No. 9 Tennessee (13-3, 4-0) takes on Auburn (13-4, 2-2) at 9 p.m. Eastern (TV: CSS) at Auburn Arena. The Tigers are 9-0 at home this season, and the Lady Vols have had a perfect start in the SEC.
One reason for the early success in the league is the improved play of point guard Ariel Massengale as the sophomore makes her second tour through the SEC.
Massengale ran the team through its shell offenses during a recent practice, and while that is standard for a point guard, one thing is different this season.
The sophomore is much more vocal.
That is both a function of maturity and confidence but also another important factor. Massengale has spent a year in the strength and conditioning program. Not only is her health better - last season she had a concussion and serious hand injury - but so is her stamina.
"First thing is your conditioning level is a huge part of that," Assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. "You can have all the will and desire in the world, but you've also got to be in great shape. She came in in better physical shape. She committed some of her summer to conditioning, so that helped.
"And, now, day in and day out, she's got to understand that she is the keeper of the tempo. She's got her hands on the speed shift, and when we want to go, she's got to be the one initially that is really getting us going.
"I think she likes playing like that. I think she is comfortable doing it. But now it's a matter, too, for her of just knowing, ‘I've got to keep that pace up, first five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, I can't relent.' "
That was Lockwood speaking early this season. At that time Massengale had help because of the ascendant play of freshman Andraya Carter. But Carter had season-ending shoulder surgery in mid-December, and Massengale now has to log extensive minutes.
So, how has the second-year guard handled the extra workload in terms of still pushing the pace?
"She's been absolutely great," Lockwood said. "She is assuming more of a leadership role, her being vocal has been very, very good, but in terms of the pure mechanics of playing, she has done a very good job. She has pushed tempo.
"There have been a couple of games where Holly has had to say, or Kyra or Jolette, who coach the guards a little bit more, they've had to get up into her, but she has done a great job of being receptive and trying to transfer that and do what we've asked her to do.
"Ariel is very smart. She is very, very smart as a person and as a basketball player. When she had Draya there was a certain comfort level knowing, ‘I had somebody else,' but at the same time when you know you're the adult in the house, you're the only one so to speak, you mature quickly.
"I think that's what we've seen in her. She's matured even a little bit more since Andraya's injury and she's embraced the responsibility now that is hers of being the primary point guard."
Massengale's responsibilities have been raised, along with her workload, but so far the sophomore has handled it. She did so in high school and AAU but college basketball - and especially Tennessee's tough non-conference schedule and the weekly rigors of the SEC - is a formidable challenge, especially for a point guard.
"I am fine," Massengale said. "I think it is something that I have done all of my career. It is something that you prepare for, and it is something that I have to do for this team to be successful. My teammates know and my coaching staff know that I am going to do whatever it takes for us to be the best that we can be.
"Coach Warlick does a good job. She pushes us, she makes sure that we're still in shape, and we get out conditioning in but also she knows there are days when we need to rest our legs and get ready for the next game.
"It's just a mental thing, so I know that is what I have to do. Therefore, you just got out there and get it done."
When watching Massengale on the court it is easy to forget she is just a sophomore because she has command of the team. The coaches regard her as a senior in terms of expectations.
"I can honestly say when we talk about Ariel we think of someone that works here," Lockwood said. "We don't think of her as a sophomore."
The Lady Vols are 4-0 in the SEC, with two wins on the road and two at home. After taking on Auburn tonight, Tennessee returns home to host Alabama before heading back on the road to face Vanderbilt. It is an ideal start for a young team, especially when the sophomore point guard has to be regarded as a longtime campus employee.
"We feel very fortunate," Massengale said. "This is a tough league, and I think we've done a great job of just taking it one game at a time. We never overlook an opponent. We focus on one."
The Lady Vols very much remain a work in progress, as sophomores have been asked to play major roles, as have freshmen.
"I think this team is coming together, and we're learning how to play together, and everyone is gaining more confidence," Massengale said. "Bashaara Graves is doing incredibly well. Jasmine Jones is giving us great minutes lately, and Kamiko Williams has been consistent. Taber Spani has been shooting the ball well.
"Everybody is just coming into their own, and we're playing well at the right time of the season."
Tennessee coach Holly Warlick is expected to start: Ariel Massengale, 5-6 sophomore guard, No. 5, hails from Bolingbrook, Ill. (8.6 points per game, 2.6 rebounds per game, 4.1 assists per game); Meighan Simmons, 5-9 junior guard, No. 10, hails from Cibolo, Texas (16.6 ppg, 3.2 rpg); Taber Spani, 6-1 senior forward, No. 13, hails from Lee's Summit, Mo. (8.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg); Bashaara Graves, 6-2 freshman forward, No. 12, hails from Clarksville, Tenn. (14.6 ppg, 8.8 rpg); and Isabelle Harrison, 6-3 sophomore forward, No. 20, hails from Nashville, Tenn. (10.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 2.5 blocks per game).
Auburn coach Terri Williams-Flournoy is expected to start: Najat Ouardad, 5-1 senior guard, No. 3 (5.1 ppg, 7.2 apg), hails from Orleans, France, tallied 14 assists against Ole Miss; Hasina Muhammad, 6-1 sophomore guard, No. 00 (17.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg), hails from Memphis, Tenn., scored career-high 24 points against Missouri; Tyrese Tanner, 6-1 junior guard, No. 32 (13.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg), hails from Birmingham, Ala., scored 15 points in win over Arkansas, tallied career-high 26 points this season against N.C. State; Blanche Alverson, 6-3 senior forward, No. 14 (12.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg), hails from Andalusia, Ala., went over 1,000 points for her career against Ole Miss, 2012 SEC Women's Basketball Scholar-Athlete of the Year; and Peyton Davis, 6-5 junior center, No. 34 (6.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg), hails from Pinson, Ala., grabbed 17 rebounds against Arkansas this season.
