The Lady Vols prepared Wednesday for the Gators on short rest after hosting Notre Dame on Monday in the last nonconference game until NCAA postseason in March. The slate gets even tougher to end the week as Tennessee travels to College Station for a matchup with league-leading Texas A&M on Sunday.
Meighan Simmons and Bashaara Graves handled the mass media interviews – both are adept at talking into a cluttered row of cameras and recorders – while Ariel Massengale sat courtside for a chat with InsideTennessee.
Massengale sighed and smiled when it was pointed out that as she goes, Tennessee goes. She knows it's true – the second half of the loss to Notre Dame was ample evidence – and the team will get in her slipstream for better or for worse.
"I've seen that just looking back at the losses that we've had," Massengale said. "If I'm not being aggressive or I'm not pushing the ball in transition, showing that passion and heart I have for the game, it trickles down to everyone else.
"You can see that throughout our play. It is not even all about scoring. Just attacking and getting my post players involved, getting the guards open shots. It definitely plays a huge part."
The players respond to Massengale because she is the point guard and the leader on a relatively young team. It is not an easy position to play – college point guards are a premium commodity – and, as the saying goes, if it were, everyone would do it.
"That is very true. It is very hard," Massengale said. "But because of the relationships we have off the court, whether we're in the heat of battle and I yell at them or get onto them or I am praising them, they know it is coming from a good place."
Massengale is a junior with the rest of this year and a full season left to play as a senior, but it sometimes seems as if she has been on campus longer. Pat Summitt, now the head coach emeritus, anointed Massengale the starting point guard while she was still at Bolingbrook High School in Illinois.
She has started 72 games at Tennessee and played in 86. Massengale is the only player to start every game this season. Holly Warlick has shown a willingness to shake up the lineup with various combinations, but the fact Massengale has remained a mainstay underscores how much her presence is needed on the court.
Massengale laughed when it was pointed out it almost seemed like she was on the staff at Tennessee, such was her perceived longevity.
"I have been here for a while," she said. "You want to go to a program where you can step in and play. I am not done yet. I've got the rest of this year and all of next year and I am trying to get to the Final Four and win a national championship.
"I think we have all the right pieces to get there."
When Massengale has Tennessee clicking, as she did for all of her 18 minutes on the floor in the first half against Notre Dame, the Lady Vols can play with any team in the country. The question, however, is how can the team sustain it?
"First off it has to happen every day in practice," Massengale said. "If you can sustain a high level of energy like that for two or three hours in practice, 40 minutes will be easy.
"It comes down to a mind-set. Starting that game Monday night we had a chip on our shoulder. We weren't the team that was necessarily hunted, but we were trying to go after somebody else.
"I have to play a lot calmer. We have to do it every day. We've got to train our minds, train our bodies to be able to play at that level and have that killer instinct."
While Massengale holds the mantle of team leader, she does need some help. The most likely assistance could come from Andraya Carter, a redshirt freshman who has the mind-set but needs to find her voice on the court.
That is tough for a newcomer, but Massengale needs the backup. Carter has one of Massengale's best attributes – a tendency to be bossy, and that is a good thing for a point guard. Carter needs to channel her "inner Ariel" – a phrase that brought a big smile from Massengale – and contribute as a leader in year one.
Massengale is trying to accelerate the process "by constantly talking to her."
"Honestly, I think because she was here last year, we forget she hasn't played much," Massengale said. "This is her first time playing an SEC season. We forget that about her."
Carter played in nine games and then had season-ending shoulder surgery in December of 2012. She completed the eight-month rehab and returned to full-time basketball last fall. The long layoff required that she work in the preseason with assistant coach Jolette Law to restore her shooting form and timing.
Carter has been a somewhat reluctant shooter, but she has an offensive skill-set – she can hit threes and get to the paint – and the Lady Vols need her to be aggressive with the ball. She also moves well without the ball – she made a perfect cut to the basket for an and-one play late in a tight Mississippi State game – and keeps her poise, thus a tendency not to make ill-timed turnovers.
"I just continue to encourage her, challenge her, push her to be the best that she can be and make her tap into that potential," Massengale said.
Tennessee needs for the process to be accelerated. The Lady Vols need on-ball defenders for man schemes and quick players who can get out on shooters in the zone looks. Carter also will push tempo and has developed a smooth game flow with Massengale and Meighan Simmons.
"She knows it's not always easy, when I've got to get onto her," Massengale said. "And she has asked that of me, and I am willing to do that. That is what she wants to do for this team, and that is what we need her to do for her to be successful."
A player that is willing to be taken out of her comfort zone – actually asking her point guard to do so – is a player that wants to succeed.
Massengale is already known as the mother hen of the team – she will scold players off the court, too, if needed – and Carter can tap into that mind-set, too.
There are times Carter will direct traffic and channel her inner point guard. Carter also can be quiet on the court – freshmen tend to not always know what to say and when – but Carter has a high basketball IQ and is always around the ball. She earns the right to speak, ironically, by using her voice.
"She is a great student of the game, and she knows what is going on," Massengale said. "I think she kind of thinks, ‘Since Ariel is here, I don't necessarily have to do as much.' She cannot do that at all. That is something I am constantly talking to her about.
"I don't care if you are playing with me or against me (in practice). You have to lead your team. Your voice has to be heard every time you are on the court."
Tennessee should be especially inspired Thursday. The SEC designated this week of games as "We Back Pat" events with teams showing support on their shooting shirts.
Fans are encouraged to wear "We Back Pat" T-shirts and bracelets, which will be sold Thursday on the concourse at the arena. The items also are available at the Pat Summitt store.
"It means a lot, especially being here and playing under her for her last year and my first year," Massengale said. "It's a great opportunity to play for the best who will ever coach this game for as long as eternity.
"When you put on this jersey you want to go out there and make her proud and do the best we can."
The tip time of 6:34 is an odd one – Massengale joked that it would interfere with her standard nap routine – but the point guard will make sure everyone is on time.
"We'll be ready," she said.
Simmons will carry on a tradition started by the departed Taber Spani – and one Spani told InsideTennessee she was glad was continuing – of hugging Summitt before tipoff at her courtside seat.
"I saw Taber do it, and it reminded me to be grateful just to have somebody like that," Simmons said. "By me hugging her it allows me to feel confidence and just to remember that she's still here, even though she is not on the sidelines.
"I just love Pat, and I have to show her that I appreciate her and show her that I really do love and care for her."
Simmons has genuine love and affection for Summitt – she chose the Lady Vols because of Candace Parker's legacy and Summitt – so the "We Back Pat" initiative is an important one for the senior guard. Summitt is connected to the team as head coach emeritus and remains a regular part of the program.
"It's going to be a very emotional day for me," Simmons said. "Pat is still my head coach, and I appreciate everything that she's done for me and helped me to become the woman that I am today.
"It is going to be an inspiring game. It is something that should motivate not only me but the rest of the team just to go out there and play even harder for her."