The Bulldogs have never beaten the Lady Vols in program history – Tennessee is 34-0 in the series – so Mississippi State will be particularly motivated at home, much the same way Vanderbilt was Sunday. The Commodores claimed just the ninth overall win against Tennessee to 62 losses.
The Tennessee-Vandy game was required viewing Sunday night for the bus ride back to Knoxville from the state capital. The players took notes about what they observed and submitted them to coach Holly Warlick.
"It was virtually dead silence with the exception we played the DVD of the game," Assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. "We made them watch and take notes. They had to submit them to Holly the next morning. So, there was no talking at all. It was just watching the game."
Warlick has final say on the starting lineup, but she listens to input from her assistants – same as Pat Summitt did – and one hasn't been set yet. Don't be too surprised to see a different one Thursday, though the coaches were still in discussion mode Wednesday.
Through four games in conference play, the Lady Vols are 2-2, something Lockwood called "strange territory."
"We are in a great league and we are playing great teams, so anybody can beat us, but I thought the minimum we would be right here would be 3-1," Lockwood said. "Vandy or LSU, but I didn't think both. I thought either one possible, but not both."
Lockwood is a man of many basketball words, but he needed just one to address the coaching staff's top concern.
"Defense," he said.
Lockwood noted there were areas for improvement – offensive efficiency was mentioned first – but multiple defensive breakdowns led to both SEC losses.
"Our gravest concern is our ability to keep people in front of us, keep people out of the paint," Lockwood said. "And not give up offensive rebounds."
The fifth game of SEC play comes in mid-January, so the Lady Vols have plenty of time between now and postseason to make improvements, but a sense of urgency also is needed.
"We just keep going to work every day," Lockwood said. "We know that it is a process, and it does take time, and it takes longer for some teams to embrace, but the important thing is that this team does eventually embrace it.
"You can't do it without it. You can't cut corners. There are no shortcuts. We've got to embrace that spirit and that attitude that it's important, it's pertinent, it's relevant to winning, and it's going to be the thing that can propel us into an elite team.
"There is a real sense of urgency and purpose to us every day to get our team to embrace that."
While the Lady Vols have never lost to Mississippi State, there have been some interesting games, especially at Humphrey Coliseum. And even the relatively easy wins were often filled with hard fouls and physical play. If the Lady Vols are ready to embrace a blue-collar work ethic on defense, Starkville is the place to put it on display.
"Anybody that is coming from (a situation) where we dominated them, they are going to have blood in their eyes," Lockwood said. "Mississippi State has one of their better teams in a while, so they're looking to put a head on the wall to get national attention. We're walking into a hornet's nest."
The SEC has always had the reputation of a lace-it-up-every-time league because even the teams at the bottom of the standings are athletic and are capable of stealing wins from the top. That may be even truer this season, especially with early frontrunners Tennessee and Kentucky sitting in the middle of the pack for now.
"I think our first four games have proven that," Lockwood said. "Anyone who isn't aware of that isn't following the league. Who would have thought Georgia would be 0-4? And you've got a really good South Carolina team that is atop the league.
"We and Kentucky are preseason one and two, and we're 2-2 and fighting to get back up where we can pop our heads above water.
"I think it's a great basketball league. If there's a better league in the country right now top to bottom, I want to see it."
The Lady Vols' conference record has been dented, in part, because of untimely technical fouls. Senior Meighan Simmons was whistled against LSU, while junior Isabelle Harrison was assessed one against Vanderbilt. In both cases, it happened after a fourth foul call, so the technical was the fifth, and both players were out of the game.
It was actually the third technical on a player this season. Cierra Burdick drew one in the Virgin Islands, but it was a foul-fest game, and the coaches' review of the play didn't show it was warranted. That wasn't the case in the SEC games. Harrison was demonstrative and vocal, and Simmons, who earlier in the game had held onto the ball and stared at the official after a call, was whistled for her body language the second time.
"Holly addressed that very succinctly and very firmly," Lockwood said. "It's composure. It's discipline. You can't cave it to things that are happening, regardless of how fair or unfair you think things are.
"That's part of what I call competitive maturity. Those are upperclassmen. You have to have enough competitive maturity and mental strength and comportment to be able to withstand adversity. Because you know there is going to be adversity. There are going to be things that go against you. The deck is going to get stacked.
"You have to be strong enough to say, ‘Even though I don't like it, I've got to move forward. I can't hurt my team."
Another good reason to adjust attitudes now is because it becomes a part of the player's scouting report – that player can be provoked and baited into a technical. So, other teams might try to get the same response, especially after watching the Lady Vols surrender the lead when Harrison went to the bench and struggle to get the ball inside.
"That was addressed, absolutely," Lockwood said. "You've opened yourself up now to being somebody that has the potential to show weakness, to break under stress, strain, adversity. We've addressed that."
Both players were upset about getting assessed technical and having to leave the game.
"They felt very bad," Lockwood said. "It shows where we are as a team right now in terms of our ability to withstand diversity. That clearly tells people where we are.
"We've had players come close to getting a technical and because it has been Tennessee and there was Pat, there maybe had been some grace given. Our comportment has to be extra good."
The Lady Vols will step out of conference play after the Mississippi State game, but it won't get any easier by far. Notre Dame will be in town for a "Big Monday" matchup on ESPN2 at 7 p.m. Eastern.
"You're talking about going from an alley brawl where you know you're going to get cut up, and you had better wear your old clothes, to where you're playing one of the toughest teams in the country," Lockwood said. "They are a tremendously strong basketball team.
"They execute. They run the Princeton offense. They execute so well. They have great guards, and they're a tough, physical team. They are what we have prided ourselves on being, so that will be a great test to play against talent, toughness and a team that executes well.
"It's going to be a tremendous opportunity for us. We've got to get a league win and then we've got to turn around and play a national stage-type game. Where are you at?"
First up is Mississippi State, as the Lady Vols look to secure a needed win in the SEC. Lockwood knows exactly what he wants to see on the court.
"Tennessee effort. Tennessee energy," Lockwood said. "A team that is committed to defending and rebounding. A team that is playing with genuine toughness and resolve. A team that embraces defense as a value, not just something that has to be done.
"Do it right, and get it done. That pertains to winning. We want to see passion and effort on defense. It's an awareness issue and competitive maturity.
"We can't relax, and we're not going to relax. We're going to keep doing what we know is right, what we believe in is right, and hopefully, sooner or later, it gets embraced."