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Duke Battles Tennessee Tonight!

Duke travels to Knoxville to play Tennessee tonight at 7:30 on ESPN2.
Here's what I wrote about Tennessee in the preseason:

2004 Recap: 31-4 (NCAA Finals), RPI #1, Final Ranking #2/#2 AP/USA Today

The Scoop: Tennessee spent a lot of time at #1 last year, knocking Duke
out of that lofty position, and may well spend a lot of time there in 2005
as well. Some recent injuries have slightly dulled the super-juggernaut
that Pat Summitt has been assembling in Knoxville, but the Lady Vols will
still have a 9-player rotation that will be second to none. It should be
noted that Summitt did one of her best-ever coaching jobs in 2004. That
group lacked a go-to superstar, but by playing as a team they almost
always found a way to win. That carried them all the way to the national
championship game against UConn, where that lack of a superstar finally
proved to be their undoing. Along the way, the Lady Vols played their
usual unreal schedule, with 12 of their regular season foes being ranked.
That doesn't include excellent teams that fell just outside the rankings
like DePaul, George Washington, and Old Dominion. Tennessee will take on
anyone, anywhere (just make sure that the game's on TV!).

Tennessee lost three players who were of great significance: guards
Tasha Butts & LaToya Davis and center Ashley Robinson. Butts was muddling
along until the team's leader, Loree Moore, went out with an ACL injury during
the Duke game. Butts suddenly transformed into a superstar, dropping 37
points on Vanderbilt and nearly recording several triple doubles. For the
year, she averaged 10.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg and 3 apg. Robinson never became the
superstar she was projected to be out of high school (in part due to
injuries), but she led her team in rebounds with 6.4, recorded 2 bpg and
also scored 8.1 ppg. Davis only scored 5.1 ppg, but she was second on the
team in assists and took Moore's place in the lineup. All three players
will be missed, but there are plenty of newcomers who can take their
places.

This team will be an interesting blend of experience (4 seniors) and
talented youth (6 frosh who are widely hailed as the greatest recruiting
class of all time). Looking at the veterans first, the Lady Vols relied
most heavily last year on Shyra Ely. This 6-2 forward had a fantastic
year, scoring 14.5 ppg and grabbing 8 rpg. She's the closest thing UT had
to a go-to superstar; she's a tough matchup because she's physical and
mobile. The second-leading scorer was a greatly-improved Shanna Zolman.
After a shaky freshman year, she stepped up to become a consistent scorer,
notching 12.3 ppg and shooting a remarkable 43% from three (making 58).
Moore was never a great shooter or scorer (7.9 ppg, 30% from three), but
she was the team's rock. Her return from injury will help the team gel
that much quicker.

The other noteable veterans are all in the frontcourt: Brittany Jackson,
Sidney Spencer and Tye'sha Fluker. Jackson is a three point sniper who
shot 36% from long range, averaging 7.3 ppg. Spencer is reminiscent of
former Duke player Brooke Smith, only with a lot more range on her shot.
She's a glue player with excellent fundamentals who averaged 5.5 ppg and
3.5 rpg. Fluker has patiently been waiting for an opportunity to shine,
and with Robinson gone she has her chance. She also has range out to
three, but will need to be a difference-maker in the post; Fluker averaged
5.4 ppg and 3.1 rpg.

The quality veterans aside, what really has the nation abuzz is that
freshman class. It's headlined by 6-4 Candace Parker, who has a chance to
become the greatest player in the history of the game. However, there's a
good chance that she will have to skip this season because of a knee
injury. That's bad news for Tennessee and good news for the rest of the
country, because Parker is truly a force of nature. She's a 6-4 player who
can dominate in the post, drive to the basket like a wing and shoot threes
like a guard. Also likely gone for the year is 6-3 forward Alex Fuller,
another top-15 player. The Lady Vols do have a pair of fantastic guards
coming in: off guard Alexis Hornbuckle and point Sade Wiley-Gatewood. In
the minds of many, there isn't much difference in ranking between these
two and Parker. Hornbuckle is a relentless whirlwind on the floor and an
incredibly explosive player on offense. Wiley-Gatewood is a superb point
guard who can also shoot. As if this group wasn't enough, UT also brings
in 6-4 center Nikki Anosike and 6-3 center Sybil Dosty. Anosike was
heavily recruited by Duke and is a lithe, agile player who will make her
mark early on through her defense.

