The SEC Champions banner in the rafters of Thompson-Boling Arena has already been updated with the year 2011 – the Lady Vols clinched that last Monday against Georgia – but a perfect SEC season and NCAA seeding hinge on Sunday's outcome against LSU. The Lady Vols won the first matchup, 73-65, in Baton Rouge on Jan. 2 in the league opener for both teams.
No. 4 Tennessee (27-2, 15-0) last went undefeated in the league in 2007 while LSU did it in 2008. No SEC team accomplished the feat in 2009, or in 2010, when for the first time the league expanded from 14 to 16 conference games.
LSU (18-11, 8-7) should be motivated by wanting to wreck the Lady Vols' clean slate in the SEC.
"Not only that but I think they've got bigger issues," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "Sometimes we tend to think of things in our own narrow field of vision. This is a team fighting for an NCAA Tournament bid. They've got 18 wins.
"If they get to 21, 20, and a win over us? I don't think they're looking to say, ‘Let's spoil Tennessee's perfect season.' I think they're saying, ‘Let's get the Lady Tigers into the NCAA Tournament.' "
Lockwood, who handled the scout for both LSU games this season, said that would be his message to the Lady Vols.
"Exactly that," Lockwood said. "Take care of business. Don't let one get away. Don't assume that we're already dancing into Nashville (for the SEC tourney). Banjos aren't playing here. They are playing in Nashville. They ain't playing in Knoxville."
Tipoff is set for 2 p.m. Eastern (ESPNU, Lady Vols Radio Network) with gates opening at 12:30 p.m. after 17,000-plus tickets were sold in advance.
The Lady Tigers are in a three-way tie for fifth place in the SEC and will play on the first day of the SEC Tournament next week for the first time in 10 years.
"I don't think it matters whether we finish fifth, sixth or seventh in the SEC," LSU Coach Van Chancellor said. "When you get to this time of year, you have to play great basketball. When you go to the (SEC) tournament, people play at a different level. We are going to go to Tennessee, and I have no doubt we are going to play hard and play tough. Let's just play."
Before the game tips off and the 2010-11 regular season is officially put to rest Tennessee will honor two senior guards – Smallbone from Granger, Indiana, and Bjorklund from Spokane Valley, Washington, the first Lady Vol to hail from the Evergreen State.
"They take care of their business," Coach Pat Summitt said. "They have the whole time they've been here. Coaches don't have to worry about them and a lot of times I'll go to them and say, ‘Y'all need to get on so and so, and I don't want to have to deal with it. You all deal with it.'
"And they're both very good at it."
It's far better if the players police themselves for some matters before Summitt gets involved, and both Smallbone and Bjorklund have led by example during their time on campus. They have been honor roll students for four years, will graduate on time this May and were always ready to go to work in practice and conditioning sessions.
That doesn't mean they didn't get in Summitt's cross-hairs, and Bjorklund was a frequent target her sophomore year when she was a starter on a roster of 10 other underclassmen and redshirt senior Alex Fuller. Summitt was loath to yell at Fuller, her senior leader who was battling on balky knees, so Bjorklund became the example of how to practice and respond to Summitt's demands.
"Coach has taught me a lot," Bjorklund said. "She's taught me that her expectations are through the roof, but at the same time those have to be my expectations and slowly they have become my expectations. Now when she yells at me it's almost like, ‘OK, yeah, you're right. I need to get on that. I need to get in the gym. I need to get my teammates in the gym.'
"I think having those kind of expectations for myself in the future is going to help me be successful for any job or any boss figure I face in the future."
Bjorklund would be happy if her next boss was in the WNBA.
"I love basketball and if I have the opportunity to continue playing after this and getting paid for that without a doubt I would love to do that," Bjorklund said. "I am just going to continue to work my hardest and see where that takes me."
Smallbone has already lined up a job with a multinational logistics corporation – she can't identify the company because of NCAA rules about implied endorsement – after she competed among thousands of applicants and secured a job offer last fall, an accomplishment that impressed Summitt.
