Is it time to worry about Tennessee's middling nonconference results?

The Lady Vols scheduled tough opponents in back-to-back seasons, but a missing starting frontcourt could cause concern ahead of SEC play

Tennessee forward Rickea Jackson has played only two games this season as the Lady Vols are middling at 5-5 ahead of the start of SEC play. (AP Photo/John Amis)
Tennessee forward Rickea Jackson has played only two games this season as the Lady Vols are middling at 5-5 ahead of the start of SEC play. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Tennessee appears to be in a free fall.

The Lady Vols were an early favorite this season, earning a No. 11 ranking in the Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll and No. 12 in the USA Today/WBCA Coaches Poll. They returned an experienced frontcourt and added key guard transfers to compete in an SEC landscape that proved better than expected in last year’s NCAA tournament.

A swift six weeks in, Tennessee is a middling 5-5 and out of every individual voters’ ballot in each poll. A loss to Middle Tennessee last week was its third in a row, the longest skid since the 2019-20 season, in which it lost five straight to start February. The team dropped out of bracketology projections and dropped another spot this week to 97 in the NET rankings, a key metric the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Committee uses to seed the 68-team NCAA tournament field.

The panic around the program is warranted. Playing to a .500 record in the nonconference schedule doesn’t produce a lot of confidence in a program expected to make a lot of noise in March. The Lady Vols have games against Wofford and Liberty before SEC play begins at Auburn on Jan. 4.

It’s also overblown. This team has been in this exact spot before and knows that being the best in spring is better than doing so in winter.

Tennessee’s back-to-back .500 starts

Tennessee went 5-5 over a tough noncon slate to start the 2022-23 season. It took losses to Ohio State, Indiana, UCLA, Gonzaga and Virginia Tech. Indiana went on to win the Big Ten regular-season championship. Ohio State upset UConn in the NCAA tournament and advanced to the Elite Eight, in which the Buckeyes lost to Virginia Tech. UCLA was a No. 4 seed and reached the Sweet 16, in which it lost to then-reigning champion South Carolina.

The schedule this season has been just as brutal. Tennessee lost to Florida State (7-3), Indiana (8-1), Notre Dame (7-1) and Ohio State (8-1) before falling to Middle Tennessee (8-3). The Lady Raiders, who were in the 2023 NCAA tournament as C-USA champions, had not beaten Tennessee in 10 previous tries.

Lady Vols without starting frontcourt

Meanwhile, the Lady Vols have been without the two key returning frontcourt pieces who stabilized their offense.

Rickea Jackson, a projected first-round WNBA Draft pick who is in her fifth year, sustained a lower leg injury weeks into the season and has played only two games. The 6-foot-2 forward averaged 19.2 points (ranking 30th) and 6.1 rebounds per game last season.

Tamari Key, a four-year starter, missed all but nine games last season after blood clots were discovered in her lungs. She averaged 10.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and a third-best 3.5 blocks in 25.9 minutes per game as a junior. Although she was medically cleared, the 6-foot-6 center has played a total of 64 minutes over nine games. In only two games has she played more than eight minutes; against Ohio State, she scored nine points and four rebounds in 16:02.

In their place, Tess Darby has struggled with efficiency (27.4% from the field, down from 41.9%), and Jillian Hollingshead hasn’t been as strong of a scorer (6.9 ppg). She averaged 6.2 ppg in 16.6 mpg as a reserve. It has complicated the strategy and negatively impacted the new transfer guards, Jewel Spear (10.7 ppg shooting 35.6%) and Destinee Wells (6.8 ppg but shooting 15.8% from 3).

Jasmine Powell (10.7 ppg) and Sara Puckett (12.3 ppg) have carried the most offensive load, but Tennessee collectively has turned the ball over too much and struggled defensively. Their 96.5 Her Hoop Stats defensive rating is 248th without Jackson and Key protecting the rim. They’re averaging 2.6 blocks per game, one fewer than last season and the lowest since at least 2009-10, per Her Hoop Stats.

How SEC schedule can help Tennessee’s tournament hopes

Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper stacked the noncon competition to prepare her team for the higher-caliber ones in March. She has the benefit of an SEC schedule that features two more of them in South Carolina and LSU, the most recent NCAA champions that remain atop women’s college basketball. Five SEC teams are ranked in the top 40 of NET rankings through Dec. 11, creating solid opportunities for Tennessee to make its case for a tournament at-large bid. That is, if it doesn’t upset the powerhouses and win the SEC tournament.

The Lady Vols went 8-0 in the SEC last season before their first loss to LSU 76-68 on Jan. 30. They took two more conference losses to Mississippi State (91-90, OT) and South Carolina (73-60). In the tournament, they upset LSU in the semifinals and lost to South Carolina in the SEC championship game to help their case for a No. 4 seed and hosting rights in the NCAA tournament. They lost again to Virginia Tech in the Sweet 16, closing their season with a 25-12 record.

There’s a lot of work to be done to get there, and it will require good health as well as peaking at the right time. Things might look bad for Tennessee right now, but it’s a long season with plenty of opportunity.