Tennessee last year shot the ball well (including a 37% mark from three
and a 72% rate at the foul line), outrebounded opponents 43-35, and did a
great job in sharing the ball. Their only significant flaws were ball
pressure and turnovers. They coughed the ball up 17 times a game and only
came up with 8.1 steals a game. My guess is that this will improve greatly
with the return of Moore and the arrival of Wiley-Gatewood. The only real
question Tennessee has this year is chemistry. Parker's injury has
lessened that particular problem, but those veterans who did so much
without a "star" last year will have to contend with a talented and hungry
group of young players who may be too good to simply be common role
players. None of this will be a surprise to Summitt, and I imagine this
will all get ironed out sooner rather than later. This will be Duke's
first visit to Thompson-Bolling Arena and it will come after a very tough
stretch of games. How Duke reacts to their own fatigue and an incredibly
tough homecourt will be clues as to how the rest of their season might
go."

Well, the Lady Vols have looked far from invincible so far this year. A
big reason why is that their celebrated frosh class has only
half-materialized. Not only is Fuller out for the year and Parker still
on the mend, but Wiley-Gatewood has yet to play thanks to severe
tendinitis. As a result, UT got squashed by Texas and seriously
challenged at home by unranked Temple. Texas has a dominant post game and
a quicker backcourt than Tennessee, who only stayed in the game somewhat
thanks to their offensive rebounding.

Of the frosh who are playing, Hornbuckle has had her moments but is
struggling somewhat, scoring 6.8 ppg on 36% shooting, 4.4 rpg and about 2
apg and tpg. Nicky Anosike, a fine post whom Duke was quite interested
in, has been limited offensively but is a great rebounder--very much like
Chante Black. Sybil Dosty has been a young workhorse, scoring garbage
buckets and playing great defense.

Overall, UT's scoring leaders are still the usual suspects: Ely, Zolman,
and Jackson. Ely has yet to look truly dominant, scoring 10.2 ppg and
getting 5.6 rpg. Zolman is shooting better from three (40%) than two
(36%). Jackson isn't shooting that well but she is scoring. Meanwhile,
role players Spencer and leader Loree Moore are doing well, with Sepncer
getting rebounds and scoring all over the court while Moore leads the team
in assists.

This is a deep club that plays ten on a regular basis, but their defense
is decidedly ahead of their offense at this point. The team lacks the
size and strength of past Lady Vols clubs, though Anosike has potential as
a defensive stopper. While Hornbuckle is a dynamo on the floor,
there's not as much quickness overall as usual, and the club is also a
little less physical. Still, they've outrebounded opponents by 7 a game
and are experts at getting o-boards.

Tennessee will likely take advantage of Duke's point guard problems by
pressing whenever they can. They have a lot of bodies to throw at Duke
and won't have to worry about fatigue. They will do anything to keep Duke
out of setting up in the halfcourt, because Duke's superior size and
strength will be major factors there. Defensively, Duke's post need to
absolutely shut down the interior and prevent offensive rebounds. In
order to win, Duke must turn Tennessee into a jump-shooting team. UT can
still win in such a scenario, if Duke isn't careful about closing in on
their shooters. Zolman in particular is deadly when left alone and
Jackson has burned Duke on more than one occasion.

Probably the biggest keys to the game are Wanisha Smith and Monique
Currie. If Smith can stay under a reasonable amount of control (say, 4 or
fewer turnovers) and Currie can find a way to get involved early on and
overpower Ely, then Duke has a great chance. Duke won't likely win with
20+ turnovers in this game, unless they completely dominate Tennessee on
the boards. Bales must continue to step up and Black will have to be
ready to play in a very intense environment. While Tennessee isn't quite
the juggernaut they could become later in the year, this is still a
formidable team capable of running Duke out of the gym. The good news is
that Duke is growing up very quickly, and I think this group is more ready
to play Tennessee than they were to play Notre Dame.