"She's way ahead of where I'd have been," Summitt said. "She does the right thing on the court. She does the right thing in the classroom. She is a very smart player, and obviously high IQ in the classroom."
Smallbone starts her new job in June shortly after graduation in May, and she will take a trip during her last days of freedom from the workforce.
"I am going with some friends to New York to visit one of our friends that plays at West Point," Smallbone said. "It's her birthday so it's kind of one last hurrah before I start my job."
Smallbone also could be on the receiving end of Summitt's daily expectations.
"Hopefully it's prepared me for the real world," Smallbone said. "I've learned a lot under Coach Summitt and the other assistants as well as my teammates. I've gotten the chance to learn more about what my role's going to be like with the company I am going with. I actually had a phone interview (Friday morning) about location so I know where I am going to go. I am excited about it.
"Hopefully I can make the best out of it through my experiences with sports and with basketball and being here at Tennessee. I feel like the pressure and the adversity is something that I am ready to handle going into the workforce."
Smallbone could have gone to another program and logged major minutes, but she wanted to see daily excellence at the highest level in women's basketball so she decided to be a Lady Vol.
The thought of having a bigger role on a collegiate stage did enter her mind at times, though.
"Any athlete I feel like it would because you're out here working hard every day and you want to be able to kind of showcase that," Smallbone said. "There were times that it was hard for me because I wasn't able to do that a whole lot, but I feel like through the adversity it's been something that I've learned from and the role I've taken on has prepared me.
"I've seen different roles now. Growing up I was in a different role than I am in now so I feel like it's made me more of a well-rounded person and teammate. I wouldn't change it because it was adversity, and I feel like I've learned and grown from it."
Summitt is appreciative of how Smallbone handled the role.
"She's always positive and just encouraging people and a wonderful teammate," Summitt said. "I think everyone has respect for her just because of how hard she works. I think she's a player that is always encouraging others, but at the same time she works hard. She's in the gym getting a lot of shots up.
"We know that she can knock down the three but obviously she's had limited playing time. I think she has loved being here and being a part of this team."
Smallbone agreed with that assessment.
"I have really enjoyed it," Smallbone said. "Not just with basketball, I have really enjoyed my classes and the majors I've chosen. I feel like I've been able to learn a lot from the College of Business, especially with logistics. It's a great opportunity that was given to me, and I look forward to making something of it in the future."
Both Smallbone and Bjorklund have had a variety of experiences in orange from winning a national title as freshmen in 2008 with Candace Parker, Nicky Anosike, Alexis Hornbuckle, Shannon Bobbitt and Alberta Auguste, to the first round exit in 2009, to getting back on course in 2010 with SEC regular season and tourney titles, to trying to get back to the Final Four in 2011.
"It's been a learning experience," Smallbone said. "There are different motivation factors that play a part with the different personalities. I feel like Candace and Nicky and Lex and Shannon, as a whole, they were motivated differently than us. It's not like they didn't work hard, but I feel like we work even harder to live up to their name and try to continue what they did in their years here.
"We saw what it takes to cut down nets. No one else on the team besides our group has seen that. We've learned a lot about each other as people on and off the court. We've been really close over the four years going through all we had to go through sophomore year and the learning experiences, and the learning curves have brought us closer together."
That group includes Kelley Cain and Vicki Baugh, who are both redshirt juniors with one more year of eligibility after having knee surgeries. Cain and Baugh entered Tennessee with Smallbone and Bjorklund. As freshmen, Cain and Smallbone were roommates, as were Baugh and Bjorklund, and all four shared a suite.
"We are very close," Smallbone said. "Me and Kelley and Vicki (still) live together and Angie is over a lot so it's like we never really left freshman year. We roomed together freshman year, and it's kind of been the same throughout the four years. We've all really been close off the court, too."
Bjorklund is in the unusual position of almost having to reintroduce herself to her teammates after missing six games with the foot injury. She has played limited minutes against Georgia and Ole Miss as she works her way back into shooting form.
