Media Day for NCAA tourney

Tennessee and the three other teams in Knoxville practiced and met with the media Friday. Go inside with InsideTennessee to get ready for the NCAA Tournament.

The Creighton Bluejays are getting used to the time change and an early tipoff, Syracuse brought its weather to town, Tennessee's players appreciate being at home, and Oral Roberts is happy to be back in the tournament.

The four teams in Knoxville get started Saturday morning when No. 7 seed Syracuse (24-7) meets No. 10 seed Creighton (24-7) at 11:20 a.m. Eastern (TV: ESPN2).

Creighton coach Jim Flanery is curious to see how many Lady Vol fans are already in their seats, and both teams are happy to court Tennessee fans to their corner.

No. 2 seed Tennessee (24-7) takes on No. 15 seed Oral Roberts (18-12) at 1:30 p.m. in the second Saturday game.

The Lady Vols have to get past the Golden Eagles and Kevi Luper, who is averaging 19.0 points per game. Part of the media materials from Oral Roberts included notebooks that feature Luper on the cover.

If the Lady Vols survive Saturday and make it to Monday's matchup, Creighton, with its three-point bombers, and Syracuse, with an experienced post, athletic wings and suffocating zone, are both capable of causing trouble.

The first step for Tennessee is to prepare for the extended zone of Oral Roberts. Senior Taber Spani acknowledged that the perimeter players will need to hit shots, but she also noted that the ball needs to get inside to the post.

That position was bolstered this week by the return of Isabelle Harrison, who missed the SEC tourney with an injured right knee after just returning from surgery on her left knee.

Harrison was all smiles in the locker room Friday. On the practice court she is getting used to wearing a brace on her right knee, but her status for Saturday is not in doubt.

"It's not that can she or do we - she will play," Holly Warlick said during her first NCAA tourney press conference as a head coach. "She's a huge asset to this team. She brings confidence to us. She brings confidence on the defensive end.

"She brings energy. She is a great presence."

Freshman Bashaara Graves might be the teammate most elated to see Harrison in uniform. Graves has played extended minutes at the center position in her absence. Seniors Kamiko Williams and Taber Spani also are happy - both are perimeter players who moved inside at times despite being undersized.

The seniors are grateful for at least one more game on "The Summitt" and motivated to make sure it's two games.

"No matter if you're playing first round, second round, third round, whatever all the way up, you have to leave everything out on the court on every given day," Spani said.

Don't take anything lightly," Williams said. "Holly's stressed that since day one. … A lot of teams now, coaches have been stressing they're not afraid of Tennessee, and we're trying to get that back.

"So they're going to come in, they're going to give it their all, and we're just going to have to do the same thing."

PROBABLE STARTERS

Tennessee coach Holly Warlick is expected to start: Ariel Massengale, 5-6 sophomore guard, No. 5, hails from Bolingbrook, Ill. (7.9 points per game, 2.7 rebounds per game, 4.6 assists per game); Kamiko Williams 5-11 senior guard, No. 4, hails from Clarksville, Tenn. (6.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg); Meighan Simmons, 5-9 junior guard, No. 10, hails from Cibolo, Texas (17.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg); Taber Spani, 6-1 senior forward, No. 13, hails from Lee's Summit, Mo. (11.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg); and Bashaara Graves, 6-2 freshman forward, No. 12, hails from Clarksville, Tenn. (13.8 ppg, 8.3 rpg).

This is the lineup used for senior night, and the coaches have stuck with it partly due to injuries and partly because it has worked.

Isabelle Harrison, a 6-3 sophomore post, and Cierra Burdick, a 6-2 sophomore forward, are likely to see action early.

Oral Roberts coach Misti Cussen is expected to start: Jaci Bigham, 5-6 senior guard, No. 22 (12.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 6.9 apg), hails from McAlester, Okla., has 666 career assists, a program record, with 207 helpers this season, named to Southland Conference all-tourney team; Kevi Luper, 5-10 senior guard, No. 15 (19.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg), hails from Adair, Okla., 2013 SLC tourney MVP, has 2,847 career points to rank 16th in NCAA history, father Kevin Luper played football for Oklahoma State; Christian Key, 5-10 junior guard, No. 12 (7.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg), hails from Tulsa, Okla., connected on six treys against Southeastern Louisiana, leads Southland Conference in three-point shooting at 47.5 percent; Taylor Cooper, 6-0 freshman forward, No. 3 (10.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg), hails from Shawnee, Okla., tallied 20 points against Central Arkansas, parents Jeff and Leslie Cooper both were collegiate athletes at Oklahoma Baptist University, grandfather Rick played basketball at Oklahoma State; and Sarah Shelton, 6-3 redshirt junior center, No. 42 (9.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg), hails from Ft. Worth, Texas, leads the conference in field goal percentage at 67.3 percent, tallied 21 points at Nicholls State, sat out last season after playing first two seasons at Southern Methodist University.

