NET looks good for Lady Vols; ball in net looks better

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

Tennessee women’s basketball enters the holiday break with a 7-6 record, which is not what the team wanted or fans expected. Despite six losses, the Lady Vols have a NET ranking of No. 23. What is NET and why should you care?

The basic definition of NET is NCAA Evaluation Tool. The complicated answer is here for anyone who wants the nitty gritty – but without the actual formula, which the NCAA considers proprietary. The simplest explanation for the NET comes from the NCAA, which states it is “determined by who you played, where you played, how efficiently you played and the result of the game.”

It’s the “who you played part” that helps Tennessee. All six losses are to top 25 teams as ranked by media and coaches with a combined 66-5 record. Three of the opponents are ranked second, third and fourth in the country. The Lady Vols have tumbled out of those top 25 polls like a skinny Santa going down a chimney, but if the NCAA tourney were held today, Tennessee would be in the bracket thanks to NET, a rather apropos acronym for basketball.

On Sunday, the last game before a week-long break for Christmas, Tennessee lost 77-70 to No. 2 Stanford in Palo Alto, California. The loss is not unusual. While Tennessee leads the overall series – which dates to 1988, at 25-13, the Lady Vols have won just twice in 17 years on Stanford’s home court in 2005 and 2017. Neither win came easy.

But the loss cut deep because Tennessee was ahead through three quarters. Over the last 10 minutes, Stanford scorched the nets while the Lady Vols struggled to score. Coach Kellie Harper summed up the loss succinctly afterwards: “We played a good game; they played a great quarter.”

For 30 minutes, Tennessee was in position to upset the Cardinal and seize a signature win this season. But in the last 10 minutes the Lady Vols struggled mightily to hit shots and got doubled up by Stanford, 24-12, on the scoreboard.

Coach Tara VanDerveer summed up the win succinctly: “I’m glad the game was four quarters.”

Harper also said after the game that she wanted the ball to move more through Rickea Jackson, who scored eight consecutive points when she entered in the third quarter. But Tennessee got out of sorts, forced some quick shots, and Stanford pounced.

Rickea Jackson lofts a shot against Stanford. (Tennessee Athletics)

If anyone wants to read a full game story and watch the pressers, click here. This column is shorter with historical context.

Harper mentioning that the ball needed to get to a certain player can alarm some fans who interpret it as the team not listening to the head coach. But as the late Pat Summitt used to say, coaches are in charge in practice; players are in charge during the game.

Players can react instinctively to what they see in the moment as a better play or they can interpret the coach’s instructions as an option, not a directive. It’s not defiance by a player or loss of authority by a coach. It’s basketball in live action with a ticking shot clock. A coach has to clearly and quickly communicate in a 30-second timeout, and players have to listen closely.

In December 2007 at Stanford, Summitt had a plan to defend the Cardinal post players. Tennessee’s players thought they had a better way and lost the game in overtime. Summitt had a week to stew about the loss, which she said ruined her Christmas.

At the first practice after the holiday break, the players expected sound and fury. Instead, they got Summitt sitting at the scorer’s table writing notes on a legal pad and never saying a word. (This writer joked it was a grocery list.) It unnerved the players to say the least, and they constantly cast glances at Summitt, who made her point: If the players aren’t going to listen, why speak? A few months later, Tennessee – following Summitt’s game plan – beat Stanford for a national title in 2008.

Pat Summitt (UT photo)

It’s also poise and decision-making, which comes with repetitions, experience and on-court chemistry. Tennessee has used an assortment of lineups this season due to coach’s decision and injuries. The injured players are now back with one big exception. Tamari Key is out for the season because of blood clots in her lungs.

The senior center is 6-6 and, as Harper said, the Lady Vols don’t have players who can suddenly grow. She meant it literally. Figuratively, the sophomores filling in now for Key have to grow on the job.

Tennessee does seem to have solved one vexing issue so far – turnovers. Over the last three games, the Lady Vols have turned loose of the ball nine, six and five times and set a program record for three consecutive games of turnovers in single digits.

For reference, 12-15 turnovers is considered manageable. Single digit turnovers are not that common because they come in a multitude of ways – travel, mishandled or bad pass, losing ball out of bounds, charge, illegal screen, backcourt violation, shot clock violation, five-second call, double dribble, steal, well, you get the idea. Turnovers can add up in a hurry.

The turnovers, or lack thereof, did lead to a first question for Harper that mentioned the “metrics” of five turnovers should mean a win, so how does she explain a loss? (We don’t use the word “metrics” back home in the post-game pressers.)

“Well, we only shot 19 percent in the fourth quarter,” Harper said sardonically. “Turning the ball over, missing shots, there’s no difference, you’re coming up empty.”

While I adore my media colleagues, we sometimes ask strange questions. If one team shoots 53 percent as Stanford did in that last quarter, and the other shoots 19 percent as Tennessee did, the only metric that counts is the scoreboard.

Back to NET, while Tennessee has by no means torpedoed itself for postseason, conference play gets started Dec. 29 at Florida, followed by Alabama in Knoxville on Jan. 1.

The Lady Vols showed what they could do at Stanford. It’s time to do it in the SEC.

Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at Moxley Carmichael since 2013, started her journalism career at the Knoxville News Sentinel and began writing about the Lady Vols in 1998. In 2016, she published her first book, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt,” through The University of Tennessee Press.


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