"There were definitely a couple of days watching where I would get frustrated or even when I started to practice a little bit not picking it up as quick as I wanted to, because I am such a perfectionist," Bjorklund said.
"But it's just taking it one day at a time. I just have to take a deep breath and say, ‘All right, this is something I can't control, something that's happened, and I just have to do my best every single day.'
"And do my best keeping my teammates motivated and being a leader on top of trying to get myself back. We're at the end of the season coming into the SECs, and I have to make sure my team is on top of it and motivated for every game."
Becoming a vocal leader wasn't easy for Bjorklund, who is naturally soft-spoken and more inclined to lead by example.
"I think it's pushed her to step outside of her comfort zone a little bit," Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss said. "But that's all part of this program and that's all a part of growing up is to be pushed outside of that comfort zone a little bit. The thing that I've admired about Angie this year, even though we know that that's probably not her natural personality, she has really embraced it. She has really taken more ownership of it this year.
"If we say, ‘We don't have leadership,' she'll be the first one to say, ‘That's my fault,' where used to everybody was just looking around at somebody else like, ‘It's not me.' Is it something that I think she's totally comfortable with? No, just because of her personality but I think because of her longevity here and her seniority here she's kind of evolved into that position, and I think she's really embraced it this year."
Bjorklund didn't have much time to make the transition. She played on a senior-laden team in 2007-08 and returned as a sophomore as the most-experienced player with 30 starts as a freshman.
"It's definitely been different because coming in I had five seniors pulling me along," Bjorklund said. "I had to switch roles pretty quickly. I had to help pull all the freshmen we had along and now Meighan (Simmons) and Lauren (Avant) helping them out and making sure they're all right and adapting well with the team and on the court. I just had to quickly take what I learned from my seniors my freshman year and apply it the next year.
"At first it was a little different going from being a follower and really looking up to my seniors and taking everything in my freshman year and then immediately becoming a leader. That was an adjustment year, I think, learning what it takes to be a leader here at Tennessee. Every year it became easier."
Bjorklund's production on the court was never an issue. She steadily climbed the three-point list at Tennessee that included such luminaries as Bobbitt, Sidney Spencer, Brittany Jackson, Kara Lawson and Shanna Zolman. Bjorklund set the record against Rutgers when she nailed her 267th career three and now has 284.
"It's huge," Summitt said of that mark at Tennessee. "She passed them all by, and that speaks volumes. I am really proud of what she's done here."
DeMoss said Bjorklund's influence will be her legacy, too.
"She's been such a role model for some of these other guards on the team because she works so hard in the off-season, particularly on her three, and she's learned to get it off a lot quicker, and she can get it off the dribble a little bit more," DeMoss said. "She used to just be a catch and shoot.
"I think she's been a little bit of a role model for these other perimeter players to raise the bar from the three-point line."
Bjorklund was a continuation in a shift in recruiting for Tennessee in the past decade in which guards who could shoot the three ball also came with a midrange game and defensive skills. Bjorklund has been a solid perimeter defender – and gotten better – since she arrived on campus.
"It used to be they were a three-point shooter, but they couldn't do anything else," DeMoss said. "They were specialty players. They struggled defensively. They couldn't take it off the dribble as well. But now you've got women who have evolved into a complete player. They can shoot the three. They can guard. They can take you off the dribble.
"I think that's where the game is going. I don't think you're going to see us signing kids just because they're a three-point shooter or just because they're a slasher. To play at this level they've got to do both.
"Now, it's really unusual if we have a guard that can't shoot the three. It used to we might have one perimeter that could shoot the three and now you're really in trouble if you can't shoot the three, because people don't guard you, they help off of you, and it makes it very difficult (to get playing time on the perimeter). I think she has really set the standard here for three-point shooting."
Bjorklund will be on the court to start Senior Day – Stricklen will move inside with Glory Johnson and Spani and Alyssia Brewer will come off the bench – as she tries to adjust to an injury comeback late in the season.