PROTECT THE HOUSE: The freshmen and sophomores will be playing their first NCAA tourney game in Knoxville. The Lady Vols have never lost in the tourney at home.

"I didn't know that, but I definitely believe it," Ariel Massengale said. "I am very confident in us playing at home, but we never overlook any other team. We have to go out there with the mind-set that we are playing another team that is fighting for a life."

Tennessee is 38-0 in first and second round games at home. Combined with regional play, the record in Knoxville is 50-0.

"I am not surprised," Isabelle Harrison said. "I feel like whoever we play we are going to give our all, home or away. Being in TBA gives you that extra confidence."

GOLDEN MOMENT: Oral Roberts is happy to be back in the tournament for the first time since 2008 - when they faced Tennessee in West Lafayette, Ind. - and while the Golden Eagles appreciate the history built by Pat Summitt, the players made it clear they traveled to Knoxville to win.

Coach Misti Cussen noted the pressure was in the conference tourney because Oral Roberts had to win that to get a bid.

"Any basketball that's played from here on out for us, there's a lot of freedom and joy," Cussen said. "I won't say relaxed because I don't want my girls to take the floor relaxed because they would get the game handed to them, but there's definitely a sense of you've earned this opportunity so make the most of it.

"We don't show up to have the moral victory; we want to really show up. We know that we have an extremely small margin of error when you come to play a program as storied as the University of Tennessee."

RECRUITING RULES: Misti Cussen coached against Tennessee when Pat Summitt was at the helm in 2008 and now will face the Lady Vols with Holly Warlick in charge.

Cussen didn't see much different about the Lady Vols and it is because of recruiting.

"The elite level of recruit that they're able to bring in with their rich tradition I see that continuing with coach Warlick and her staff," Cussen said.

That was certainly true with the class of 2013 as top recruit Mercedes Russell signed with Tennessee as did two stellar perimeter players in Jordan Reynolds and Jannah Tucker.

Cussen also noted the emergence of Bashaara Graves, a freshman prepared to play at the highest level as a freshman.

"You look at a Bashaara Graves, who around the SEC is known as a beast," Cussen said. "To be able to come out of high school and make that transition in her freshman year is something you see perennially at the University of Tennessee."

MARIANNA RULE Misti Cussen could be forgiven if she scans the baseline for cheerleader placards before tipoff.

In the 2008 game there was a scramble for a loose ball after the tip and as Marianna Camargo ran out of bounds in an attempt to save the ball, with Shannon Bobbitt in pursuit for Tennessee, she stepped on a placard, slipped and fell.

"We're hoping for a little bit better first 10 seconds with this game because we lost our starting point guard to an ACL at the very beginning of that one, and we had to punt the rest of the game," Cussen said.

"It's fitting that we're able to come back and that it will be the first opponent we see again."

The cheerleaders of all teams now have to be farther away from the court - there wasn't a lot of room at the Purdue venue but they backed up more after the mishap - because of the injury.

"It was such an unusual situation but it was no one's fault and just a fluke accident," Cussen said. "We had a Marianna rule after that. There has to be a certain distance from the cheerleaders to the baseline of the playing court. She made a little history with that injury."

GET IT STARTED: Two weeks between tournaments doesn't just get the fans anxious for hoops. The players are ready to tip it, too.

"The men's teams just finished their conference tournament play (Sunday) and their selection show as opposed to us where we have to wait a week to have our selection show and wait another week before we start playing," Ariel Massengale said.

"This was a time to get rest and get some people healthy, rejuvenate and refocus on what we all came here to do."

ONE AT A TIME: Tennessee is in Baylor's region but any talk of the Bears makes Dean Lockwood cringe.

Baylor is the overall No. 1 and has the 6-8 Brittany Griner, a player Tennessee has already faced twice in postseason, both losses - the Sweet 16 in 2010 and the Elite Eight in 2012.

The Lady Vols can't ponder a future matchup right now. They first have to escape Knoxville unscathed.

"That point is lost," Dean Lockwood said. "You don't sweat and I don't blow mental energy over things I can't control. It is what it is. We had absolutely zero input into the actual brackets.

"Now, our season we did. But once the dust settles and the committee gets in a room, we have zero input. Now we've got our path marked out we've got jobs to do and the first job we're guaranteed of a 40-minute game with Oral Roberts. Nothing else.

"And then after that we've got another 40 minutes that would be guaranteed if we work hard enough, compete hard enough, play together hard enough to get past that first 40.

