It’s a little weird to look at the play of the Tennessee Lady Vols the past two weeks and be excited. They have lost three out of four games and suffered a sweep at the hands of one SEC opponent. Their record has gone from 12-3 and 6-1 in the SEC to 13-6 and 7-4 in the SEC with no shot at the regular season championship.
Despite all of that, though, there is cause for excitement on Rocky Top. Kellie Harper’s program still managed to move up one spot in the AP Poll to No. 20 this week while remaining No. 21 in the Coaches Poll. They are No. 15 in the NCAA NET Rankings.
So what’s driving all this? Why would there be so much excitement behind a Tennessee Lady Vols program that took being in the top five for granted in the past? Well, it’s because amidst these losses, the improvement was clear.
All three losses were to ranked teams on the road. The only one in which UT wasn’t within one possession in the last 90 seconds of the game was at the Kentucky Wildcats, and Rennia Davis was out that game anyway.
Most importantly, though, hidden in those three losses in four games was Kellie Harper’s program scoring a huge win over the South Carolina Gamecocks, currently ranked No. 5 in the AP Poll and No. 6 in the Coaches Poll. That was the biggest win for UT by far in the Harper era.
Now, one look at the schedule shows Rocky Top is on its way back. As she wraps up her second year, Harper has still not yet lost to a team either ranked in the top 25 or that crossed the 20-win mark. This year, all six teams to beat UT are currently in the top 25. Meanwhile, they have four top 25 wins now.
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For a program that consistently had bad losses its final three years under Holly Warlick and then failed to beat any elite teams its first year under Harper, this is a sign of incredible growth. As a result, beating South Carolina made this run a success. UT now has the No. 4 ranked strength of schedule in the RealTime RPI, pushing it to No. 16 in that poll.
The bracketology projections for the Tennessee Lady Vols look even better. Charli Creme of ESPN has them as a No. 3 seed facing the No. 14 seed Maine Black Bears in the first round and in a season-opening bracket with the No. 6 seed Gonzaga Bulldogs and No. 11 seed Oregon State Beavers. South Carolina was the No. 1 seed in their region.
College Sports Madness, meanwhile, has them as a No. 4 seed facing the No. 13 Bucknell Bison in the first round and in a season-opening bracket with the No. 5 seed South Florida Bulls and No. 12 seed Colorado State Rams. The Louisville Cardinals were the No. 1 seed in their region.
In addition to bracketologists being high on this team, Rennia Davis was recognized again. She earned SEC Player of the Week, despite UT’s close loss Sunday to the Georgia Bulldogs, after scoring 20 points last week in both games against USC and UGA, averaging 23 points and nine rebounds overall.
Simply put, the program continue to emerge with its consistency and now its ability to score big wins. This week, after a brutal stretch, they finally get two breathers with the Missouri Tigers on the road Thursday and the Auburn Tigers at home Sunday.
Now, the Tennessee Lady Vols obviously don’t want to have their first bad loss ever under Harper this week, so there is still some pressure, but with that stretch behind them and a solid run, they have a lot to be excited about. And that comes despite the recent skid.