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The Scholarly Spotlight: Tennessee Lady Volunteers

The University Of Tennessee has revitalized its basketball culture, and both programs have improved in recent years. Both teams have dynamic offenses and are very polished in their execution. Dalton Knecht is the face of the men’s team and won SEC Player Of The Year in his first season at the school. Rickea Jackson is the new leader of the Lady Volunteers, and it's a significant responsibility to lead the program.

She carries the same torch that WNBA legend Candace Parker once held. Parker guided the Lady Volunteers to two NCAA titles in 2007 & 2008. Jackson has separated herself from the competition in the last two seasons, and her style of play is extraordinary. She is an aggressive scorer and great rebounder, leading the Lady Volunteers in both categories.

 In her fifth year of college basketball, she is averaging 19.4 Points and 8.0 rebounds per game, shooting 47.1% from the field. On November 9th, she recorded 31 points and 17 rebounds versus the Florida State Seminoles but suffered a lower leg injury. During her absence, the Lady Volunteers suffered double-figure losses to Middle Tennessee University, Ohio State, and Indiana University. If Jackson was healthy, they could have won those games. 

Jackson is a part of the paradigm shift in women's basketball that will occur in the WNBA due to the influx of talent in the upcoming draft classes. Her game will transcend nicely to the pros, and Scouts predict she will be a top-5 pick this summer. Jackson warmly embraced Jewell Spears after transferring from Wake Forest over the summer. Jackson related to Spears because she transferred to Tennessee from Mississippi State University in 2022. 

Spears is the second-leading scorer under Jackson, and they have grown close quickly this season. She led Wake Forest with 16.5 points per game but desired a change of scenery after multiple negative seasons. As of 2024, the Demon Deacons have a 7-25 record at the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference. She has found new life in Tennessee and prioritizes team success over individual stats. 

It's her first time experiencing success at the collegiate level, and she is one of the leading names in the box score every night. Spears, Jackson, and Sara Puckett have a tremendous offensive tandem. Puckett averages 10 points per game but has scored 15-20 on multiple occasions. She also grabs five rebounds per game, resulting from her effort and physicality. All three excel in the team system Head Coach Kellie Harper devised. Harper prioritizes chemistry and team-building exercises, leading to more court cohesion.

Harper’s track record indicates the success of her formula, and she is one of the best coaches in WCBB right now. As a former player, she is respected wherever she goes, and her history as a Lady Volunteer during her era adds to her credibility. In her junior year, the 1998 Lady Volunteers had an incredible season, finishing 39-0 and winning their third straight NCAA championship. 

These experiences are why Harper prioritizes team chemistry and cohesion. She learned from legendary coach Pat Summit, who has the most wins all-time in NCAA Division-1 basketball. From 1981 to 2012, Summit amassed an outstanding record of 923-160. Harper has utilized the same methods as her mentor, resulting in a fantastic career.

Harper’s Tennessee coaching record is 107-51, and she has made the NCAA tournament four out of five years since her employment. The Lady Volunteers have shined with her on the sideline, and with March Madness commencing, her coaching prowess will be in the spotlight. She's made the Sweet Sixteen twice but has yet to reach the Elite Eight or Final Four. 

The NCAA gauntlet will provide a test for her and the team. Destinee Wells, Jasmine Powell, and Tess Darby are key role players in their supporting cast. Wells transferred from Belmont University, where she led the Bruins in scoring for 3-years. Her average dropped from 19.5 points per game to 6.4 this season, but she can explode for 25+ points at any moment. Her sacrifice is indicative of her desire to win. Darby is one of the best 3-point shooters on the team, and she is a proven veteran in her senior year. 

Powell is a transfer similar to Spears and Jackson. She transferred from the University Of Minnesota in 2022 and conformed to Harper’s system. She has good scoring instincts and is a good playmaker, leading the team with 4.1 assists per game. All three girls are pivotal for them to make a serious run. Their tournament run is Jackson’s last chance to claim an NCAA Championship before moving on to the next chapter of her career. 

Their first match-up is the No. 11-ranked Green Bay Phoenix. Harper must gameplan for Natalie McNeal to ensure they get off to a good start. She knows the requirements to win at the highest level, and her roster has the capability. Multiple upsets have occurred in the first round, and the same result could happen to the Lady Volunteers. Jackson has played great all year, and her team will rely on her to guide them to the 2024 NCAA Championship

The program's future is bright with Harper’s guidance, and its lineage will always attract talent to Tennessee. 2024 recruit Kaniya Boyd enrolled on January 8th after graduating from high school early, and HS senior Nyla Brooks has already committed for the 2024-2025 school year. It will be exciting to see how the Jackson era ends and in 2025 when their new era begins.


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