While the Lady Vols' victory margin is 28.6 points per game in SEC play, Tennessee trailed Mississippi State at halftime in its last game, was put on its heels at South Carolina to start the game, allowed Vanderbilt to mount a late, though unsuccessful, comeback and won by single digits against LSU.
The Lady Vols have stumbled but have yet to trip, and the key going forward said junior forward Glory Johnson is to focus on the team in orange and white, not the opponent.
"We've got to forget about all that and just play our game," Johnson said. "Don't focus on other teams. Really, don't even focus on who you're playing. Focus on your game and how you're going to play and how you're going to step up each and every day."
Johnson stepped up Thursday in the absence of Kelley Cain, who was ill and missed the game, with 22 points and 18 rebounds in the win over Mississippi State. It was Johnson's first start in SEC play, and she's expected to be on the court for the opening tip again Sunday.
Cain also is scheduled to start Sunday, though the Lady Vols are still down two players – senior guard and four-year starter Angie Bjorklund (right foot injury) and freshman guard Lauren Avant, who also missed Thursday's game because of illness and didn't make the trip to Arkansas because she remains under the weather.
The Razorbacks are similar in vein to Georgetown, which beat Tennessee in the Virgin Islands last November; South Carolina, which led the Lady Vols in the first half; and Mississippi State, which led at halftime, in that they like to attack the basket on offense and swarm on defense.
The style of play can be problematic for any team as dribble penetration is tough to defend, but Coach Pat Summitt said her team had another factor in play.
"I think it's a lack of maturity on the part of our team," Summitt said. "There're been about three teams they haven't respected and (Thursday) night was one of them. (South Carolina) was pretty close."
Thursday's sluggish defensive start was partly because of the starting lineup – the senior Bjorklund was out, and she will communicate on the floor – and two sophomores and one freshman joined two juniors for the opening tip.
Of those five, Cain, a redshirt junior, is the most likely to talk, and her presence was missed Thursday. Johnson said the defensive lapses in the first half were a direct result of the silence.
"The lack of communication from the first half to the second half and the fact that we've got to trust each other," Johnson said of the lessons learned from the last game.
The Lady Vols defensive plan is to steer the ball handler into the help-side defense. In the first half, Mississippi State was either getting to the rim without the defense rotating properly or getting space for three-pointers because of screens that Tennessee didn't switch on correctly.
"A lot of the jump shots and the three-point shots would have been eliminated if we had forced whoever is driving to the bucket (area)," Johnson said. "There is help-side there, and when you trust that there's help-side there, they're not going to get an open layup.
"If you're defending your girl scared that she's going to drive on you (and back off), you forget completely that she can shoot a jump shot or she can shoot a three. So, let her pull the ball down and let her go to the baseline and let your teammates help you out. You don't have to get a foul. Just trust your teammates, and it will make it a lot easier on you."
Cain also is on the backline of the defense and can call the action occurring in front of her and behind the other defenders. That was missed Thursday.
"A whole lot," Johnson said. "Now that Kelley is back at practice we'll notice a difference. Having Kelley there is a huge presence. A lot (of opposing players) are scared to drive to the basket (with Cain in the paint) because they're going to get their shot blocked almost every time. I think a lot of (teammates) trust Kelley on that aspect. That would have helped a lot, because they would have kept forcing them to Kelley."
Patrolling the paint Thursday were Johnson, who is hesitant to go for blocks because she doesn't want to get in foul trouble, and Stricklen, a small forward doing double duty in the paint. The absence of Cain affected that trust among teammates and the Lady Vols were aware of her not being back there for help.
"I think so," Johnson said. "The guards trusted the posts a lot less I think to block shots or take charges. We trust her to block shots and they're not going to keep on taking it into the paint. I told Taber, I know that girl is getting a lot of jump shots on you, but force her all the way to the block, because Shekinna took a charge one time, I blocked a couple of shots, just keep on forcing them all the way into the help side.
"There are so many people that can help you out. She trusted that second half and you could see that she trusted it."
In the second half the Lady Vols outscored Mississippi State, 46-18, by following the defensive principles drilled by the coaches.
"Force them into the help-side and force them to the baseline," Johnson said. "When you have the baseline and you have someone helping you, and then you trap, what can they do? They have to throw it out, make a crazy pass or make a crazy shot. Just trust that your teammates are there."
