double-doubles in a 28-point win.
So yeah, this is a pretty good class. Russell should slot right in to the interior rotation at worst with Tucker and Reynolds moving into the guard rotation. Next year's team won't have the same depth problems, barring injuries. And speaking of:
3. Health! No, really, Isabelle Harrison was playing injured through February and March and was still effective. Andraya Carter was showing all the signs of a lockdown defender before she was lost for the season, and with both Ariel Massengale and Cierra Burdick also losing time to injuries, the offseason should give everyone time to heal. That in turn means...
4: Depth! I think that right now next year's Lady Vol team could go 11 deep, with everyone we've mentioned already and adding Simmons and Bashaara Graves to that list. We'll cover that more later, I'm sure. That gives Warlick plenty of options, and - no offense - we won't be reduced to wondering if Jasmine Phillips needs to play because there are no other options.
5: Simmons' growth. Okay, this may be a reach, but she matured between last year and this past season, Louisville excepted. There's still a learning process here, but I don't see how Tennessee is successful next season getting zeroes out of her. She needs to get better about shot selection, when she uses speed, and to mentally stay in games when things aren't going her way (which is her biggest gap right now). She's going to be a big part of this team. Best get used to it now. While we're here:
6: Actually having more than three upperclassmen. This is still going to be a young team, with Simmons being the only senior next season (yeah, pick your heart up off the floor - we'll wait for you). This team will be upperclassmen laden - Simmons, Massengale, Burdick, Harrison (and, er, Phillips) - and they'll all be major contributors (okay, 4/5; Phillips' ceiling at this point is being the next Briana Bass Watch). This team isn't turning the corner without leadership, and if you saw Harrison's one-man (er, one-woman) save attempt against Louisville, you know she's primed for the role. Personally? I want to see Massengale, Burdick, and Harrison take it on, not only because Simmons being asked to do more than 1 thing scares me but because they'll be around for two years.
7: DAT INTERIOR. Seriously. Harrison, Graves, Russell, Burdick, Jasmine Jones. (Oh, and Nia Moore.) Good bloody luck trying to figure out how to defend that group for 40 minutes. This will be one of the best interiors in the nation, point blank. It bears noting that Graves had one of the best seasons seen by a Tennessee freshman ever - 13.2 PPG, 52% from the floor, 8 boards per game, a list of awards as long as your arm (including the SEC freshman of the year), and - because I like this stat - she attempted more free throws than Simmons and Spani combined (177 to 171); granted, she's still 111 FTA short of Candace Parker's record. Her 131 made FTs were only 7 less than Glory Johnson's housewrecking season last year. Graves, by the way, may be the third-best post player on this team by the end of 2014.
8: The 2014 Final Four. This team is only going to get better next season, and they made the Elite 8 this year. With a season under their belts, Warlick back at the helm for a second year, and - oh yeah - the 2014 Final Four being held in Nashville, do you want to bet against them?