"There's only been one other time I've been out with my back my sophomore year, but that was earlier in the season," Bjorklund said. "Having it be this late in the season is definitely a little adversity I am just going to have to get through for my teammates. What really helped was staying in it mentally to keep my confidence and flow in the game."
Bjorklund has been animated on the bench in the past two games – very vocal and very involved in the action on the court.
"She's not used to being at that perspective very much," DeMoss said. "Angie is kind of a hyper person anyway so for her to just have to sit there she's not used to that role. She's antsy to get back into the rotation, and we're trying to slowly bring her back, and we have to limit her minutes a little bit because we don't want to overdo it."
Bjorklund said coming off the bench, coupled with a month off, has been an adjustment.
"Coming off the bench it's getting into the flow and rhythm right when I get into the game," Bjorklund said. "I looked at my teammates like, ‘Oh, man, sitting for awhile and going in,' and Syd and Bree (Bass) were like, ‘Yeah, yeah, it's tough. You just have to get into the flow a lot faster.'
"At the same time you have a chance to see what's going on out there. It's definitely a different perspective from starting. I think I have learned a lot in that sense."
DeMoss thinks good things are still coming for Bjorklund in the final chapter of her Tennessee career.
"Definitely if I have free time," Bjorklund said. "I am a homebody, though. I am going to want to go home as much as possible, but this has become a home away from home. I can see myself coming back and visiting."
"Definitely next year for sure," Smallbone said. "I don't know how much time I'll have off work. I think going into next year they're going to have a strong team as well. All those juniors returning and the freshmen that are coming in, it's going to be a strong team."
Bjorklund is proud to hold the trey record, but it's not her focus to finish her final season.
"I don't think about it too much," Bjorklund said. "More than anything I focus on winning a national championship because that is our main goal here. I would love nothing more than to finish my senior year out with a win. I think this team is definitely capable of doing it. We just have to continue to get better every single day and every single game."
If that happens it will also be because of the maturation of the juniors who had playing time thrust on them by circumstances as freshmen and grew up, literally, on the court.
"I feel like our chemistry has played a big role in that in growing up," Smallbone said. "I think we're so close together as a team on and off the court. It really helps us to mesh on the court.
"Getting a chance to play with all of them is awesome because the majority of the team is from the junior class. So just to be a senior with Angie is something that's cool because they're just a year underneath us, so they're upperclassmen now, too, but to be able to watch them grow throughout their three years is something cool, and it's helped their team as well."
Both players will have family members with them at center court in the pre-game ceremony, but then it's time to focus on tipoff.
"I've had an amazing four years here," said Bjorklund, who was selected this week as an Academic All-American, joining Candace Parker, Tanya Haave and Jill Rankin as Lady Vols who twice earned the honor in their careers.
"I've been through a little bit of everything, but I have no regrets. I have learned so much from my experience and just working with the best, working with Coach Summitt and her assistants and my teammates.
"I love my teammates. It might be a little emotional, but at the same time we have a game right after. It's going to be a fun experience."
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Meighan Simmons, 5'9 freshman guard, No. 10 (13.9 points per game overall/11.3 SEC, 2.8 rpg/2.6, 2.9 assists per game/3.6); Sydney Smallbone, 5'10 senior guard, No. 20 (1.2 ppg/0.8, 0.8 rpg/0.9); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 senior guard, No. 5 (10.4 ppg/7.8, 3.0 rpg/2.2. 2.2 apg/1.3); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 junior guard/forward, No. 40 (12.1 ppg/13.6, 7.6 rpg/8.3); and Glory Johnson, 6'3 junior forward, No. 25 (11.4 ppg/13.6, 9.4 rpg/9.9).
Alyssia Brewer, a 6'3 junior forward/center, and Taber Spani, a 6'1 sophomore guard/forward, will come off the bench. Kelley Cain, a 6'6 redshirt center, and Lauren Avant, a 5'9 freshman point guard are not expected to play. Cain is resting a sore lower back and hip, and Avant is under the program's concussion protocol. Neither player practiced Saturday.