The Lady Vols were lean in the post Thursday with Cain out, Vicki Baugh sidelined because of knee issues and Alyssia Brewer very limited as she returns from Achilles tendon surgery. It's a situation that can be in flux from game to game.
Having Johnson in the starting lineup should help immensely on the defensive end if one of the bigs can join her on the floor, because Johnson can guard inside or out. If a penetrating guard is causing problems early, such as Diamber Johnson was for Mississippi State, Johnson with her athleticism, speed and length, can defend on the perimeter and leave the paint for Cain or Brewer or Baugh off the bench.
"Try to invade their space," Johnson said of her approach to defense. "As a defensive player you have to determine how you want them to play, what side you want them to go on. It makes it's easier for the backline to help you.
"If you push them to the right side, everyone shifts over; all the defense shifts over to help you. If you tell them that they can only go right or they can only go left, there is no way your man is going to drive the opposite direction on you, that makes it a lot easier on yourself."
The coaches understand that opponents will find gaps in the defense and will scheme to run their offenses, but there are limits at to what Tennessee has been taught to allow.
"Every team is going to get shots but what we can impact is the quality of that shot and how many of those good shots they get," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "Occasionally things happen. But for (Mississippi State) to go 7-12 from the arc (in the first half) that to us was completely unacceptable."
The process begins with one-on-one defense. Younger players struggle with both the intensity on that side of the ball and learning the schemes – such as whether to go over or under screens and switching correctly – but essentially defense becomes sustained effort, both mental and physical.
"If one person as an individual says, ‘If my man scores on me once they're not going to score on me again,' and you're going to get in their grill and make sure they're going to have a hard time getting a shot off, then that speaks a lot about the type of person you are and how you are going to determine whether they're going to get a good shot or a bad shot," Johnson said.
"When someone scores on you once they're not going to score on you again, that's my mentality. Try as hard as you can. If they get one or two, that's OK, but make sure they're not scoring over and over and over on you. Then, they'll start taking at you. (Other teams will notice) so they're going to keep taking it to the same person."
That is also where Bjorklund was missed Thursday. She is a fundamentally sound defender and often draws the opposition's best perimeter player.
Lockwood essentially repeated what Johnson said – defending penetration requires commitment to the system and pride in one-on-one defense.
"Our ability to stay focused," Lockwood said of what can cause the team to struggle. "It starts with one-on-one defense, staying in front of somebody, hunker down we call it. And with our help situation being able to get things stopped before the knife gets too deep.
"When I do get beat, I want to clog the hole. Our goal is to keep people in front and then defend and rotate early on before the problem. We've gotten better at that."
Tennessee played its system well against Auburn, backslid against Mississippi State and will face the challenge again against Arkansas.
"This team will present a very good challenge for us," Lockwood said. "They're chasing an NCAA bid, a good seed. This will be a great challenge for our team defensively. They are a much better team than we played a year ago. Maturity and roles. They have really embraced roles.
"(C'eira) Ricketts really, to (quote) Thurman Munson, she's the straw that stirs the drink. Lyndsay Harris is a very capable scorer, can shoot the three and can drive it. Sarah Watkins has turned into a very good midrange shooter and is not afraid to go down there and do a little bit of dirty work. And then you've got (Jamesha) Townsend and (Ashley) Daniels who do the glue stuff, the offensive rebounding, the occasional dribble drive, play good defense.
"Off the bench (Keira) Peak comes in – instant offense. I think this team has found their particular niche in their roles. They're playing their roles very, very well. They play off of each other very well.
"Their identity is established. They play a 2-3 zone where they trap a lot. They're doing some man to man. I think their identity is pretty well entrenched where I thought a year ago they were still searching."
The Lady Vols also must be prepared offensively, because Arkansas will play a disruptive style of defense, much like South Carolina did. The Gamecocks beat Georgia this week to give the Lady Bulldogs their first SEC loss, and Arkansas won at LSU for the first time since 1996, stopping a 16-game losing streak to the Lady Tigers.
Lockwood said the ball handler can't panic when the pressure comes.
"We just have to be intelligent," Lockwood said. "We have to make good decisions."
In the loss to Georgetown, Lockwood said, "We were very hasty," and didn't find the gaps and the open player.
"We've been able to make some teams pay for that," Lockwood said. "That's what you want to do. When people start riverboat gambling and extending a trap, they're leaving something open and vulnerable. It comes down to our decision making and our awareness, what we see and how quickly we can recognize it."
