Head coach Holly Warlick is entering her sixth season at the helm of the Lady Vols basketball program. Warlick, posting a .736 winning percentage in her time in Knoxville, has faced a steady decline in the past two seasons.
To get back on track, Warlick will rely heavily on her freshman class, which was ranked No. 1 in the 2017 cycle. The Lady Vols are slated finished fourth in the SEC this season, as many experts aren’t sold on Warlick and her team heading into the 2017-18 season.
Last year, Tennessee fell in the second round of the NCAA tournament after reaching the Sweet Sixteen in the previous four seasons. Warlick has three Elite Eight appearances since her time in Knoxville.
The obvious answer to this will be the incoming freshman, who put on a show in the exhibition outing versus Carson-Newman. However, I am going to go with the experience this team has.
Meme Jackson played in all 32 games last year for the Lady Vols, and although she isn’t a stat-sheet stuffer, she has grit and experience. Jackson will be an important asset to the team once it makes the NCAA tournament, and makes a push for another Elite Eight appearance. The amount of minutes Jackson has logged in the past will prove vital in postseason play.
With the departure of Diamond DeShields, Mercedes Russell took the reigns of the Lady Vols. Russell is the most important piece to this basketball team, and her experience and strength down low will allow Tennessee to play inside out this season and play to its strengths.
Russell, a 6-foot-6 Redshirt Senior out of Oregon, started every game she played in last season and posted All-SEC numbers. Averaging 16.1 points-per-game and nearly 10 rebounds, Russell will be a juggernaut to stop for opposing defenses this season.
Talent wise, there are no weaknesses on this roster. Unfortunately, the Lady Vols only played eight players in its opening game. Depth could be an issue for this Tennessee team.
Half of the eight players that played in the exhibition game were freshman, so that is not the best sign for Tennessee.
Players to watch
Keep your eye on Evina Westbrook. Posting 17 points in her first exhibition game as a Lady Vol, Westbrook will not look back this season as she must help lead this team to a deep NCAA tournament run.
Westbrook was the No. 2 overall player in the 2017 class, and she helped proved the hype is real with this freshman class. The freshmen combined for 76 of the 121 total points scored by the Lady Vols against Carson-Newman, which matched the Lady Eagles’ points total.
Westbrook was the most coveted freshman player of the Warlick’s recruiting class, but Rennia Davis could be the big-time player Tennessee has been waiting for to play on the wing. The 6-foot-2 guard/forward out of Florida is a scoring machine.Davis averaged just over 26 points-per-game as a senior in high school, and didn’t look back after posting 27 points in the opening exhibition game against Carson-Newman.
All of the freshmen will be compelling, but Davis should be the highlight reel all season long. The way Tennessee will play through Russell down in the post should open up a lot of perimeter shots for players like Davis and Westbrook.
Matchups to watch
This is a loaded schedule for the Lady Vols. With matchups against Texas, Stanford, Kentucky, Notre Dame and defending National Champion South Carolina, Tennessee will have their work set out for them this season.
The Cancun Challenge at the Hard Rock Hotel Maya Convention Center should be interesting. The Lady Vols will have a three-day stretch of vital games early on in the season. The team will face Marquette, Oklahoma State and South Dakota in consecutive games in late November. The team will learn a lot about itself in this tournament.
The Lady Vols should finish in the top-3 of the conference this season. This team, although young, has pure talent and grit. Warlick will finally get over the hump and take Tennessee back to the Elite Eight and have a chance to move further. The Lady Vols will finish the season third in the SEC, and will be a force to be reckoned with the next couple years as they grow, mature, and make a run at another National Championship. Tennessee hosts ETSU for the regular-season opener at 2 p.m. Sunday.
Featured image courtesy of UT Sports
Edited by Seth Raborn