The Beginning of a New Era: Tennessee vs. Georgia Tech preview

Photo by Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics

The Tennessee Lady Vols will face the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets tomorrow at 2 p.m. EDT on ESPN3 in the brand new McCamish Pavilion in a game that will be pivotal for both teams as they move forward.

Not only will Georgia Tech open against one of the most esteemed programs in women’s basketball history in Tennessee; they will be looking to usher in a new era by making a statement in their stunning new arena -- McCamish Pavilion.

It’s almost as a christening of sorts.

This is a pivotal game for both programs but not for the reason many would believe: rankings; this game is much more about image and perception of each program; and where they are going.

"I think it’s definitely a pivotal moment in the history of our program," said Georgia Tech head coach MaChelle Joseph before practice yesterday. "Not only because we are opening up McCamish Pavilion and playing our first ever game here but the fact that we are playing Tennessee. It’s a historical program, one of the most storied programs in the history of women’s basketball.

"It’s exciting moment for us; it’s really an important moment in the history of our program. We have an opportunity to do something special."

Both teams coincidentally have points to prove albeit for different reasons. Tennessee for all of its allure and prestige has many skeptical eyes wondering: Is this the same Lady Vol program of years past with Pat Summitt at the helm?

Georgia Tech enters this game with a new "buzz" -- no pun intended -- as they look to establish the vision of Joseph.

"Well when I got here nine years ago, I had this vision," said Joseph. "And I wanted to see Georgia Tech become a national power in women’s basketball. A lot of people laughed at me at the time. I was building a program on blind faith; it was really no tradition to build (on).

"A lot players that came here early in my career, took chances and they bought into this vision that I had for Georgia Tech. And to stand here nine years later and see that we’ve been in 6 NCAA tournaments, six 20-win seasons and preseason top 20 (ranking). It’s a great feeling to see your dream come to reality."

Proof of how Joseph’s vision is starting to reverberate in the consciousness of others, look no further than last week. The nation’s #2 high school basketball player, Kaela Davis, chose to commit to the Yellow Jackets over a myriad of schools including - and most notably -- Tennessee.

In years past, it would have been asinine to even conceive of such a notion. But in 2012, the landscape of college basketball is different, especially at Georgia Tech.

There's also a new slogan that's helped with the paradigm shift that came with Joseph's vision called, "Tech Tough"

"It’s just a mindset to our players," said Joseph. "If we can’t outplay them that day then we have to outwork them, we have to find a way to win."

A few years ago, this game wouldn’t have been discussed as an early test for either school. Tennessee used to be able to walk into anyone’s arena and expect to defeat a team fairly easily, whether by physical skill or mental intimidation. However perceptions of each are slightly different now; it shows where both programs are and how Georgia Tech has risen to become more of a force on a national scale.

Now it wasn’t always like that for Georgia Tech as they have been known for a litany of things: engineering, football, men’s basketball, and tennis. Up until now, women’s basketball was almost an afterthought, a joke, but Joseph’s fierce drive and foresight has catapulted the sport to the forefront of many fans’ minds.

Now the Yellow Jackets have a backcourt that is arguably one of the best not only in the ACC but also in the country. Their version of "Lethal Weapon 3" are very explosive: Tyaunna Marshall is their top returning scorer (14.4 points), talented point guard Dawnn Maye is a year older; and dynamic guard Sidney Wallace -- who burst on the scene with a 32 point performance against Baylor in the Sweet Sixteen - rounds out the group.

"I feel like (they) are three of the best guards in the ACC," said Joseph. "And when you combine them together, they make for one of the best backcourts in the country. Marshall has been our leading scorer for two years, then you throw in the fact that Wallace made 19 three (pointers) in three NCAA tournament games and put 32 points on Baylor, she exploded.

"She became one the best scoring guards as a freshman in the history of the NCAA tournament. And then you look at Maye who came in here as a heralded recruit, a top 20 player in the country. She started every game but one for us last year (and) led our team in steals."

Tennessee enters Sunday’s contest with first year head coach Holly Warlick, who replaced Summitt. Warlick brings a talented but very inexperienced cast to Atlanta for what is definitely a barometer game for the Lady Vols.

After their shocking loss to cross-town rival, Tennessee-Chattanooga, the Lady Vols will be looking to rebound from a performance beneath the standards of Tennessee.

"I think we were a little anxious, sure," Warlick said after the game, according to the Chattanooga website. "We're young, have a new coach and were playing in a hostile environment. When it comes down to it, you have to take care of business and we didn't."

The Lady Vols are led by junior guard Meighan Simmons (23 points), freshman forward Bashaara Graves (14 points) and forward/center Isabelle Harrison (13 points, 12 rebounds).

"We have to play Tennessee basketball," Simmons said. "That's something we didn't do (against Tennessee-Chattanooga)."

5 Things to look for:

  1. Style of play: Each team plays up-tempo and loves to press, so it will be interesting to see whose will be able to execute their styles better
  2. Backcourt play: This could truly decide the game because as was stated earlier -- the Yellow Jackets trio of Wallace, Maye and Wallace look to cause havoc on the defensive end. How will the backcourt of Tennessee handle their pressure?
  3. The "Simmons" Factor: Simmons is by far Tennessee’s most explosive scorer, so early on it will be interesting to see if she gets off to a hot start. If she does, it will open up things offensively for the Lady Vols. In Friday’s loss to Tennessee-Chattanooga, she had 23 points but only on 9-25 (36%) from the field and 1-8 (13%) from the three.
  4. Turnovers: Both teams look to force turnovers, so whichever team has the least amount will in all likelihood win the game. Tennessee had 25 turnovers versus Tennessee-Chattanooga.
  5. Youth/Experience: Georgia Tech and Tennessee are fairly young so it will be imperative for their young players to play well.
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