Summitt said one way to attack that type of defense is to open up the offense.
"I think we've just got to let this team play," Summitt said. "I think we've got to give our team freedom like they have freedom."
The first place to get the ball would be the paint, especially if the defense has extended away from the basket.
"First look inside," Johnson said. "That's the easiest shot to take is a layup and if not get the foul."
If the inside is packed, get the ball in motion, she said.
"Kick it inside-out," Johnson said. "Just move the ball. If we keep moving the ball we're shifting the defense. Keep the ball moving and share the ball with each other."
Johnson, who has 936 career points, made good decisions with the ball against Mississippi State's swarming defense. She tried to draw fouls – somewhat unsuccessfully, though the contact occurred; the whistle just didn't blow – or find open teammates.
Johnson was pummeled throughout the game but kept her cool and finished the game with just one foul. The scouting report on Johnson has likely been to harass her with excessive contact until she retaliates.
"I believe it," Johnson said. "My freshman year I would have went crazy. I would have fouled out before halftime. I know that was something I struggled with my (first two years)."
Johnson was frustrated Thursday, but she tucked her elbows, kept quiet and let her stat line do the talking.
"I am more conscious of my elbows," Johnson said. "I try to keep them down as much as possible because of the new rule that they have. I can't swing through. I just turn around sometimes. I make sure I keep my elbows away from people.
"It was extremely frustrating (in Thursday's game). I didn't know what to do. I just knew that I couldn't react to it. I couldn't show them that I was going to give up on my game so I just kept trying to get fouls, and I kept trying to take it in as strong as I could. If I wasn't going to get a foul, I've got to finish strong.
"Talking to Dean I was like, ‘Dean I don't know what else to do. I am trying to get fouls here, and they're not calling them.' He was like, ‘Just go up strong.' You had to. You had to focus on, ‘OK, they're going to bump this arm. Try to take it up with the opposite arm.' "
The crowd spent a good portion of the game restless by the performance of Mississippi State in the first half and then enraged at the lack of fouls called.
"I love our crowd," Johnson said.
The fans also appreciate free food. They were in full throat for at least 80 points – Alicia Manning got them 81 with a last-second jumper – so that the ticket stub would be good for chicken tenders at Hardees the next day.
"They wanted that 80 points for that chicken so bad," Johnson said.
The fans also don't hesitate to let the players know when they liked a performance. When Johnson left the game, she got a hearty sendoff with many standing up to applaud her effort, which the fans recognize and appreciate.
"They really do," said Johnson, who laughed when asked if there were Pat Summitt-types scattered throughout the arena.
"They're everywhere," Johnson said. "With support comes criticism and that's what our fans do, and that's what we've got to accept.
"It shouldn't take halftime for us to pick up our game. We are getting a little bit closer to playing a 40-minute game. We kind of went away from it this past game, and we've got to pick it back up."
The players sometimes bring a false sense of security to the court – note Summitt's remarks that they didn't fully respect a few teams – that the coaches know they haven't earned yet.
"I told them, ‘What have you ever won?' " Summitt said. "And you're not going to win anything the way you're picking and choosing."
Lockwood added, "They are not watching the same films we are. Like my Dad always used to say, he'd shoot that look, ‘You're starting to write checks that your body can't cash, pal.' "
So, the coaches try to strike a balance between allowing the swagger to develop and reminding the players of how much work remains to be done.
"That's exactly right," Lockwood said. "You do. I remember when George Karl was with the Sonics, and they had a couple of very disappointing playoff exits and teams that beat them that they thought they were better than. One of the times afterward he said, ‘What do you do when a team during the regular season, you're beating people, what do you tell your team?'
"The danger is they get a little bit of a false sense of comfort and feel good about who they are, especially on a national level. The first prize is conference regular season championship, but our eyes are always on the national scene, and we know very, very firmly this team is not where it needs to be to be in that conversation right now.
"Sometimes you can become inebriated with success. We have to be vigilant and diligent as a coaching staff. We want them to be confident and feel good, but we don't want them to have a false sense that can lead to complacency. There is still room to grow."
The challenge will come each game, especially with that unblemished conference record, starting Sunday afternoon in Arkansas.
"There is no doubt, all the way through now," Lockwood said.
"We're Tennessee," Johnson said. "We're here for a reason, and we should be used to it. It's been that way since we got here."
