The women's Sweet 16 kicks off today, beginning with a matchup being the Kansas Jayhawks and Tennessee Lady Vols that is intriguing because both due to the collection of talent on the floor and their unpredictability.
#11 Kansas Jayhawks vs. #2 Tennessee Lady Vols
As discussed in Rocky Top Talk's podcast this week, it's really hard to figure this game out. It's easy to say that it depends on which Lady Vols team shows up - as we've all said just about all season - but Kansas has been even more unpredictable in the tournament thus far.
Given how well Kansas point guard Angel Goodrich is playing and how Tennessee post Glory Johnson is absolutely dominating the boards lately, the most you can say is exactly what we concluded the other night: this game will come down to defense. As said yesterday, Kansas is performing so much better than their statistics over the course of the season that you can almost throw the numbers out. What might matter more than anything for Tennessee is cutting off Goodrich's penetration, as quick guards - think Arkansas' C'eira Ricketts, Kentucky's A'dia Mathies, Vanderbilt's Christina Foggie, or Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins to name a few - have given Tennessee problems in losses all season. But Tennessee has also turned the ball over more often than their opponents in the past 2 games and Goodrich's quickness defensively - that bothered Delaware quite a bit - could help Kansas challenge the Lady Vols.
Ultimately, if you're going to pick between these two teams based upon how they've played thus far this season, you have to go with the Lady Vols - on paper, they're simply a bigger team and have a massive rebounding advantage. Based upon the Four Factors, Tennessee is very similar to the Delaware team that Kansas just beat to get to the Sweet 16. The difference between the two teams is that the Lady Vols simply have more players that are capable of stepping up to score if need be in addition to being an outstanding defensive team when focused.
If nothing else, this is a game to watch because it will be interesting to see how all these dynamics play out.
#4 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets vs. #1 Baylor Lady Bears
In the past two seasons, the teams that have given Baylor the most problems - aside from Maya Moore's UConn team - had aggressive and quick perimeter players that could make it hard on Baylor to get the ball up the court and to 6-foot-8 superstar center Brittney Griner. The other team, Iowa State, creates weird matchup problems with 6-foot-7 center Anna Prins able to step out to the 3-point line and shoot threes at a 34.5% clip.
The Yellow Jackets might be able to split the difference a bit.
Georgia Tech certainly has ample quickness on the perimeter, 5-foot-9 sophomore Tyaunna Marshall, 5-foot-6 Metra Walthour, and 5-foot-8 sophomore Dawnn Maye, who's less heralded but has a 5.8 steal rate that ranks 13th in the nation. But on the interior, Sasha Goodlett will be the player to watch as she will be responsible for guarding Griner. Yet it's her ability to face up and shoot mid-range jumpers that could end up being even more significant - if she can draw Griner away from the basket defensively, it could open up the lanes for players like Marshall to drive to the basket.
A lot would have to go right for the Yellow Jackets to pull off an upset: they'd probably have to shoot well from the 3-point line as Iowa State did to spread the court for guards to drive and have Goodlett play well enough to help pull Griner away from the basket defensively (or draw fouls and keep her on the bench). It could happen and it's possible that it's more likely than most women's basketball fans assume. But the real difference between this year in last is not Griner's development, but that of sophomore point guard Odyssey Sims.
Last season, teams like Texas Tech or Texas A&M could bother Sims into bad decisions with their perimeter quickness. With Sims playing better - not just improving her efficiency as a distributor but creating assists much more often - Baylor is difficult to beat. Although Georgia Tech has elements of what it takes to pull off the upset, it's hard to imagine them overcoming Baylor's attack on the offensive and defensive side of the court, where Sims is just as disruptive as she is offensively.
Tennessee def. Kansas
Baylor def. Georgia Tech
Baylor def. Tennessee
Can the Lady Vols beat the Lady Bears? Absolutely.
In Baylor's 76-67 win at Tennessee on November 27, Tennessee got terrible performances from multiple players: underclassmen guards Ariel Massengale and Meighan Simmons combined to shoot 2-for-22 from the field and Sims got to the line a season-high 15 times.
If any of that changes in the Lady Vols' favor, the outcome could break their way. In addition, as noted above, if the Lady Vols play the type of defense they're capable of they could force Baylor into turnovers around the perimeter and stop Griner by stopping her from getting the ball. It's also no small matter that the Lady Vols have changed their starting lineup since then to go with an all senior starting lineup and it's working: more than anything else, they're coming out with more energy, especially defensively, and setting the tone for players like Massengale or Simmons to step in and be productive.
While that sort of talk of intangibles sounds sort of nebulous and fluffy, for a team like the Lady Vols it could make all the difference - whatever they've done since losing to Arkansas at home is working and that counts for something.
It's actually easy to imagine Tennessee winning a rematch against Baylor - they have the athletes all over the court to compete with anyone in the nation, Shekinna Stricklen can be an unstoppable force on both ends when locked in, and Meighan Simmons could once again be the x-factor that gives the Lady Vols an extra perimeter scoring punch to keep Baylor at bay.
Yet Tennessee has been so inconsistent - even in their recent wins - that it's hard to predict them beating a Baylor team that tends to get better as the game goes on this season, which is both a testament to Griner's ability to wear opponents down on the interior and Kim Mulkey's ability as a coach to make the right adjustments when she needs to.