LSU Coach Van Chancellor is expected to start: LaTear Eason, 5'8 senior guard, No. 3 (4.5 ppg/4.8, 2.8 rpg/3.2, 2.2 apg/2.0), hails from Chicago, Ill., tallied four steals in first game against Tennessee, helped LSU overcome a 17-point deficit and defeat South Carolina on Thursday with career-high seven boards; Adrienne Webb, 5'9 sophomore guard, No. 10 (12.5 ppg/12.3, 3.7 rpg/3.4), hails from Madison, Ala., tallied nine points in first game, has connected on 67 treys this season; Katherine Graham, 5'11 senior guard, No. 1 (8.5 ppg/8.7, 5.1 rpg/5.5, 3.2 apg/3.5), hails from Birmingham, Ala., grabbed eight rebounds against Tennessee; Taylor Turnbow, 6'2 junior forward, No. 35 (5.5 ppg/4.3, 5.9 rpg/5.3), hails from Stone Mountain, Ga., five points, four boards in first game, hit a jumper with 3.2 seconds left in the South Carolina game to send the game to overtime; and LaSondra Barrett, 6'2 junior forward, No. 55 (11.8 ppg/12.4, 6.3 rpg/7.6), hails from Jackson, Miss., led LSU with 15 points against Tennessee, has tallied 30 rebounds in last three games.
A key player off the bench for LSU is Courtney Jones, a 6'2 junior forward from Midfield, Ala., who scored nine points in the win over South Carolina. Jones had 10 points in the first matchup with Tennessee.
Another reserve, Jeanne Kenney, a 5'8 freshman guard from Baton Rouge, La., was 3-4 from behind the arc against the Lady Vols.
"This might be the biggest basketball team I've ever seen," Chancellor said about facing Tennessee. "They have tremendous depth. Tennessee has always had great depth, but I don't think they've ever quite had the depth like they do this season. They are a physical basketball team, and they all go to the boards.
"Their depth is what brought them back in Baton Rouge. They can bring the likes of a (Alicia) Manning, a Kelley Cain and Vicki Baugh off the bench."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-LSU game. Here is his assessment.
When LSU has the ball: The Lady Vols will need to be prepared to defend screening action.
"A ton of motion stuff," Lockwood said. "You're going to see a ton of screens. Per possession you're going to see as many screens as anybody in the country – player screens, back screens, down screens, stagger screens. They really, really screen it. So we have to defend screens.
"We have to keep the ball out of the paint. They love the middle of the floor. They love to get the ball into the paint so we're going to have to do a great job there.
"Their big three are (Adrienne) Webb, (LaSondra) Barrett and (Katherine) Graham."
Tennessee also will have to keep an eye on point guard Latear Eason, who was 4-6 from behind the arc in Thursday's win over South Carolina.
"That's another person we have to be aware of," Lockwood said.
Defensively, LSU will show different looks.
"Man and zone," Lockwood said. "They really don't come after you full court. They really don't come out, but they really guard the ball. They really help. They play in the gaps really well. They want the game in the 50s and 60s. They will run hard on turnovers, but they are not what you would call an up-tempo team.
"But they are sound defensively. They're second to us in field goal percentage defense, which I think is the mark of how you're playing defense. It's not points allowed. It's field goal percentage defense."
When Tennessee has the ball: The Lady Vols want to increase the tempo.
"We want to run," Lockwood said. "You're playing a team that's averaging in the 50s and 60s. We want the game in the 70s and 80s. We want to play high tempo. We want to push the ball. We want to be able to use our depth. We want to be able to play a quicker tempo.
"Obviously it hasn't changed game to game as far as getting it inside and playing inside-out. We really want to make them have to guard early in the possession, make them have to guard spacing and quickness versus walking it up, holding the ball, which at times we are still prone to do. We want to play fast, and we want to play with good spacing."
Defensively, the Lady Vols played quite a bit of man in the first matchup with LSU in early January, though they did show some zone until the Lady Tigers connected from behind the arc.
"We jumped out of it," Lockwood said.