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Meighan Simmons, 5'9 freshman guard, No. 10 (15.5 points per game overall, 13.3 SEC, 3.0 rebounds per game/2.9, 2.8 assists per game/3.8); Taber Spani, 6'1 sophomore guard/forward, No. 13 (8.9 ppg/8.5, 4.4 rpg/3.8, 1.4 apg/1.8); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 junior guard/forward, No. 40 (11.0 ppg/11.8, 7.6 rpg/8.9, 1.9 apg/1.4); Glory Johnson, 6'3 junior forward, No. 25 (11.2 ppg/15.0, 9.4 rpg/10.3, 1.0 blocks per game/1.8); and Kelley Cain, 6'6 redshirt junior center, No. 52 (8.3 ppg/9.1, 6.8 rpg/9.7, 2.4 blocks per game/3.6).
Arkansas Coach Tom Collen is expected to start: C'eira Ricketts, 5'9 junior guard, No. 22 (13.9 ppg/15.4, 4.9 rpg/5.3, 3.9 apg/2.9), hails from Louisville, Ky., started all 20 games this season, had 20 points, nine boards in signature win this season at LSU, tallied career-high 29 points against Vanderbilt, has 926 career points, was SEC Co-Freshman of the Year in 2009 and AP Newcomer of the Year, scored 3,113 points in high school, first player from the state of Kentucky to suit up for the Razorbacks; Lyndsay Harris, 5'9 junior guard, No. 33 (12.9 ppg/12.1, 4.1 rpg/4.8, 2.4 apg/2.3 apg), hails from Hoover, Ala., started all 20 games this season, tallied 14 points, six boards against LSU, nailed eight treys against Georgia with six coming in the second half, has connected on 59 three-pointers this season, has 941 career points, made the SEC All-Freshman Team in 2009, brother Robert played basketball for McNeese State and professionally in Europe; Jamesha Townsend, 6'2 junior forward, No. 3 (2.6 ppg/3.5, 2.6 rpg/3.1), hails from Chula Vista, Calif., has started every game this season after starting just once last season, also ran track in high school, mother Regina was all-state in track in high school in Arkansas; Ashley Daniels, 6'2 junior forward, No. 12 (8.0 ppg/5.9, 6.7 rpg/5.6), hails from Coldwater, Miss., grabbed 10 boards against LSU, two-year starter for the Razorbacks, started 19 games this season, miss one start against Georgia because of injury, ran track and competed in triple jump in high school, also played softball; and Sarah Watkins, 6'3 sophomore center, No. 4 (13.1 ppg/14.1, 5.2 rpg/4.9, 1.7 bpg/1.5), hails from Germantown, Tenn., started every game this season, had 10 points, 10 boards against LSU, blocked six shots against Kentucky, plays inside but can also step out and hit threes (13-26 this season), slowed by a back injury as a freshman but still led team in blocks with 40, also competed in golf in high school.
A key player off the bench for the Razorbacks is Keira Peak, a 5'9 freshman forward from Clyattville, Ga., who averages 8.3 points and 6.0 rebounds a game. Peak has played in all 20 games this season and is second on the team in steals with 30. Ricketts leads the way with 44 takeaways.
"Tennessee is a team that is loaded with talent," Collen said, "but if we put our five out there and they play as well as they are capable of, then we can play with them. We cannot go into the game with the mindset that they are so much better than we are.
"We want to divide the game into four-minute segments and play each of those with confidence."
SCOUTING REPORT Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Arkansas game. Here is his assessment.
When Arkansas has the ball: Lockwood said the Razorbacks make liberal use of ball screens.
"A lot of ball screens, what we call Philly screens, top of the floor," Lockwood said. "They do the horns action, which are the two screeners right at the elbows area. They will do wing ball screens. It's not like Vanderbilt, guarding two-dozen sets. It's ball screens, dribble drives.
"They're going to get some stuff with their post players where they do some horns and then they'll cross screen for the posts. It stems around dribbling. They do so much creation off the dribble and off ball screens."
Defensively, Tennessee expects to see a trapping style of pressure.
"They're going to 2-3 trap a lot," Lockwood said. "They will play some man to man. I think they will mix it up based on (what works). I think you're going to see a mixture of full court and half court trapping. You're going to see some half-court zone with traps. You're going to see some straight up man to man. I think they're going to mix that up. They're going to fish around and find what's effective."
