Tennessee had to beat three NCAA-tourney teams in LSU, Texas A&M and Kentucky to taken the SEC tourney crown in Duluth, Ga., a week ago, and that experience – plus the two-month grind of the SEC regular season – should have the Lady Vols well prepared for the NCAA postseason.
"The SEC is the best conference in the country," junior forward Cierra Burdick said.
One would be hard-pressed to argue against that assessment after the SEC filled one-eighth of a 64-team bracket, but the ultimate proof will come as the games unfold over the next three weeks.
With the Final Four in Nashville, the SEC – and especially Tennessee, want to be represented – and Meighan Simmons, the senior shooting guard, was already preaching the one-game-at-a-time mantra.
Tennessee (27-5) will open at home Saturday at 4 p.m. Eastern (TV: ESPN2) against Northwestern State (21-12), which earned its spot by winning the Southland Conference tourney in Katy, Texas. The Lady Demons are helmed by co-head coaches Brooke and Scott Stoehr, and the school is located in Natchitoches, La. Brooke Stoehr was a point guard for Louisiana Tech and played in four NCAA tourneys.
No. 8 seed St. John's (22-10) and No. 9 seed Southern California (22-12) were also assigned to the Knoxville sub-regional and will meet at 6:30 p.m. (ESPN2) at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The winners square off next Monday evening at 9 p.m. Eastern (ESPN2) for the right to advance to Louisville.
In a peculiarity of this year's tournament, teams were allowed to bid to host the regionals. So No. 1 seeds face the possible scenario of having to win on a lower seed's home court if the brackets hold.
No. 1 seed Notre Dame will host in South Bend, but UConn could face No. 4 seed Nebraska in Lincoln. South Carolina could play No. 2 Stanford at Maples Pavilion, while the Lady Vols may face No. 3 Louisville on its home court at the KFC Yum! Center.
However, the Lady Vols were thrilled with the No. 1 seed and grateful for a regional relatively close to Knoxville. Tennessee fans travel in large numbers, but a regional site in Louisville certainly makes a trip easier than being flung to the West Coast and Stanford.
Tennessee can likely thank its head-to-head win over South Carolina in the regular season and winning the SEC tourney – while the Gamecocks bowed out in the semifinals – for the placement in Louisville rather than Stanford.
"A number one seed, that is what we were hoping for," Coach Holly Warlick said, "and we're anxious to get started. It's an indication of how we finished our season."
Tennessee's first round matchup against Northwestern State will be the first between the two programs.
"To watch our players see our name jump up there across that screen was a fun feeling and a great moment for them, one they'll always remember, one we will always treasure," Coach Brooke Stoehr said.
The Lady Demons will be a decided underdog in Knoxville – the Lady Vols are undefeated in the first and second rounds at home – but they are looking forward to the trip.
"Tennessee is one of the most storied programs in the history of women's college basketball. For our team to experience that is a great opportunity," Stoehr said. "Hopefully, we'll not be in too much awe of it, and we'll come out relaxed, compete and play loose like we have the last three weeks.
" … This team always does pretty well in an underdog role. Some of that is the personality they've adopted after being picked eighth in the league. We've told them since we've been here – we need to be playing our best, most complete basketball in March."
Warlick and her staff have told their team the same thing. The Lady Vols stumbled a bit along the way during the regular season and finished second in the SEC but have hit their stride when it matters and came home from Duluth with a precious commodity for an athlete – confidence.
The team was boisterous during the show, especially when Tennessee's name popped up as a No. 1 seed and when ESPN aired a live feed from Knoxville.
However, that same group was quiet and transfixed about 40 minutes before the Selection Show began. Warlick opted to have the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame host the show for the team, staff, athletics department officials and media, and the lower court area was used for the gathering.
Attendees had to wind through the exhibits to reach the back stairwell to the courts. The players stopped at an exhibit that featured videos of locker room talks, and selected the one for Pat Summitt. Not a single player spoke or checked her phone. Their complete attention was on the large video screen.
Summitt was the head coach when Meighan Simmons was a freshman. That following summer, Summitt announced that she had early onset dementia and coached one more season with Warlick handling most of the bench duties.
Simmons remembered the Summitt in the video and smiled when asked about her teammates' reaction.
"I said, ‘Y'all, she was just like that my freshman year,' " Simmons said. "I think they were just amazed at the woman and the charisma that she has.
"Just to be poised when it comes to the game of basketball, because when you see that brow and you see that stare, you wouldn't think that she would be so calm. I think they admired how well she communicated with her players, what she wanted, what she expected."
Summitt attended the Selection Show and Warlick let her former head coach and mentor cut in front of her in the food line. The motto of the hall is "Honor the Past, Celebrate the Present, Promote the Future." It was the perfect spot for a Selection Show in which Tennessee earned a No. 1 seed for the first time since 2011, had its legendary head coach emeritus present and talked about getting the Lady Vols back to a Final Four for the first time since 2008.
"You hear how Tennessee hasn't been up to par, hasn't been a normal Lady Vol team, and it's disappointing," Andraya Carter said. "To have an opportunity to be a one seed and get there, it's huge."
VIDEO RECAP FROM UTSPORTSTV
INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO INTERVIEWS
Discuss this story with InsideTennessee writers and subscribers by clicking here.