KNOXVILLE – Before departing last Sunday, Chris Gobrecht left a specific impression of Tennessee and some advice for the Lady Vols to consider.
“They could be an exceptionally good defensive team,” Air Force’s coach said, “and I really think that is what they need to hang their hat on. … I really hope they buy into that.”
Gobrecht, who has 40 years of women’s basketball coaching experience, based her defensive assessment on Tennessee’s size and athleticism. The advice also considered her opinion of the Lady Vols’ offensive potential, which wasn’t as flattering.
“I think they have enough offensive firepower,” she said. “But I don’t think it is exceptional.”
Texas will test Gobrecht’s estimation when the Longhorns visit Thompson-Boling Arena on Sunday (TV: ESPN2, 2 p.m.). The game is part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge and Tennessee fans are being encouraged by the university to wear orange to mark the occasion.
Texas’ 4-4 record notwithstanding, the Longhorns have uncommon size and athleticism in post players Joyner Holmes and Charli Collier, who stand 6-foot-3 and 6-5 respectively. They combine to average nearly 34 points and 21 rebounds per game.
The Texas duo will present a fresh challenge for the Lady Vols (7-0), who are ranked as high as No. 17 nationally but have an RPI of 163 because of a relatively weak schedule to date. Notre Dame was missing center Mikayla Vaughn because of injury when Tennessee visited South Bend, Ind., on Nov. 11 and the Lady Vols had their way around the basket in achieving their most significant win so far, 74-63.
They had a big advantage – pun intended – against Air Force as well. Gobrecht, who had coached against Tennessee teams while at Southern California, was stunned by this team’s size and said, “We have played against Oregon, we have played against Arizona State, we have played against really good teams, but we have never seen that much size. It was just one big kid after another coming into the game.”
Tennessee’s size was a factor in Air Force shooting 29.6 percent from the floor and committing 22 turnovers in losing 81-54. But the smaller Falcons outhustled the Lady Vols for rebounds and scored a huge upset regarding that statistic with a 40-39 edge.
Harper addressed the situation immediately afterward and was harping on the subject at practice on Friday. Beforehand, she spoke of a competitive quality as it pertained to defense. But it’s likely applicable to rebounding as well.
“To me, the area we have to grow in is just a little bit of raw toughness that you have to have to be a great defensive team,” she said.
Harper believes the quality takes time to nurture. She intends for UT’s defense to progress in similar fashion.
“As a coach, I have really stayed vanilla throughout November, December and a little bit into January consistently,” she said. “I think this team needs constant work on the basics and we stick with that.
“We stick with the halfcourt man (alignment) a lot because I think that’s going to be who we are the majority of the time. We still have some things we’re adding, putting in.”
Harper went on to say that she’s a “firm believer” in adding strategy on all fronts throughout the season.
So it sounds like exceptional defense will be an ongoing project. Aspiring to that standard, at least for now, likely will involve fundamentals and toughness as much as anything.
* * *
Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri who covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1988-2019. He may be reached at email@example.com