When Tennessee has the ball: The senior Angie Bjorklund is out for this game, but the Lady Vols' offensive philosophy doesn't change.
"If we're not good enough to absorb one loss of a player and have somebody else fill in and we have to rearrange and reconfigure the whole system, we're not very good," Lockwood said. "What you're going to see us do is still play through our middle. We want to establish inside touches, but again it's the balance thing for us.
"We don't want to just live and die on any one thing. We have a balanced-scoring team, therefore we want to play using that balance. We still want to establish the inside because that is the best thing you can do to make a defense collapse. We want to do that and we want to play through that. Play inside out."
Defensively, the presence of Glory Johnson to open the game makes the Lady Vols a stouter team on that side of the ball.
"She can be a stopper," Lockwood said. "I think initially what we want to do is, especially coming off the (last) game, we want to establish just good, sound, defensive discipline. Keeping somebody in front of us. Getting our help to rotate quickly and properly. Playing with a certain level of intensity that Tennessee teams have set a standard and there is an expectation.
"We want to clean up our yard. We've got a few things that we want to do, especially how we're going to defend ball screening actions, but right now we spent most of (Friday at practice) cleaning up our yard."
ON TAP: All 12 SEC teams are in action Sunday. The other matchups are: Kentucky at Alabama; South Carolina at Auburn; Florida at Mississippi State; Georgia at LSU; and Ole Miss at Vanderbilt.
ODDS AND ENDS
Tennessee leads the series with Arkansas, 21-1. The Lady Vols record on the road is 9-1, with the loss, 77-75, coming on Dec. 29, 1996. The 2007 team needed overtime to claim a 75-68 win and keeps it SEC slate unblemished in the penultimate game of the regular season. The 2009 team won a closely contested 76-67 game in Fayetteville. … Tennessee is 6-2 in games played on January 30. The last win on this date was against Arkansas, 92-79, in 2003. The first win on January 30 was against North Carolina, 76-62, in 1982. The two losses on this date were to Maryville, 34-6, in 1920; and Alabama, 77-71, in 1980. … Five current Lady Vols have had scoring success against Arkansas. Senior Angie Bjorklund has averaged 21.3 points per game during her career, though she is out for this contest because of a foot injury. Redshirt junior Kelley Cain checks in at 14.0 ppg and an eye-popping 17.0 rebounds per game. Juniors Alyssia Brewer (12.0 ppg), Shekinna Stricklen (11.5), who is from Morrilton, Ark., and Glory Johnson (10.0 ppg) also have averaged double digits. … Arkansas has two wins over teams ranked in the top 15. The Razorbacks beat Oklahoma when the Sooners were ranked No. 12 and Kentucky when the Wildcats were ranked No. 10. It is the first time under Coach Tom Collen, who is in his fourth season, that the Razorbacks have multiple victories over ranked teams. Arkansas started this season 12-0 with all four losses coming in SEC play. The Razorbacks are receiving votes in both the AP and coaches' polls.
BY THE NUMBERS: Overall stats with SEC figures in parentheses.
Tennessee is averaging 80.5 points a game (80.6 in the SEC) while allowing opponents to score 55.4 (52.0). Arkansas averages 65.8 points a game (59.6) while allowing 57.2 (59.8).
The Lady Vols are shooting 45.8 percent overall (46.8), 35.7 percent behind the arc (35.0) and 67.6 percent from the free throw line (75.3). The Razorbacks are shooting 40.8 percent overall (38.0), 33.2 percent from long range (32.5) and 66.2 percent from the line (66.2).
Tennessee makes an average of 6.8 three-pointers a game (6.1) while allowing 6.1 (5.0). Arkansas makes 4.8 threes a game (4.9) while allowing 4.8 (4.1).
Tennessee averages 47.3 rebounds a game (51.2) for a +12.5 margin (+15.6). Arkansas averages 39.1 boards (36.8) for a +0.1 margin (-3.5).
The Lady Vols average 14.4 assists (13.9) and 15.6 turnovers (15.1) a game. Opponents lose the ball an average of 18.1 times a game (14.0). The Razorbacks average 12.2 assists (9.9) and 15.3 turnovers (16.4) with foes losing the ball 18.7 times a game (16.5).
Tennessee averages 8.3 steals (5.6) and 5.7 blocks a game (8.0). Arkansas averages 9.3 steals (7.5) and 4.1 blocks (2.9).