"They have a really good point guard who is quick and athletic, Meighan Simmons is a quick athletic wing that can score at will, and they have great post players," Williams-Flournoy said. "It is your typical Tennessee team: they are quick, athletic, rebound well, they press."
BIG CITY TO THE PLAINS: Terri Williams-Flournoy has shifted from Washington, D.C., to Auburn, Ala., a major change of venue to say the least.
The slower pace of the Alabama college town was part of the appeal in taking the job with the Tigers. Williams-Flournoy said she wanted a smaller community to raise her family than the nation's capital.
She especially likes the mere minutes it takes to commute to campus and back home compared to the trek to Georgetown on the clogged beltway roadways.
"If it rained, add another hour," the coach said. "If it snowed, stay at school. If there was an accident, cry."
HOT, HUMID, HAPPY: The O'Connell Center, home of the Florida Gators basketball team, can sometimes swamp opponents because it also houses the swimming facility, creating somewhat humid conditions.
Ariel Massengale played there for the first time in her career last weekend and loved it.
"It was hot," Massengale said. "It was extremely hot in there. But it actually felt good. Playing in hot gyms reminds you of your AAU days where you get a really, really good sweat going. You get nice and loose. You just feel good when you're out there playing."
The jerseys of Massengale and her teammates were drenched by halftime, so much so that the orange road hue looked darker on some of them.
"Taber and I were a completely different color of orange before the game was over," Massengale said.
Massengale also was good to go the next morning, despite logging 42 minutes in the overtime win.
"I actually felt good," Massengale. "I woke up Monday morning feeling better playing 40-plus minutes than I would on a Monday where I just played 28, 29, 30."
The game tipped off at 11:30 a.m., so the Lady Vols, who traveled by charter flight, were back to Tennessee before dark.
"I don't know if it was because we got back early, I got to rest Sunday afternoon, and Monday I didn't have class until 10 o'clock or what the case was, but I actually felt better waking up Monday," she said.
Massengale did sit out the last two minutes of the game after taking a blow across the face. Kamiko Williams handled point duties - and hit the front end of a one-and-one to give the Lady Vols the lead in the closing seconds - while Massengale, who had a mark under her eye later, recovered on the bench.
"I took an elbow right underneath my eye," Massengale said. "I was fine, just shaken up a little bit. The coaches took me out to make sure I was OK and everything was good.
"We had a great group in at the end of the game that was getting stuff done so therefore I didn't have to go back in."
THE BEAST RISES: Tennessee already is down two players with Andraya Carter done for the season (shoulder surgery) and Cierra Burdick healing a broken right hand (projected to return in early February).
So the relief was palpable Sunday when Bashaara Graves sat up and walked off the court on her own after being struck in the neck during a collision with Kamiko Williams while trying to secure a loose ball.
Graves managed to tie up the ball - and give possession to Tennessee - and then crumpled face down on the court.
"I was very relieved," Ariel Massengale said.
The Tennessee players gathered during the stop in play with Holly Warlick to set up the next offensive possession, but their eyes were on Graves.
"It was so hard because we just kept looking at her when she was on the court and Holly was trying to tell us the play that we were going to go out there and run and coach Elzy and coach Law just kept telling us, ‘She is going to be fine. She is going to get up,' " Massengale said.
"We were going to go out there and play that game for her, but she got up and was OK."
Graves did just that and hit the free throw that tied the game in regulation and sent it into overtime. Graves is shooting 82.1 percent from the free throw line in SEC play.
LATE TIP: The Lady Vols are going from a late morning tip at Florida to a late evening one at Auburn.
School has resumed so that means the players will fly to Knoxville after Thursday's game and be in class on time the next morning, a common scenario in the SEC for weekday road games.
"It is never easy to get back in a routine of school, but I am aware of what it is second semester with the travel schedule," Massengale said. "I am trying to get myself prepared mentally."
ON TAP: Eight of the league's 14 teams are in action this evening. The other three matchups are: LSU at South Carolina; Mississippi State at Kentucky; and Georgia at Arkansas.
The six teams with byes are Alabama, Florida, Missouri, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt.
Tennessee leads the series with Auburn, 36-10 . The Lady Vols are 12-4 on the road against the Tigers. Auburn's last win at home was in 2009. … The last time Tennessee saw Terri Williams-Flournoy, the game ended in a loss for the Lady Vols. Williams-Flournoy, who is in her first season at Auburn, was previously at Georgetown. The Hoyas defeated Tennessee, 69-58, in the 2010 Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands in the first meeting of the programs. "They are really not that much different at all," Williams-Flournoy said. "You have different personnel and people in different positions but other than that there style of play and the way they play is pretty much the same." … The Lady Vols are rejecting a league-leading 6.5 shots per game in SEC play. Isabelle Harrison ranks second in the SEC at 2.5 blocks per game. She has 37 blocks on the season. … Three high school teammates will be on the court at Auburn Arena - two Lady Vols and one Tiger. Tennessee's Ariel Massengale and Nia Moore and Auburn's Cabriana Capers all graduated from Bolingbrook High School in Illinois. Moore and Capers are both college freshmen and graduated together while Massengale is a sophomore.