Posted: 2:08 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014
By Chris Pendley
On Meighan Simmons' struggles in big games and if there's anything to be done about it.
First, the pre-script: Meighan Simmons went 5-18 against Stanford on the 21st. 5-18 is not good by any metric; for a volume shooter such as Simmons, marks like that can be death for a team's changes. With that in mind - and with Tennessee's, erm, spotty record against elite opponents, I - thanks to the massive stat repository at wbbstate.com - decided to do some research on her performances in other big games.
I went through Simmons' 2011-12, 2012-13, and 2013-14 box scores at first pass - i.e., when she was a regular starter. I wasn't looking for too much - just total shots attempted based on what I remember as big games, so it isn't a fine metric. I ended up getting a total of 32 games across the seasons, and I was less concerned about 2-pointers vs. 3-pointers for reasons that will become obvious shortly. If you can't wait until that, then here: it doesn't matter.
Any Simmons fans who made it past the first two paragraphs, now would be a good time to close the tab.
Still here? Well then, let's get to the data.
So based on that group of 32 games, what games had positive performances? I've highlighted all the games where Simmons averaged more than 1.2 points per shot attempt and italicized ones between 1.1 and 1.2 points per attempt. The total? 9 games over 1.2 points per attempt, which turns into 10 games over 1.1 points per shot attempt.
For a professed gunner, that simply isn't good enough. Hoping for a 1-in-3 chance that Simmons won't be an utter offensive drain isn't great for team fortune. Now, with that being said the Lady Vols can overcome off shooting days in big games, otherwise they'd be worse than their 17-15 record in these games. However, it shouldn't be a question of "can the Lady Vols handle the likely bad shooting night from Simmons?" as much as it should be "how do they mitigate the bad shooting night from Simmons?" with the hopeful understanding that if she turns in a plus performance, so much the better.
What about coming off the bench - i.e., reduced offensive pressure? Well, the closest comparison we have to that is her freshman season.
Now we're talking! Lookit all that bold, and lookit that average points/attempt on the season. For the record, all those totals were better than her point totals on the season. What was different? Well, she had a bunch of offensive help - remember that Angie Bjorklund was at full tilt and a key offensive contributor. A combination of not being the key offensive focus and strong surrounding players helped.
So with the options looking like either struggle or succeed, it becomes a question of how to help her. Simmons is at her most effective with help among the guards and a strong interior game. Well, that second point can get checked with a fierceness on this team, so what about the guard play? That looks like a combination of Andraya Carter and Ariel Massengale, basically.
Of the two, I'd take Massengale in a heartbeat (who's making A Leap, which we'll cover in more detail if we have time but in the meantime ...yeah, she is). Carter's good but doesn't quite have the touch required to take pressure off Simmons, but Massengale does. That, coupled with a strong interior game, should be enough in theory. Also, for intents and purposes, interior game is assuming some combination of Isabelle Harrison, Bashaara Graves, Mercedes Russell, and Cierra Burdick playing at the 4/5.
The problems with this? Well, there's a hole at small forward and there's a mental process change. Remember early in the season when it was obvious the shots that Cierra Burdick was forced into were just low-percentage? It's a similar thing here: opponents are more scared of Simmons than they should be based on recent performance, so move her down to a third or fourth option. Tennessee's high/low game in the post is elite and Massengale can create her own shot; Simmons can excel as a spot-up or open driver, but not when she thinks she has to make her own shot.
It's a subtle, but necessary distinction. The margin between the Elite Eight, Final Four, and national champions is made by those distinctions, and the problems with Simmons' game appear to lie between her ears. Relax, accept and let the talent around Simmons dominate, and the points - and, more importantly - efficiency will come.
I hope. Because at this point, I'm out of ideas if that doesn't work.