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KNOXVILLE — The 22nd-ranked Tennessee women's basketball team plays Sunday for the first time in eight days with a nonconference matchup against Howard University at 2 p.m. at Thompson-Boling Arena.

After this, the Lady Volunteers (9-2) have six Southeastern Conference games before a Jan. 23 date at Connecticut. Then they finish their regular-season schedule with 10 more SEC games.

Howard's Bison are 8-4 with four straight wins.

Here are three things to watch for in the game:

1. Learning curve: There are still questions about how good this Tennessee team actually is. The Lady Vols do have a nice win at Notre Dame from early November, but the Fighting Irish have lost four of their six home games and are just 5-7 overall this season.

Tennessee's primary challenge in year one under Kellie Harper has just been constant learning and improvement. The Lady Vols followed a disappointing loss to Texas with a dominating defeat of Colorado State, and a loss at top-ranked Stanford with a big win at Portland State. The end result may not be anything resembling a championship, but the players appear to have learned how Harper wants them to play, and that's important going forward.

2. Rae follow-up: Sophomore Rae Burrell had perhaps her best game as a Lady Vol against Portland State, with 21 points and nine rebounds in just 23 minutes. Harper has noted on a number of occasions that Burrell plays with a lot of energy and the coaching staff has to let her play her style while working on improving her ability to make decisions. But she provides instant aggressiveness the moment she steps on the court, and that's something that Tennessee wants — and needs — more of.

3. Defending the perimeter: The Lady Vols should be able to have their way inside against the Bison, but Howard does sport three really good guards in seniors Ayonna Williams and Sarah Edmond and junior Jayla Thornton. All three were preseason All-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference selections and have combined to average 42.2 points per game. They all are capable 3-point shooters who can put pressure on a defense, and it will be a good challenge for the Lady Vols to figure out a way to slow them down.

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.

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