The Lady Vols will be presented with the SEC championship trophy before tipoff and then will try to pull off the double-double of taking the tourney hardware as well.
Tennessee arrived in Georgia the same way it coursed through the regular season – young and battered by injuries. But the Lady Vols, despite a first-year head coach in Holly Warlick and a roster gutted first by graduation and then by injury, managed to exceed everyone's expectations but their own.
"There are two words that come to mind," Assistant coach Dean Lockwood said.
Lockwood then proceeded to explain how he arrived at those two words before saying them.
Tennessee was a much more experienced team last season, but its seniors fell short – and granted they endured what no class ever had in terms of attrition and health, culminating with Pat Summitt's diagnosis of early onset dementia – and Lockwood points to their first year on campus.
The group that arrived last fall slipped under the radar. Bashaara Graves was the only All-American among them, but she was a quiet player for the most part, though her play as a freshman was an absolute force for Tennessee.
Jasmine Jones was a favorite of Lockwood – he liked her athleticism and skill set and she has unveiled that to college basketball now – but a relative unknown nationally.
Andraya Carter was on the way to All-American honors, but an ACL injury inexplicably dropped her from consideration – that standard seems unevenly applied – and she arrived on campus without much fanfare.
The class got an addition in Nia Moore, a freshman post who was headed to Illinois until her head coach, Jolette Law, got released and ended up at Tennessee as an assistant.
"That group that came in as freshman, the group that just graduated, they were much more decorated, they were much more heralded as a class," Lockwood said.
"Now, Bashaara Graves was as heralded as any of them, but as a class … Draya didn't have all the accolades that all of them had and neither did Jasmine or Nia."
The pre-college awards don't mean anything to Lockwood anyway. He wants to see them on a practice court and in a game against players of similar skill and strength, a situation that can't be presented in high school.
"I wish I could get in front of every young player in America and say this and in front of some parents. That means next to nothing," Lockwood said.
"They are all nice (awards), and they are nice to put on your shelf and it's nice to put on (social media) and show your relatives but what they actually translate into in terms of success in college basketball is a big fat zero.
"If I am comparing and contrasting (the two freshmen classes), two words come to mind: Humble and hungry.
"This group has a lot more humility as a group – and there was no braggadocio (with others), but they had a false sense of how good they were and what it took, and this group has a much more realistic view of it."
It was the hunger of the group that really stood out to Lockwood.
"And that shows up in one way for me. You can tell me you're hungry, but words mean nothing," he said. "When you get on a practice court, now you're showing me. And this group, in terms of how they are attacking drills, their sense of urgency, their sense of purpose, as freshmen, as a group, much more hungry. We feel good about the group.
"Now, do we have a ton to learn? Yes. Are we inexperienced? Yes. Are we going to take a punch? Absolutely. But those two Hs will sustain you.
"If you remain humble and you remain hungry, you will make progress, and you will also improve. You will get better."
The words turned out to be prophetic. Tennessee was picked fifth by the coaches and fourth by the media in the SEC and claimed the championship outright in the penultimate game of the regular season.
Graves earned not just Freshman of the Year and All-SEC Freshman Team but All-SEC First Team honors. Jones has been a valuable defensive stopper off the bench. Carter's season ended in December because of a shoulder injury, but she had already earned starts and was the team's best on-ball defender. Moore has been lauded for her work ethic in practice and team-first attitude.
Three of the players, Graves, Carter and Jones, turned out to be the last class signed by Summitt, who stepped down after last season and remains a steady presence around the program as head coach emeritus.
"We've talked about it a little bit," Carter said. "It's weird to think we were the last class to be signed by coach Summitt. Just like it's weird to think Cierra, Izzy and Rel were the last class to play under Pat Summitt."
The sophomore class has been critical to Tennessee's success this season.
Ariel Massengale, despite an early season Achilles injury and late season knee mishap, has logged 30-plus minutes a game throughout the rugged SEC season at point guard.
Isabelle Harrison improved greatly in the post on both ends and became a defensive presence inside. Cierra Burdick became a regular starter and a beast on the boards. Both players also dealt with injuries – Burdick missed a month with a broken hand, and Harrison has sustained injuries to both knees with the right one making her questionable to play this week.
The three freshmen had committed before Summitt's announcement and made a pact to stay together.
"Coach Summitt is why my class and all the classes before me wanted to come here," Carter said. "That is the first thing that attracts you to Tennessee."
Their loyalty has been noted by Summitt.
"It's an honor," said Carter, who has been lauded for her ability to support and lead from the bench despite her personal frustration at not playing, a situation made even worse by the fact that the SEC tourney is being held in Georgia at a venue located just a few miles from her hometown and high school.
"It feels really good to have that relationship with coach Summitt. She recruited us. I was talking to coach Summitt my sophomore year in high school. It's a blessing. We talk about it sometimes. We mainly talk about how it was really cool that we all three stayed."
Graves is a quintessential Summitt player – a self-starter who works hard every day.
"We have all told her we have confidence in you," Carter said. "We are so proud of Bashaara. She is so tough, and she is so strong. She just carries the weight on her shoulders like it's nothing. She just gets it done.
"She puts a lot of pressure on herself and she gets frustrated with herself and we keep telling her, ‘We fully trust you.' We need her and she steps up."
Summitt is likely to attend some of the SEC tourney. Her presence is a welcome one from senior Taber Spani, who hugged Summitt before home games, to the newcomers.
"She is still around," Carter said. "She is still here all the time. She will still comment on the game. She gives you advice. She is an open book.
"Anything you need you can go to coach Summitt, and that is a blessing."
PRACTICE REPORT: The Lady Vols were on the practice court down just one player Wednesday.
Isabelle Harrison was ambulatory and not on crutches, but she hasn't been released to practice, and head coach Holly Warlick said the sophomore post was doubtful for the tournament.
Kamiko Williams, who sprained both ankles against Kentucky - "I don't even want to talk about it," she joked Wednesday before running to join warmups - was on the practice court.
Ariel Massengale said she had no swelling or pain from her mishap last week - the MRI was negative and all ligaments were intact - and she is good to go this weekend and motivated to repeat as tourney champs.
The Lady Vols will arrive in Duluth, Ga., on Thursday.
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