"That was short-lived," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said of her complete team.
Summitt should be used to it by now. Before the season even started, Candace Parker needed knee surgery. She practiced for the first time last week. Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood was pulled in October with patellar tendonitis and didn't practice until early December. Sybil Dosty sustained a concussion earlier this season and missed several days of practice and then was sidelined with a sore foot last week. Loree Moore had a tonsillectomy Dec. 10 but was cleared Monday to practice after seeing the team physician.
About the only possible advantage for the Lady Vols is that it makes them a difficult team to scout since the opposition never knows who might be available to play.
"I don't, so I don't know how they could," Summitt said.
Next up on Tennessee's schedule is the annual clash with UConn (Saturday, 2 p.m. EST, CBS, Lady Vol Radio Network). Both teams have struggled so far this season to score and are not ruling the top of the rankings as usual. Tennessee, 9-3, is ranked No. 10 (lowest rank since the last poll of the regular season in 1996-97); UConn is 7-3 and ranked No. 15 (its lowest position since Dec. 7, 1993.)
"Absolutely," said Summitt when asked if UT-UConn was still a big game despite each team having three losses and dropping in the rankings. "It matters. Let's hope it's fun. I've been waiting to have some fun. It's been work, work, work."
This year's Tennessee team has been slow to come together – partly because of all the injuries – and has struggled to find consistency on offense and intensity on defense.
"I'm so focused on our team I really haven't thought that much about them," Summitt said of UConn. "I've only seen them play one time, which is a little unusual. I just think it's because we've had so much to overcome and try to figure out in terms of our own team, who's going to be on the court and just to get them in a better place offensively and defensively."
Tennessee will have two practice sessions today and then one on Wednesday before leaving for Hartford, Conn., on Thursday. Because Tennessee doesn't have an SEC game on the schedule until Jan. 13, it left the week open before the UConn game.
"I'm just glad we've got three quality days here before we travel Thursday. We really need the reps," Summitt said. "It's a huge preparation week, which we've never had before we've played Connecticut. It just worked out because we don't have an SEC game this week. I hope to come out better defensively. I hope to come out a better rebounding team and a better running team. Obviously the fourth point of emphasis has been continuity. Those are the four areas of most concern.
"We haven't been able to disrupt teams this year like we did last year. It's glaring."
Summitt welcomed the return of Moore because the senior ratchets up the defensive intensity when she steps onto the court.
"Just from today we were better because she was on the floor," Summitt said Monday after practice. "I think without question Sa'de and Alexis picked up their intensity from a defensive standpoint as well as from pushing in transition."
Moore's teammates, especially Alexis Hornbuckle, were also glad to see her.
"It's going to be a big difference; she's bringing the intensity on our defense. We're excited to have her back, especially us two," Wiley-Gatewood said of herself and Hornbuckle.
Hornbuckle had to fill Moore's position on the court and although she had some standout games she also felt the pressure of being a point guard in Summitt's system.
"All this pressure to be a leader and step up. I had no problems assuming that role in high school, but it's a lot easier because you were the head man in high school," Hornbuckle said. "Everybody's an All-Star (in college) so you've got to take different approaches to being a leader. I'm kind of still learning that role. Having Loree back, she's a leader. I'm looking and learning."
Moore helped Hornbuckle from the bench and had plenty of one-on-one talks with her, mostly to remind her that she would be back.
"Being a point guard everything is your fault anyway," Moore said. "I was telling her to relax, listen to what the coaches are telling you as well as try to play your game. I told her keep getting through it, I'm going to help you out, and your frustrations will be over."
After practicing for more than three hours Monday, Moore saw a difference in her own game. Most notably, she could breathe.
"I feel really good actually," said Moore, who is hoarse because one side of her throat still has scabs from the surgery. Before "I was just struggling to get air. I can get more fluid in my running and catch my breath faster."
If Moore has a good week of practice, she is likely to slide right back into her starting position as point guard.
"That's a possibility," Summitt said.
