Five questions before Lady Vols tip off

The Lady Vols open NCAA play Saturday against Boise State at Thompson-Boling Arena. Go inside with InsideTennessee for the answers to five questions before tipoff.

Tennessee (27-5) opens the first round against Boise State (22-10) at 1:30 p.m. Eastern (TV: ESPN2). Chattanooga (29-3) and Pittsburgh (19-11) get the sub-regional started early at 11 a.m. (ESPN2).

This will be the Lady Vols’ 34th appearance in the NCAA tourney with Tennessee being the only team in the country to play in every year of the sport’s biggest event since it began in 1982.

Tennessee carries plenty of history onto the court with a 42-0 record in the early rounds in Knoxville, so while the chances are excellent that Tennessee survives Knoxville and heads to Spokane, it’s not something that can be taken for granted.

ONE: After the Selection Show on Monday, did the team refocus on the sub-regional in Knoxville and not look ahead to the Spokane Region?

The coaches made sure that the focus returned to the next game and the Broncos of Boise State. The excitement was understandable – especially for the three players who hail from the Pacific Northwest – but for a team that looked, to be blunt, rather wretched at home this time a year ago, overlooking any opponent would be ill-advised.

In 2014, the Lady Vols, a number one seed, had just a two-point lead at halftime, 22-20, against Northwestern State. The Lady Vols won 70-46, but the locker room mood was sour afterwards. Tennessee managed a 67-51 win over St. John’s – and led by just four at halftime – and then fell to Maryland in the Sweet 16, a loss that wasn’t surprising in hindsight.

Holly Warlick said her team plays better as an underdog and while the No. 2 seed won’t be an underdog at home, the head coach has made it a point to make her team focus on the task at hand.

“We talk a lot about where we started in the summer and how we ended up and we’re right where we want to be,” Warlick said. “We take one game at a time.”

The coaches got the players’ attention with film of the Broncos, which play an offensive style that has given Tennessee trouble at times. Of course, Saturday’s play is the ultimate answer to whether or not the players were paying strict attention.

TWO: What can the Lady Vols expect against Boise State?

A barrage of three balls, similar to the approach of SEC sister school Missouri. The Broncos attempted 725 treys and connected on 263 of them for a conversion of 36.3 percent. By comparison, the Lady Vols attempted 441 three-pointers and hit 152 them at a clip of 34.5 percent.

Tennessee needs to find Deanna Weaver on the floor. The senior guard from Santa Clara, Calif., attempted 174 long balls and made 73 (42.0 percent). Brooke Pahukoa, a sophomore guard from Lake Stevens, Wash., attempted 139 and hit 50 (36.0 percent). A third projected starter, Yaiza Rodriguez, a sophomore guard from Barcelona, Spain, attempted 120 threes and connected on 36 (30.0 percent)

The three-ball attack is balanced by size inside with 6-3 junior Miquelle Askew from South Jordan, Utah, and 6-4 senior Camille Redmon from Grand Prairie, Texas.

“I think they’re a penetrate-and-kick type of team,” Lady Vols senior Cierra Burdick said. “They’ve got a lot of balanced scoring, they’ve got some girls that can hit the three, they’ve got some big girls inside, as well as some slashers, so offensively I think they’re pretty balanced.

“We’ve just got to know our scout and who we’re guarding and prepare to put a lot of pressure on them to make them play fast.”

THREE: How is the health of the Lady Vol players?

About as good as can be expected at this time of year. The players were on spring break this past week, so they had extra time to rest and get into the training room for treatments. They also had three days off – two in a row followed by two days of practice and another day off – immediately after the SEC Tournament.

The time between tournaments was a godsend for the Lady Vols, as they are basically a rotation of seven now because of season-ending injuries and redshirts. After two outstanding wins over Georgia and Kentucky in the SEC tourney, the Lady Vols were worn out against South Carolina, a situation made even more difficult with the early foul calls on Bashaara Graves.

“We played the majority of seven kids three games in a row – that was tough for us,” Warlick said. “We took some days off, and went back to work and told them, ‘You’re never going to have to play three games in a row, but the competition when you get into the NCAA Tournament every night is huge.’ ”

That wasn’t always the case in the early rounds in the women’s tournament, but it is now with increased parity. Also, so many games are televised or available online that coaching staffs can more easily get scouting film.

FOUR: What about the first game between Pitt and Chattanooga?

Pitt is a 10 seed and Chattanooga is a seven seed, so it would not be that much of an upset if the Panthers won. Pitt is an athletic team that can disrupt the Mocs. Of course, the same was said about Tennessee, and the Lady Vols lost in Chattanooga last November.

The Selection Committee tends to like intriguing rematches, but Pitt could spoil an anticipated Tennessee vs. Chattanooga game in the second round on Monday. Of course, the Lady Vols first have to clear Boise State.

“We are here to compete, like I said earlier, when you play in the NCAA Tournament you want to play the best and we have the opportunity to play one of the best and certainly one of the best all-time programs,” Boise State coach Gordy Presnell said.

“We don’t have to be the best team, we just have to be the best team for 40 minutes. We will compete and just see where it goes.”

FIVE: What the keys for Tennessee to win?

The Lady Vols have to guard the three ball against a team that likes to both spot up and penetrate and kick. That means following scouting report defense. If Warlick has a quick hook in this game, it means someone wasn’t mentally ready for tipoff.

In three words on defense, pressure, pressure, pressure. Tennessee wants to disrupt Boise State, and that starts with perimeter defense. Andraya Carter is critical for Tennessee in this regard.

In three words on offense, run, run, run. In three more words, attack, attack, attack. The Lady Vols want a fast tempo – and the chance to use all nine available players over 40 minutes. Tennessee wants to score inside, whether by penetration or post feeds, with transition points at the rim always preferable.

When Tennessee sets up half-court, the coaches want to make the defense move and get the best shot, not a quick shot.

Rebounding, as always, has been emphasized, as the team that controls the boards controls the game on both ends.

BONUS: Will Pat Summitt be in attendance?

Burdick, who spent some time recently with Summitt, fielded that one at Friday’s press conference, and the answer was yes.

“If she gets here early, she will speak to the team,” Burdick said. “She just enjoys coming out and she enjoys the game right now. She doesn’t have to think about what press to run or who we’re going to put in or what the score is or what I need to say when no one can hear me. She just sits there and enjoys the game.

“Obviously she wanted to win here at Tennessee, but the one thing about Pat that always stands out is that she wanted what’s best for women's basketball, and I know she is excited about all the teams coming in.”

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