"I am not even thinking about Baylor right now. We have all of the respect in the world for everybody in this tournament. We are not thinking who do we play to get to the regional, who do we play in New Orleans.' No. We are thinking who do we play next?"

WAITING, WAITING … Tennessee knew it was in the tournament but had to wait for the last region to be unveiled to see who was coming to town.

The wait was agonizing for Creighton, an at-large team from the Missouri Valley Conference, and the players thought they were toast.

The Oklahoma City Region bracket not only was the last one to be revealed but because Tennessee was the two seed, it was also the last four teams to be in the tourney.

"It was really hard - a long 40 minutes," Creighton's Ally Jensen said. "We had seen all the projected brackets and the teams that were on the bubble … We see the 11, 12 and 13 seeds going off and you are like, ‘Where are we?' We were definitely losing hope by the minute."

"I was sitting next to Ally, and she was like, ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, we're not in,' " Creighton's Sarah Nelson said. "We did a viewing party with our fans, we were wondering why did we do this in public - it's going to be bad."

When the Bluejay players saw Creighton's name in Knoxville, they erupted.

"We just turned and all freaked out," Nelson said. "I think we had all lost hope at that point and then when we saw it come up, I can't even explain how happy we were.

An at-large berth for a mid-major is a compliment to the program. Wichita State, coached by former Lady Vol Jody Adams with former Lady Vol Bridgette Gordon as an assistant, received the automatic bid after winning the conference tournament.

The Bluejays lost in the semifinals of the tournament to Illinois State, and the players were peeved about the outcome.

"Normally people are pretty sad when their season ends, but we all got in the locker room and thought, ‘Did that seriously just happen?' " Nelson said. "We were more mad than anything."

ZONE VERSUS SHOOTERS: Syracuse will play zone Saturday. Creighton will shoot threes. That won't change.

The Bluejays hoisted 44 three-pointers in one game this season.

"It was an overtime game so we only took 39 through the first 40 minutes," Creighton coach Jim Flanery deadpanned.

Flanery said his players aren't necessarily adept at getting in the gaps of the zone - though a couple of players can - so the Bluejays will rely on the long ball.

"We've told our kids to not second guess themselves," Flanery said. "You might think a team that leads the country in number of 3s made per game doesn't pass up 3s, but we do. We can't do that. We have to squeeze it in when we have an opportunity."

Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman will deploy his zone defense.

"I think a lot of people look at the zone and say, ‘Why would you guard a team who can shoot the ball in the zone?' My biggest thing about a three-point shooting team is that you know where they are. You can find them.

"You're not chasing screens; you're not chasing flares. If you play your principles and play your quarter, there's always someone in front of you. So, for us, it's about getting there and contesting shots."

Boeheim is known for his zone defense, and it had an effect on Hillsman.

"I was a man coach," he said. "But you look out your window and see all those banners, and you think maybe you should do some of the things they do."

So Hillsman, who described himself as a visual learner, watched Boeheim's practices.

"He doesn't bounce things off of me, but I bounce things off him," Hillsman said. "If I have any questions, I can always go ask."

Flanery hopes his players are ready for the early tip - Creighton is on central time - so he woke them up earlier Friday to start the adjustment.

"We have a few morning kids, but most of our kids are like most college kids and not morning people," Flanery said.

SEEDED AND GRATEFUL: Syracuse finished third in the Big East behind Notre Dame and UConn, so the Orange seed of seven seems low.

After missing out on the NCAA tourney too many times, Quentin Hillsman is happy to be in it.

The Syracuse men traveled to San Jose, Calif., for the tourney and Hillsman noted the distance to coach Jim Boeheim.

"I said, ‘Coach, you have a long trip,' " Hillsman said. "And he responded, ‘At least we're playing,' and that put it all back in perspective with that one comment."

Between Syracuse and Tennessee, the color of orange will be prevalent Saturday.

"There is a lot of orange here with Syracuse and Tennessee, but we are hoping to have a blue weekend," Creighton coach Jim Flanery said.

MEDIA LINKS

Syracuse press conference

The transcript of Syracuse's press conference can be read by CLICKING HERE.

Creighton press conference

The transcript of Creighton's press conference can be read by CLICKING HERE.

Tennessee press conference

The transcript of Tennessee's press conference can be read by CLICKING HERE.

Oral Roberts press conference

The transcript of Oral Roberts' press conference can be read by CLICKING HERE.

INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE

Bashaara Graves

Isabelle Harrison

Meighan Simmons

Ariel Massengale

Cierra Burdick

Kamiko Williams

Taber Spani

Andraya Carter, Jasmine Jones

Nia Moore

Practice clips


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