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Is Tennessee back? Lady Vols’ impressive 12-0 a positive sign

The Tennessee Lady Vols have started the season 12-0 for the first time in over a decade. But what exactly is their ceiling?

NCAA Womens Basketball: Notre Dame at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 7 Tennessee Lady Vols are off to their hottest start in the Holly Warlick era, as they open Southeastern Conference play this Sunday against Kentucky.

They will be looking for their 13th straight win after opening the season 12-0 (including a win over No. 2 ranked Texas on Dec. 10). It is the first time since the 2005-06 season that Tennessee has started a season 12-0. That year, they went on to exit the NCAA Tournament in the Elite Eight.

At the time, the Elite Eight was considered an early exit for the program. But this year, if Tennessee manages to get into the Final Four (a feat they haven’t accomplished with Warlick as head coach), it will mark a huge step for the program on the national scale since the departure of Pat Summitt.

Tennessee is in the top 10 in the AP Poll for the first time since 2015. They currently are one of the best rebounding teams in the nation at third in Division I, averaging 49.9 rebounds per game. In fact, the first time they got outrebounded in the 2017-18 season was against Stanford (48-35).

They are also outscoring opponents by 26.4 points per game, good for the 11th best scoring differential in the country. They’ve trailed after the first quarter just twice this season, (versus Wichita State and Marquette) per Dan Fleser of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Right off the bat, Flesser says he has noticed some differences in this team compared to past Warlick teams.

“I think this team has really good scoring depth, and I think, so far anyways, the guard play has been really good in terms of offense,” Fleser told Swish Appeal. “(Tennessee’s) been very consistent. They get off to good leads and they haven’t really trailed much in games, and I just didn’t foresee that happening.”

The Lady Vols also have a nice mixture of upperclassmen and underclassmen playing well. This season, both Jaime Nared and Mercedes Russell are putting up career-best scoring numbers. Nared is averaging 17.9 points and 8.9 rebounds to lead the team, while Russell is averaging 16.4 points.

Also joining the two veterans in averaging double-digits are freshmen Anastasia Hayes with 12.3 points and Rennia Davis with 12. In her first year, Evina Westbrook has also emerged as a leading offensive facilitator, averaging a team-high 4.8 assists. She has also scored in double digits in the last three games.

Their offensive versatility is even more impressive when you consider the fact that they have done this all without Diamond DeShields, who opted to forgo her fifth year of eligibility over the summer to play professionally overseas, after initially saying she would remain a Lady Vol. Last season, DeShields was named to First Team All-SEC after averaging 17.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game during the 2016-17 regular season.

The bottom line is, the Lady Vols have plenty of offensive weapons that will force most teams to pick their poison. However, they will now be facing some of their toughest tests to date as they open up their brutal conference schedule.

In Fleser’s eyes, the toughest week will begin on Jan. 14 when Tennessee takes on South Carolina and Notre Dame on the road before rounding off the week with a showdown against Mississippi State at home.

“Being 12-0 is really nice, but it would be really optimistic just to see them continue this,” Fleser said. “It’s a matter of where are they? What’s their level here? I think that’s what January’s really going to be a better indication of.”

Yes, it is still early in the season, and in a program as historic as Tennessee’s, you know that nothing is guaranteed or won in December.

However, if the first two months of the 2017-18 season are any indication, fans may be witnessing the opening steps of Tennessee’s resurgence. Even if this isn’t yet the year where they assert postseason dominance, Fleser says keeping up this consistency in the regular season would be an accomplishment.

“This is a nice start, it’s very encouraging for the fans and the people who follow the team,” he said. “Just by playing the way they’re playing and playing with more consistency, if they can keep that up I think that will be a significant achievement in and of itself long before you even have to consider the postseason.”

For now, no one knows this team’s ceiling. But through this first part of their season, it is undeniable that Tennessee has taken steps in the right direction.