The Lady Vols will prepare to show both looks again but be flexible.
"We probably will," Lockwood said. "Just because with them they are very good at zeroing in on something and especially with their motion. Their motion is good motion, and if you are just doing the same thing, they get more comfortable and that's not good for the opponent."
ON TAP: All 12 SEC teams are in action on the final day of the regular season. The other matchups are: Alabama at Arkansas; Kentucky at Auburn; Georgia at Florida; Ole Miss at Mississippi State; and Vanderbilt at South Carolina.
The games will sort out the final standings, but Tennessee already has locked up the No. 1 seed and regardless of Sunday's outcomes, Arkansas and Florida will be the 8/9 seeds in the SEC tourney in Nashville. They will play at noon local time Thursday with the winner advancing to face the Lady Vols at noon local time Friday.
ODDS AND ENDS
Tennessee leads the series with LSU, 40-12. The Lady Vols' record in Knoxville is 17-2, and LSU has won two of the pass three matchups on Tennessee's home court in 2006 and 2008. Tennessee won at home in 2010 and has won the last three matchups – one at home and two in Baton Rouge. … Tennessee is 13-3 in games played on February 27. The last win on this date was against Alabama, 94-81, in 2005. The first win on February 27 was against Cumberland (Ky.), 48-24, in 1924. The three losses on this date were to Maryville, 22-11 in 1907; Union (Tenn.), 95-90, in 1975; and Kentucky, 81-69, in 1983. … Kelley Cain is not expected to play Sunday, and she will be missed by Tennessee. … The 6'6 redshirt junior center has averaged 14.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.0 blocks in four matchups with LSU while shooting 83.8 percent (26-31) from the field. Her performance in Baton Rouge in January – 19 points on 9-13 shooting – led LSU Coach Van Chancellor to say afterwards that Cain sees his team and thinks Santa Claus has come to town. Glory Johnson, who is in the starting lineup, has averaged 10.5 points and 8.3 rebounds against LSU in four games. She had 19 points and 15 boards in the first matchup this season. … LSU has held eight straight SEC opponents to 55 points or less for the first time in school history and has kept all 15 SEC opponents below their scoring average. Only three SEC opponents this season have scored more than 60 points on LSU – Tennessee with 73, South Carolina with 63 (the Gamecocks scored just 51 in the second game, an overtime loss), and Auburn with 65. All three of those games were in January. The Lady Tigers allow just 52.1 points per game in SEC contests, which is second in the league. Tennessee is first at 51.7 points in league games.
BY THE NUMBERS: Overall stats with SEC figures in parentheses.
Tennessee is averaging 78.2 points a game (76.1 in the SEC) while allowing opponents to score 54.4 (51.7). LSU averages 62.2 points a game (59.1) while allowing 52.3 (52.1).
The Lady Vols are shooting 46.1 percent overall (47.0), 35.9 percent behind the arc (35.7) and 66.5 percent from the free throw line (69.4). The Lady Tigers are shooting 39.5 percent overall (39.0), 33.1 percent from long range (32.5) and 64.8 percent from the line (64.4).
Tennessee makes an average of 6.4 three-pointers a game (5.7) while allowing 5.2 (5.4). LSU makes 5.6 threes a game (5.1) while allowing 4.0 (3.7).
Tennessee averages 46.7 rebounds a game (48.2) for a +13.4 margin (+15.8). LSU averages 39.9 boards (39.5) for a +4.4 margin (+5.3).
The Lady Vols average 14.1 assists (13.6) and 15.9 turnovers (15.9) a game. Opponents lose the ball an average of 17.5 times a game (14.8). The Lady Tigers average 13.9 assists (13.5) and 14.5 turnovers (15.2) with foes losing the ball 15.6 times a game (14.7).
Tennessee averages 8.0 steals (6.2) and 5.4 blocks a game (6.4). LSU averages 6.4 steals (5.7) and 4.0 blocks (3.3).
Interview with senior Sydney Smallbone
Interview with senior Angie Bjorklund