No two programs are more important to the growth of women's college basketball than the UConn Huskies and Tennessee Lady Vols. So when they renewed their rivalry three seasons ago after a 13-year hiatus, it meant a lot to the sport, and their nonconference meeting Sunday would garner national attention regardless of the status of either team. That this particular meeting is a huge checkpoint for both squads this late in the season only adds to the drama. That neither team will arrive in Hartford in the position most thought they would be in also spices up the intrigue.
Tennessee's ceiling was supposed to be battling for a spot in the top-16 seeds, with a chance to host some NCAA tournament games. Instead, the Lady Vols are in the mix for a No. 1 seed, have exceeded all expectations and are one of the best teams in the country despite the loss of star Rae Burrell for the first 12 games and more recently veteran guard Keyen Green for the rest of the season.
Another No. 1 seed was expected to be a forgone conclusion for UConn, but injuries and inconsistency have made that impossible. With losses to South Carolina, Georgia Tech, Louisville and Oregon already this season, a UConn win Sunday would be a confidence boost, but the Huskies also need it for NCAA tournament seeding.
Heading into each of the last two meetings in the rivalry, UConn was already guaranteed a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. Winning the last two games in the series against the Lady Vols was just a little something extra on UConn's résumé, while a win in either would have strengthened Tennessee's résumé. In 2020, Tennessee was on the bubble just to get into the NCAA tournament (which was subsequently canceled due to COVID-19). Last season, the Lady Vols needed a late run, which included a stunning upset of South Carolina, to earn a No. 3 seed.
The shoe is squarely on the other foot in 2022. Not only are the No. 10 Huskies the underdog, but this game means more to them than the seventh-ranked Lady Vols.
How will this game impact Bracketology and each team's seeding in our NCAA tournament projection?
Creme: The most eye-popping portion of the NCAA tournament selection committee's top-16 reveal last week was UConn's placement in the Spokane Regional. That isn't to say that the Huskies, with their unusual struggles this season, don't deserve to be sent away from the cozier and more convenient Bridgeport region. It's just odd to see since UConn hasn't played outside of a northeast-based regional -- when there was one -- since 2005 (the Huskies played in Kansas City as the No. 3 seed when Philadelphia was also part of the bracket).
UConn's best chance of staying closer to home in the tournament rests with being better than the No. 3 seed where it was slotted in the reveal. That is why, in contrast to what nearly anyone would have predicted at the start of the season, Sunday's game means more to UConn than it does Tennessee. Sure, the Lady Vols are fighting for a No. 1 seed (it would be their first since 2014), but the difference is the opportunity ahead. Even if the Lady Vols lose for a third consecutive time in the series, they still have games with Missouri, South Carolina and LSU in the regular season, plus the SEC tournament to beef up the resume. A No. 1 seed is still in play regardless of Sunday's outcome.
After Sunday, the Huskies have just one more regular-season game remaining against a top-50 NET opponent (DePaul on Feb. 11). Without a win over Tennessee, and considering its nonconference losses, there isn't much of a case for UConn moving up, even with a sweep of the remaining Big East schedule. Beating Tennessee doesn't guarantee the Huskies a No. 2 seed, or a spot in the Bridgeport region, but a loss likely means UConn won't finish better than a No. 3 seed. The lower the seed, the lower the probability UConn stays in its backyard for regional play. The stakes are high in Hartford for the Huskies.
Why UConn might win
Creme: Even during the nadirs of this roller-coaster of a season for UConn, the defense has remained solid. Per Her Hoop Stats, the Huskies have the nation's seventh-rated defense, and they'll have to rely on that end of the court to beat the Lady Vols. Tennessee's biggest vulnerability is turning over the ball. The Lady Vols rank 261st in the country with 17.6 turnovers per game. In last week's stunning loss to Auburn, Tennessee committed 22 turnovers, which the Tigers converted into 28 points. The Lady Vols had another 18 turnovers in this Thursday's loss to Florida. Some easy baskets off turnovers, especially early in the game, would go a long way toward mitigating the length of the Lady Vols and to jump-starting a UConn offense that has been wildly inconsistent in the absence of injured Paige Bueckers.
The Huskies will also have to shoot better from the perimeter than they have much of this season. At the start of the week, they were shooting 30.1% on 3-pointers (but hit 7-of-17 against Creighton on Wednesday). Christyn Williams has made 22 of 38 field goal attempts since returning from a two-game COVID-19 related absence. She was UConn's best player in last year's meeting in Knoxville, and Williams will have to deliver again if the Huskies are to win their third straight since the rivalry resumed.
Why Tennessee might win
Voepel: It sounds cliche to say the SEC is a grind. But when you see results like Auburn, which came in with a 23-game league losing streak and beat Tennessee last week, it's just more proof. But Tennessee bounced back from that with an 86-83 overtime win against Arkansas, which was a good boost to the Lady Vols' confidence after the disappointment of losing Green for the season.
But then the 84-59 loss Thursday to Florida set Tennessee back again. While credit should go to the Gators for how good a season they are having, this was a dispiriting game for the Lady Vols.
The Lady Vols have been tested a lot, and they know their strengths (rebounding) and weaknesses (turnovers). This is a team that has some moxie and has proven it, the Auburn and Florida losses aside. Winning on the road in Hartford doesn't mean anything regarding the SEC title race they are trying to stay in, but it would mean something nationally and historically to the program.
And for a player like junior guard Jordan Horston (team-high 16.2 PPG and 9.7 RPG), this is a chance to make a statement about just how much she has become the player that Tennessee hoped for when recruiting her.
Predicting the winner
Creme: Tennessee is the pick, even though the fact that the game is in Hartford causes me some hesitation. Despite losing two of their last three, including Thursday's blowout loss at Florida, the Lady Vols have been the better team all season and should prevail on Sunday. Tennessee is the best rebounding team in the country. Typically, this is also a strength of the Huskies, but they aren't even the best rebounding team in the Big East this season. Recent UConn teams have struggled with size and length. Led by 6-foot-6 center Tamari Key (10.1 PPG, 8.4 RPG), Tennessee presents another one of those bad matchups.
UConn's Dorka Juhasz, a 6-5 forward averaging 7.2 PPG and 6.6 RPG, has missed the last three games with a foot injury, but is expected back on Sunday. That should help, but it's probably not enough. If the Lady Vols minimize their turnovers, their work on the boards should take care of the rest.
Voepel: I agree with Charlie: Turnovers are so critical. The Lady Vols have to maximize possessions and try to make this their kind of game, not give UConn easy transition points and get the crowd roaring in support.
I really felt Tennessee was the favorite before the Florida game. But if the Lady Vols play like they did Thursday, they're in trouble. I think the momentum going into the game has now switched to the Huskies.