Once you reach the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament, there are no easy opponents. And there's nothing easy about the upcoming opponent for the Maryland Terrapins - both in terms of talent and tradition - as the Terps make the trip to Louisville to take on the Tennessee Lady Vols. Maryland has a fine tradition in women's basketball. They are making their twenty-second appearance in the NCAA Tournament and tenth under coach Brenda Frese. Sunday's game will mark their eleventh trip to the Sweet Sixteen and sixth with Frese at the helm. For Tennessee, Sunday is little more than another day at the office. It will be their thirty-second Sweet Sixteen appearance in the thirty-three year history of the Tournament. And the Vols don't lose often in this round as their 26-5 record attests.
There is some history between the squads. They've met thirteen times with Tennessee holding a 10-3 advantage. The most recent meeting came on November 26, 2005 in the Paradise Jam. That season, the Lady Vols came away with an 80-75 win but the Terps came away with a national championship. The last NCAA Tournament meeting between the schools happened in 1989 where Maryland fell 77-65 in the national semi-final. But that was then. What about now?
Tennesse - the 2013-14 edition
Tennessee hasn't missed much since Holly Warlick took over from Tennessee's legendary coach Pat Summitt. Though many expected last season to be a rebuilding year, the Vols finished 27-8 and won the SEC regular season before falling to Louisville in the Elite Eight. In this year's run to the Sweet Sixteen, Tennessee finished second in the regular season, captured the SEC Tournament title, and have won nine in a row en route to a 29-5 record.
By season's end, Tennessee probably emerged as the best team from the best conference according to the RPI. And the four remaining SEC teams in the NCAA Tournament provide some confirmation of that RPI evaluation. The Vols have only two out of conference losses - a six point loss at Stanford just before Christmas and an 86-70 loss at home to Notre Dame. In games with the four other common opponents the Lady Vols share with the Terps, they are 4-0 with wins against North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Virginia, and a 75-61 decision over Texas in Knoxville.
Approaching Maryland's game against Texas, I noted that in some ways, the teams mirrored one another. Statistically, this may be even more true with Tennessee. The Vols average over 78 points per game a bit less than Maryland's 83 but they like to push the pace as both squads average 78 possessions per game. The Terps are a point better defensively than Tennessee conceding 61.6 points per game. On the boards, the Vols hold an 11.8 rebounding margin over their opponents while the Terps pull down 12 more than their foes.
The teams are eerily close on both ends of the court behind the arc. Though the Terps average about one and a half more attempts per game, the squads are separated by only half a percentage point with Maryland making thirty-six and a half percent of their three-point attempts and Tennessee tallying thirty-six percent of theirs. The margin is even narrower when it comes to defending the three with Terrapins' opponents making 30.8 percent and Volunteers' foes connecting on 31 percent. Overall though, the Lady Vols are considerably stingier than the Terps allowing opponents to connect on only 36.5 percent of their field goals while Maryland's opponents shoot at a 38 percent success rate.
Maryland is a bit deeper than Tennessee. Where the Terps will generally go ten deep, the Lady Vols typically use a seven or eight player rotation. With both teams averaging those 78 possessions, depth could be a factor.
The stars and the supporting cast
Like the Terps, the Vols attack has a centerpiece player - senior guard, Meighan Simmons. The 5'9" Simmons, who recently passed 2,000 points for her career, leads the Lady Vols in scoring at just over sixteen points per game. Over the course of the season, she took about 22 percent of Tennessee's shots. I note this because, although the two are not likely to directly match-up often, Maryland also has a senior who averages 18.6 points and takes about 22 percent of their shots.
Simmons has been a bit missing in action in the first two games of this year's NCAA Tournament. Though she scored twelve in the opener against Northwestern State and seventeen in the second round game against St. Johns, she connected on only nine of twenty-eight shots - nearly ten percent below her season average. The Terps will want to keep her away from the charity stripe, though. An eighty-three percent free throw shooter for the season, the senior made all nine of her shots from the line last weekend.
Providing ample support for Simmons will be will be Tennessee's front court featuring 6'3" center Isabelle Harrison and 6'2" wing Bashara Graves. Harrison averages nearly fourteen points per game while connecting on fifty-eight percent of her shots. The junior also leads the Vols with a 9.3 rebound average. Graves scores nearly ten per game and hauls in about 7 rebounds. Tennessee's second leading rebounder, Cierra Burdick could be an x-factor. In Monday's game with St. John's, the junior forward matched her season highs in both scoring and rebounding recording one of Tennessee' two double doubles in the game with 21 points and 11 boards.
One other interesting match-up could be between the freshman point guards. Lexi Brown assumed the starting role for Maryland early in the season while her Tennessee counterpart, redshirt freshman Andraya Carter, took over as the starter when Ariel Massengale went down with a head injury in Tennessee's January 23 game against Florida. Although she's had moments where she played like a freshman, the team hasn't missed a beat winning thirteen of their fourteen games since Carter assumed the starting role. The intrigue comes because Carter hails from Buford, GA which is just a seven mile hop up Route 23 from Lexi's home town of Suwanee. I suspect they're familiar with one another.
Keys to the game
In terms of match-ups, the key could be controlling Simmons. If she's shooting well, she will generate plenty of trouble. Should Maryland concentrate on taking away the three, and she's a capable three point shooter at 35 percent, it will leave the Terps vulnerable to the dribble drive a phase of the game they've had difficulty defending all season.
I don't like sounding as though I'm falling into "coach speak," but Maryland will also have to be strong on the boards. In the game against Texas, the teams were not only tied on the scoreboard at halftime, they were tied in rebounding as well. The Terps controlled the boards in the second half and it's no coincidence that they then opened some space and came away with the win.
Crowd control may also be a factor. At home Tennessee draws over 10,000 per game and since Louisville is just a quick two and a half to three hour drive up I-65, I have no doubt the Vols will be well represented. It's conceivable that the LSU fans could join them in some measure of conference loyalty. And who knows how Louisville's fans will react to having Maryland in their house.
Not quite two weeks ago, I wrote that those Maryland fans who reacted so happily to find the Terps not in Connecticut's bracket might find themselves thinking they should have been careful in their wishes. This isn't a game Maryland can't win but in order to win the Terps Will Likely need to put together their best game of the season.