BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Tennessee started last season 18-1, beating five top 25 teams and an abundance of power five programs before stumbling to a 5-6 record to close the regular season.
Injuries affected the Lady Vols from the first half of the season open before becoming overbearing in SEC play. Still, Tennessee got the ship back on track in the postseason, returning to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2016.
“Last year there were a few moments where I let myself daydream about what might have been had we not had the injuries that we had,” fourth-year coach Kellie Harper said. “I do think the adversity that we faced challenged us as a team and as a program individually to be better.”
Now, with an abundance of top contributors back and the Lady Vols entering the season healthy, outside expectations are for Tennessee to be the team it was in the first 19 games a season ago.
The SEC’s media picked Tennessee to finish second in the preseason and three Lady Vols landed on the five player preseason All-SEC First Team.
The national expectations are just as high as the regional expectations with Tennessee landing at No. 5 in the preseason AP Poll.
“There’s a lot of noise and a lot of pressure around college basketball,” preseason All-SEC First Team selection Tamari Key said. “To be at Tennessee, that’s just something that comes with it.”
A major reason for the preseason hype is Tennessee’s four-player transfer class. ESPN ranked the group as the nation’s best transfer class and the newcomers address a number of Tennessee’s needs.
“We’ve meshed like we’ve known each other for forever,” Key said of the six total newcomers and returning players.
Mississippi State transfer wing Rickea Jackson is the most anticipated transfer after starring for the Bulldogs the last three seasons. The 6-foot-3 Jackson brings an incredibly diverse skillset to Knoxville.
“Rickea Jackson is super talented,” Harper said. “She has great athleticism, great size, ability to handle the basketball, shoot the basketball, get to the rim, defend, rebound. She’s very skilled in that athletic package. She’s also very competitive and she’s been very coachable.”
“She knows how to score and get players in position to score,” Key said of Jackson.
Above all else, Jackson brings scoring to a Tennessee team that struggled to score consistently a season ago. Jackson averaged 20.3 points on 40% shooting from the field in 15 games last season.
That should provide a major boost to an offense that ranked eighth in the SEC in scoring last year.
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The new talent on its own would be enough for excitement but its mix with returning players give this team championship aspirations.
Tennessee returns three of its top five scorers from a season ago and its leading scorer Jordan Horston. Horston missed the final six weeks of last season due to injury and brings excitement and veteran leadership to this season’s team.
“I would say (there’s) a sense of excitement,” Horston said. “Having to sit for so long, and I love the game of basketball. I hate sitting out but I just take it one day at a time, do what I am supposed to do and everything is going to fall into place.”
There’s also Key, who’s already the program’s all time block leader and one of the best defenders in the SEC. Former Western Michigan transfer guard Jordan Walker is back for a fifth college season after averaging 7.6 points and 4.1 rebounds a season ago.
The three seniors — Horston, Key, Walker — have all played an abundance of college basketball with the SEC having battle tested them.
“I think experience is a great teacher to help leaders,” Harper said. “They are by default going to be leaders because of their experience. But they have grown with their understanding of what their voice is. Understanding how important their voice is. … They step on the court more confident, not only as leaders but as basketball players as well.”
Last season, injuries thrust an abundance of young players into larger roles as the season progressed.
Sara Puckett and Brooklynn Miles lead the way for a sophomore group that flashed at times a season ago. If last season created “what ifs”, it also provided early development and depth for this season’s team.
“We went through a lot of adversity last year and showed that we still can persevere through it,” Horston said. “We had some young players step up when people went down that allowed them to get their feet wet early. Now they’re even better. It helped us all, tremendously.”
Harper called her fourth team’s depth one of its greatest strengths. It’s one that should allow Tennessee to play the attacking defense that makes them as stingy as anyone in the conference.
Tennessee opens its 2022-23 season on Nov. 8 at Ohio State, one of nine power six matchups the Lady Vols have in non conference play.