A month ago, the Tennessee women’s basketball team entered the season ranked No. 5 in the country. With key returners in Jordan Horston and Tamari Key and highly-touted transfers in Rickea Jackson and Jasmine Powell, the ceiling seemed high for the Vols in coach Kellie Harper’s fourth season.
Just weeks later, that ceiling appears to be crashing down. Tennessee dropped to No. 23 in the latest iteration of the AP Poll, with a 2-4 record. And with its most recent loss to unranked Gonzaga, the Vols are likely to fall out of the rankings completely.
The Vols had one of the toughest schedules in basketball to start the season. They opened their nonconference slate by traveling to Ohio State (now the No. 4 team in the country), and followed that up at home with another tough Big Ten opponent in Indiana (now No. 6).
Tennessee has lost to Ohio State, Indiana, UCLA and Gonzaga, and has gotten its two wins against UMass and Rutgers.
The Vols are playing the kind of schedule designed to test a team, one in which a few losses are expected. But Harper certainly didn’t expect a 2-4 record, nor did she anticipate losing to two unranked teams – even if UCLA has since moved into the top 25, and Gonzaga is getting votes.
But Harper hopes this difficult stretch will pay off in the postseason.
“I still think that the best thing for this team is to play teams that are going to punch us in the mouth. I really think that is the best thing for us,” Harper said following the loss to Indiana on Nov. 14. “I would rather win, but I don’t want any false ideas of who we are. I know exactly who we are, and exactly where we need to go.”
But after two more losses, it seems this Tennessee team doesn’t know where it’s going.
Heartbreaker.#GoLadyVols pic.twitter.com/Y7WofhCMNW— Lady Vols Basketball (@LadyVol_Hoops) November 21, 2022
The talent is clearly there.
Key holds the Tennessee block record after surpassing Candace Parker last season when she was a junior. Horston is considered a WNBA prospect and nearly averaged a double-double last season with 16.2 points and 9.4 rebounds per game.
Jackson was the top scorer at Mississippi State during her three seasons, consistently proving herself as the team’s best player. And even in the loss to Ohio State, no one could stop Powell from getting to the basket when she got down hill.
It sounds like a dream lineup. And yet the Vols can’t find any kind of rhythm.
After the team’s fourth loss, a gut-wrenching 73-72 defeat at the hands of Gonzaga in the Bahamas on Monday, the Vols felt the weight of their 2-4 record.
“They’re hurting right now,” Harper said.
Tennessee’s problems start with what appears to be a lack of leadership. Following the Gonzaga game, Harper was asked who the team’s vocal leader is. Harper paused and seemed to wrack her brain before saying, “Rickea Jackson and Jordan Horston are well-respected on the court.”
But well-respected player and on-court leader aren’t exactly synonyms.
And the issues don’t stop there. Two of Tennessee’s biggest problems are the two things that hurt teams the most: defense and turnovers. If you don’t defend, it’s hard to win. And if you don’t take care of the ball, it’s hard to win. If you don’t do either, winning becomes nearly impossible.
The Vols are giving up 73 points per game, which ranks 270 out of 361 in the NCAA. On offense they are averaging a whopping 18.5 turnovers per game (246th in the league), and they even had more turnovers (29) than shots (28) against Ohio State to open the season.
“I do think (the players) understand what we need to do and how we need to play,” Harper told reporters Monday.
Whether that belief is accurate or not, the Vols don’t have a lot of wiggle room in their schedule to figure themselves out. They play No. 11 Virginia Tech on Dec. 4 and then No. 2 Stanford on Dec. 18 before heading into SEC play. Sandwiched in between those top-25 opponents are Chattanooga, Wright State and UCF, which are all must-wins for the struggling Vols.
Harper wanted to play a schedule to prepare her team for the postseason, but right now – though it’s early and a lot can change – the Vols don’t look like a postseason team.