Davis- Ole Miss

Tennessee guard/forward Rennia Davis (0) looks at the basket while defended by Ole Miss forward Iyanla Kitchens (32) during a basketball game between the Tennessee Lady Vols and the Ole Miss Rebels at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn., on Thursday, January 28, 2021.

The Tennessee women’s basketball team surged to an impressive 12-3 (6-1 SEC) start to the 2020-21 season. After being picked to finish sixth in the SEC in the preseason, the Lady Vols have surpassed the media’s expectation and are currently third in the standings, right in the middle of the hunt, with five games left on their schedule.

With all team activities currently on pause due to a positive COVID-19 test among Tier 1 personnel, now’s a good time to look at some takeaways from the year so far, and see what questions we have going into the home stretch of the season.

Takeaways:

Potent scoring duo emerges

Senior forward Rennia Davis was Tennessee’s leading scorer from a year ago, accounting for nearly a third of the team’s offense. She was expected to be the team leader this year, as she was named to all of the preseason awards watch lists (Wade, Wooden, Naismith, Cheryl Miller) and was a projected First Team All-SEC pick.

And to a large extent, Davis has done just that. After a slow four games to open her season, she has put up 14.5 points per game and 8.9 rebounds per game, and is major reason why Tennessee has been so competitive. But she hasn’t been alone atop Tennessee’s offense.

Edging out Davis as the Lady Vols top scorer is junior Rae Burrell. She started just nine games last season as a sophomore, but has really clicked this year, leading the team with 16.9 points per game while shooting 47.8%, along with 4.0 rebounds per game.

Burrell has finally gotten playing time and consistency, and has established herself as one of the SEC’s top scorers. Working under head coach Kellie Harper for the second straight year has been beneficial to the guard. She has learned the system and style of basketball Harper wants to run, and has thrived in it.

The combination of Davis and Burrell present a challenge for any team that wishes to stop both of Tennessee’s dynamic scorers.

Depth proving useful

Tennessee’s bench was one of its strengths entering the year, with all of the talented players and the depth it could provide. They have lived up to expectations, with several Lady Vols contributing at a high level.

Sophomore Tamari Key has been the biggest standout for Tennessee lately. After graduate transfer Keyen Green suffered a season injury leg injury, Key stepped into the starting center role and has been excellent in relief.

Key is averaging 9.5 points per game on a team-high 70.1%, 5.0 rebounds and 2.5 blocks, and has been especially good lately (14.3 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.3 blocks over her last seven games). Her performance was capped off by a career-day against Florida, as she totaled just the fourth triple-double in school history (23 points, 10 rebounds, 10 blocks).

Senior Kasiyahna Kushkituah has thrived in limited minutes off the bench this season, as a nice compliment to Key down low, averaging 5.9 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. Kushkituah has received more playing time lately, and even started against Florida, following a Marta Suárez injury.

Destiny Salary and Jordan Walker have also given the Lady Vols decent numbers off the bench, but Key and Kushkituah have been the heavy hitters.

Lady Vols are in contention

Thanks to the efforts from the players mentioned above, the Lady Vols find themselves in a situation little thought they would be in, third place in the SEC, and just two games out of second.

Tennessee trails No. 2 South Carolina and No. 7 Texas A&M, and have Kentucky right behind them. The Lady Vols were originally scheduled to play the Aggies yesterday, but that was postponed when Tennessee’s paused all team activities.

Tennessee has an open day next Sunday, Feb. 14, so the crucial game for the standings with Texas A&M may be played then. Of course, all of this depends on if Tennessee is cleared to play by then.

The Lady Vols will host South Carolina Thursday, Feb 18. If Tennessee has any desire to win the SEC, that is a must-win game.

With five scheduled conference games remaining (and potentially as many as seven), Tennessee is primed to make a run towards the top of the standings before the SEC tournament.

Questions going forward:

How will they handle the toughest stretch of the schedule?

The Lady Vols have fared well so far, but their toughest test will be the final stretch of the year. They will face three consecutive ranked opponents in 10 days- No. 15 Kentucky, No. 2 South Carolina and No. 25 Georgia.

Two of the three contests will be on the road, with the South Carolina game the lone home matchup in that stretch.

Tennessee has played both Georgia and Kentucky already this season. It dropped a 66-67 game to Georgia, but dominated Kentucky 70-53 just ten days later. The Lady Vols will be looking for revenge against the Bulldogs, after blowing a 17-point lead. And no doubt Kentucky will welcome the Lady Vols seeking revenge of its own.

Tennessee was in a similar place at this point last year. Entering February, the team was 17-4 (7-1 SEC), and looking to make a run in Harper’s first year. The Lady Vols lost five consecutive games conference games, and fell out of contention.

If the Lady Vols can stay strong down the stretch this season remains to be seen, but Harper called her team “completely different” than where they were last year.

How far can the Lady Vols go?

It’s been mentioned just how much the Lady Vols have exceeded expectations this year, though it remains to be seen if they can finish strong. But if they did, just how far could they go?

Harper and her team believe the sky is the limit for them, that Tennessee can hold its own against any team in the nation.

This claim is probably true, but third in the SEC seems like the most logical place the Lady Vols will finish, given where the standings currently are, barring some unforeseen collapse from Tennessee or an opponent.

At No. 3, Tennessee would receive a bye into the quarterfinal round of the tournament, taking on either the sixth or eleventh seed (currently Georgia or Florida). The winner of the conference gets an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament in March.

Will Tennessee be able to make a deep run in the SEC and in the NCAA Tournament, which they almost certainly have a spot in? We will have to wait for the rest of the season to play out, but for what it is worth, the Lady Vols have exceeded our expectations all year.

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