Tennessee can win the NCAA title if: Sidney Spencer goes out with a bang
If Candace Parker is the indispensable motor that makes Tennessee a luxury sedan in this year's bracket, Sidney Spencer is something more akin to third gear. You can get where you're going without her, but it's a much smoother journey if she's part of the equation.
Just consider these shooting lines for the senior from Alabama.
Dec. 3, at North Carolina: 2-13
Jan. 22, vs. Duke: 3-13
March 3, vs. LSU: 2-11
One home game, one road game and one neutral-site game, and the one thing uniting them, other than Spencer's rim-rattling shooting, was the end result. Those three games were Tennessee's only losses this season.
To be sure, Spencer wasn't solely responsible for the defeats. Parker's 2-of-11 shooting against LSU in the SEC tournament was probably more disastrous. Spencer wasn't the only one playing defense when Duke raced to a 19-0 lead. She had exactly none of Tennessee's 24 turnovers against North Carolina. And she shot poorly in some games the Lady Vols won, so it's not exactly like we're working with pure cause and effect here.
But the numbers suggest that Tennessee is great when Spencer provides consistent cover from beyond the arc and merely really good when she's off her game, leaving Parker and Alexis Hornbuckle to shoulder almost all of the offensive load.
Really good teams occasionally win championships; great teams win them more often.
Spencer is far from alone in supplying the Lady Vols with outside cover. Newcomer Shannon Bobbitt has actually attempted more 3-pointers than Spencer and has shown both good overall accuracy at 39.7 percent and a knack for big shots at big moments. In addition to everything else she does well, Hornbuckle has good touch from outside, giving the team three key options who shoot at least 36.5 percent from the perimeter.
But because of her uncanny accuracy and her ability to draw bigger defenders away, thus giving Parker room in the post and Hornbuckle room to penetrate, Spencer is the key to getting Tennessee's offense up to highway speed.
With Shanna Zolman no longer part of the mix, Spencer leads the Lady Vols in 3-pointers this season, having already surpassed last season's total of 54 in 36 games with 57 in 31 games. She's also one of the nation's most accurate long-distance shooters at 42.2 percent.
Unfortunately, she has been missing in action for much of the second half of the season.
Her overall accuracy disguises the fact that she shot 48.1 percent from deep in nonconference games and just 33.9 percent in conference play. Without her normal contributions, the Lady Vols averaged 72.1 points per game and shot 30.9 percent from behind the arc in conference play, compared to 76.0 points per game and 42.1 percent from behind the arc in nonleague play. And given the rigorous schedule Pat Summitt books before getting to SEC action, it's tough to chalk all of that up to a tough conference.
First and foremost, Tennessee needs Parker healthy and playing her game in the NCAA Tournament. But at some point, if the Lady Vols are going to play six games, they're going to need Spencer to put together a fond farewell.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.