How to watch:
Where: Thompson-Boling Arena, Knoxville, TN
When: 7 p.m.
Radio: UConn IMG Sports Network
Record: 9-2 (3-1 SEC)
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Head coach: Kellie Harper (second season)
After COVID-19 forced the cancellation of its first three marquee matchups this season, UConn women’s basketball will finally get a big non-conference game under their belt on Thursday night against the No. 25 Tennessee Volunteers. Currently, the Volunteers sit at 9-2 on the season with quality wins at Indiana and against Arkansas on their resume.
While Tennessee is ranked lower than No. 18 DePaul, who the Huskies already completed half of their home-and-home series schedule against, Auriemma has beating Doug Bruno’s squad down to a science at this point. But Tennessee brings a challenge as a less familiar opponent, making the Volunteers the toughest test UConn has faced thus far the season.
In last year’s game, UConn needed to contain Rennia Davis to secure the win and this matchup will be no different. Davis is better than ever as she continues to score the ball in a variety of ways and is expected to be a first round draft pick in 2021. Davis also leads the team in rebounds and is who Tennessee will rely on to contend for a win.
Containing Davis is key but it won’t be the only task for UConn’s defense. Junior Rae Burrell has taken the lead scorer title from Davis, averaging 16.7 points per game. The 6-foot-2 forward also has a wide offensive range — she can score inside but also leads the team in three point field goal percentage at a clip of over 43 percent from beyond the arc.
Overall, Tennessee isn’t a great three point shooting team — only Burrell averages more than one make from beyond the arc per game. The team shoots just under 32 percent from deep and will mostly look to use its size to score inside and get the edge on the boards.
For UConn, the biggest storyline heading into this game is, of course, Evina Westbrook’s return to Knoxville. The junior guard played the first two seasons of her career with the Volunteers before transferring to UConn in the summer of 2019. Westbrook missed last year’s home matchup after NCAA rules forced her to sit out the season, so Thursday’s game will be her first against her former team.
After Tuesday’s game against Butler, SNY asked Westbrook about returning to Rocky Top, who said she’ll be heading back with the best support system — her current teammates.
Westbrook is coming off of a strong performance against Butler where she scored 14 points on 6-7 shooting from the floor. Even more impressive was her intensity on the defensive end, which included a team-high three blocks. The Huskies will look for her to bring that intensity and edge against Tennessee.
The other item to keep an eye on is the Volunteers’ size. All but two players stand 6 feet or taller. UConn — and Olivia Nelson-Ododa in particular — will finally get a much-needed test in the paint, something the Big East hasn’t been able to offer. The most important aspect of this game, other than securing the win, is seeing how Nelson-Ododa steps up to that challenge.
The junior has been consistently excellent this season (excluding the season opener and Providence game). She ranks fifth nationally in Win Shares per 40 minutes, is shooting an impressive 65.7 percent from the floor and ranks in the top ten percent for virtually every statistical category, per Her Hoop Stats. Whether she can perform at or near her season level against a good team with size will tell us a lot about where Nelson-Ododa stands.
If Nelson-Ododa struggles, Tennessee’s size could be problematic for the Huskies. But ultimately, UConn has enough weapons to secure the win without her, but it’ll have to fight a lot harder for it.
Keys to the game for UConn
Can Olivia Nelson-Ododa dominate inside?: UConn will look for Nelson-Ododa to have a strong presence on both ends of the floor. Tennessee scores about 65 percent of its points from inside the arc, so if Nelson-Ododa can alter shots inside, UConn should be able to significantly disrupt the Volunteer’s offense. While the Huskies have plenty of offensive options if Nelson-Ododa has trouble on the offensive end, a dominant performance inside and on the offensive glass should get UConn a win without much trouble.
Rebounding: The Huskies have been strong on the defensive glass all season long but did give up ten offensive boards to Butler in their last game. Some of that can likely be chalked up to rust after ten days off but UConn will need to do a better job of securing Tennessee’s misses on Thursday. The Volunteers rebound 40 percent of their missed shots on the season, so the Huskies will want to hold them below that mark that to limit second chance opportunities.
Don’t settle for contested threes: Tennessee’s size will bring a challenge UConn has yet to face this season, which could disrupt the Huskies’ offense. Sometimes when the offense struggles, UConn settles for contested threes — which is even more of a problem when it’s not a great three point shooting team. The Huskies have the best field goal percentage from inside the arc in the nation (61%) and will need to find ways to navigate the Volunteers interior defense. Threes in the flow of the offense from its best shooters are certainly good but if UConn starts throwing up a lot of shots from beyond the arc without good looks, it could get itself into trouble.