Coming off the team's first 100-plus point outing this year, the No. 3/3 Tennessee Lady Vols (9-0) are gearing up for the final round of games of 2013. UT defeated Troy, 103-64, on Saturday, and welcomes Tennessee State (3-7) to Thompson-Boling Arena on Tuesday (7 p.m./UTSports.com) before hitting the West Coast to take on No. 6/4 Stanford on Saturday (8-1).
Despite a 103-64 triumph against the Trojans on Saturday, the Lady Vols gave up 28 turnovers. Sophomore Bashaara Graves stressed the need to slow down and make good passes in order to combat the high turnovers.
"We definitely need to slow down," Graves said. "We're just going too fast, trying to get the first pass and that's where we get the turnovers."
"We want to be under 14 [turnovers]," assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. "We are too high in that area. You know that last game was atrocious in terms of our turnovers. Again, the types of turnovers are the thing you have to look at. Numbers are one thing, and obviously those numbers were too high, but you are going to get over-the-back fouls and charges when you are playing an aggressive team. Even playing fast, there will be a few balls that get thrown away. But when you have walking calls and decision calls as far as being sloppy with the ball, not taking care of the ball, or forcing passes, those are the things we have to clean up. We have to."
Prior to the game against Troy, the most turnovers Tennessee had committed in a game this season was 24 against North Carolina on Nov. 11. Lockwood attributes many of the Lady Vols' turnovers to poor decision-making and pass choices.
"One of my old coaches used to say, what is the best pass in basketball? Everyone would pause and guess bounce pass, chest pass, one hand pass. He would say no, the pass that gets there. I think that is the thing we really have to look at, is making simple, sound, safe passes, as opposed to trying to thread needles and make passes that will be spectacular passes. We don't need spectacular passes, we just need passes that move the ball or move people, and if they are simple, the more effective they can be for us. So that's the thing, decision making and fundamentals."
Tennessee faces Tennessee State Tuesday night with the final tilt of a three-game home stand. Although the Tigers are unranked with a 3-7 record, Coach Lockwood emphasizes how the Lady Vols approach each game the same, with the process to prepare exactly the same.
"We respect every game and the process going into every game," Lockwood said. "So while we look at it and say Tennessee State may not be exactly like a Stanford, the process to prepare is exactly the same. So we are going to focus on Tennessee State personnel. We are going to focus on Tennessee State systems and how we are going to defend them and disrupt them and take them out of their things. But yes, we also talk about the building process, saying we have to build and we have to keep getting better because our schedule demands it."
UT looks to improve to a 10-0 start for the first time since the 2007-08 season, but will need to concentrate on fundamentals to get there.
"Tennessee State is a good team," Graves said. "I know a little bit about them just from being around the area. They're a fast-paced team. We want to play faster than they play."
"We want to be able to play in transition," Lockwood said. "We want to push the ball. We have done that, but we don't think we've done that consistently. So that's a big thing. I think defensively we want to lock some things down; how we are defending ball screens, that is an area where we have been good and we have been okay. We want to do a lot better in that area, and I think just overall we want to get a consistent performance from start to finish. We want to come out strong and stay strong for 40 minutes. As you all know, that has been an up and down thing for part of our play."
With just 10 players on the 2013-14 roster, the coaching staff has utilized a number of combinations on the hardwood though the first nine games.
"The thing we like about this team is the flexibility," Lockwood said. "It allows us to play in a variety of ways. We can play small. We can play big. We can play athletic. We can play more power. It gives us flexibility. Holly [Warlick] has told this team a number of times she is much less concerned about who is in the starting lineup and who calls them a "quote, unquote" starter than she is about how we operate together and at key points in games. I think we do want a functioning unit, but to say we are going to lock into one group, with this team, that may break that mold a little bit."
Lockwood says he likes mixing up the combinations because he feels all 10 players can contribute in various capacities in whatever they are called on to do.
Graves knows the competition in the weeks to come will show the Lady Vols where they may stand come SEC time.
"We can get a lot better," Graves said. "I can't wait to see exactly where we are playing against these ranked teams coming up. We always say our defense can get a lot better. We've seen our team be good but it still hasn't been as great as it could be."
Lockwood is happy with the team's early-season success but stresses the importance of taking it one day at a time and not getting caught looking ahead.
"It's hard, because we look at North Carolina, Texas, Georgia Tech, and Middle (Tennessee) as being teams that we think are good teams, teams that will contend to be good in their conference, and teams that will contend for post-season play. But then we have taken care of some teams that we quite frankly should have taken care of. So I think right now, we are looking forward to a good test and certainly that is coming. Our players know how important it is to keep improving. They know that you can't take it and look at next week or two weeks from now or even the SEC season; we have to take it a day at a time. I think that is the big thing right now, to take advantage of every practice day that we have, and then the games that are coming up in our schedule. I think the team chemistry; I think they feel good about themselves. There is a kind of quiet confidence that is growing, which is nice to see."
Last season, the Lady Vols fell to Stanford at home, 73-60. In order to defeat the No. 6/4 Cardinal, UT will have to stop Stanford's leader, Chiney Ogwumike, who gave the Big Orange some trouble in the previous meeting.
"We came into the game last year not prepared mentally," Graves said. "I think a lot of us were focused on going home and not on the game. Chiney (Ogwumike) came out and had a very good game against us. We didn't box her out as well as we should've, and we let the shooters get off too. We have to do a better job of that."
Tennessee has only faced one ranked opponent thus far in the season, although five other teams have received votes in the polls. The Orange & White knows in order to return to Rocky Top with a win from Palo Alto, the team will have to up its energy and its rebounding.
"We definitely need to continue working on rebounding," Graves said. "Stanford is a very good rebounding team. The way we've been rebounding lately, we can't let them get offensive boards."
Stanford has a nearly unblemished record, sitting at 8-1 overall with the team's lone loss being against Connecticut.
"I think they're an outstanding team, an outstanding program," Lockwood said. "In terms of their body of work- very impressive. Chiney Oqwumike- candidate for Player of the Year, clearly a kid who is one of the best players in the country, and has been for the last two to three years. I think those things have certainly been a good edge for them. They have a great player, a strong cast around them. They're very well coached, and they have had a high level of success that they have attained over a consistent period of time. They haven't just flashed up and done it once or twice."