With Moore at the point – and Wiley-Gatewood getting more repetitions as backup - Hornbuckle can shift back to the wing, where she's freer to roam to the basket for rebounds and create scoring opportunities.
"It's allowed us to put Alexis at the two some, which I think she could be terrific at that spot running in transition and putting more pressure on the defense," Summitt said. "And I thought Loree and Sa'de both pushed tempo very well today."
"Couldn't you tell?" Summitt asked when she was asked if the presence of Moore takes pressure off of Hornbuckle. "She was relaxed. She was knocking down shots. It's giving her a little more freedom offensively. I like Alexis at the two."
Hornbuckle rankled Summitt in the last two games with what her coach said was a "casual" approach to handling the basketball at the point position.
But it's Moore's contributions on defense that Summitt missed the most.
"I think it was glaring on the defensive end," Summitt said. "Nobody stepped up at the point position with the type of pressure that we like to put."
UT's 65-51 loss to Rutgers on Dec. 29 in New Jersey was so lacking in defensive inspiration that Summitt is making the players turn their practice shirts inside-out until they earn the right to show Tennessee on their chests.
"They had momentum, they gained confidence," Summitt said of Rutgers. "It started out little choo-choo train and then they're just steamrollering over us once they saw what we were all about."
The loss looked a little better Sunday after Rutgers went to Texas and ended the Lady Longhorns' 41-game home winning streak with a 51-47 victory after Texas surrendered an 18-point lead. That the loss came in Austin was a shocker.
"She's got to be sick," Summitt said of Texas coach Jody Conradt. "I might have jumped off the Gay Street Bridge on that one. As a coach sometimes you feel helpless."
As it was Rutgers left Summitt merely sleepless. Tennessee didn't fly home until the next morning after that game.
"I went back to the room and put the tape in and started yelling," Summitt said. "And watched it over and over and over. Got on the plane the next day, and tortured myself one more time. Then we got here and went straight to practice. I cannot go to sleep without watching a game, win or lose, doesn't matter what the game looked like. I wish I could."
When the Lady Vols took the practice court after the Rutgers game, their practice shirts were inside out.
"I told them the only time I want to see Tennessee on their chest was during the game," Summitt said. "We're not playing like Tennessee. They've got to get in here and practice and learn how to play like Tennessee."
The shirts won't turn around "until they understand across the board how we practice and play," she said.
"It's kind of frustrating because I know the difference, the Tennessee legacy, and what you do, and we're not meeting those standards right now," Moore said. "We're not playing hard and playing with a lot of heart and fighting and competing with teams.
"That's something I harped on in the meetings. I said we have to come out here and compete against each other and really earn the respect of everybody and play the way we know how to play. We shouldn't be playing like this. It's something we have to see and get in our minds that we need to actually start playing, and we need to start competing. It is kind of annoying because you want to wear the T, you want to be proud of wearing it, but you've got to earn it. She's making sure that we earn it."
Ely agreed with the move but noted that Summitt would likely forget to tell them to turn them around. Summitt didn't notice the shirts were still backwards Monday, but she said it's not time to display Tennessee's name on the front yet.
"We haven't been representing Tennessee the way we should," Ely said.
PARKER UPDATE: Freshman forward Candace Parker made it almost to the end of Monday's practice but was pulled after Jenny Moshak noticed a limp.
"I pulled her towards the end because I saw her limping. But the swelling looked pretty good," said Moshak, the associate athletics director for sports medicine. The key for Parker will be overnight swelling after a hard practice and how long she is able to go today.
Parker didn't want to come out, but acquiesced to Moshak's instructions.
Summitt said Parker, who had knee surgery in September and only started practice last week, is not in pain so she wants to play. But if her knee swells, she will be held out, and she can't play in her first game until she has two back-to-back practices without any problems.
"She's not having the pain, but she might start to swell a little bit," Summitt said. "Sometimes less is not only more it's certainly smarter. I don't want to overdo it."
The game plan is for Parker to practice two weeks and then she will be evaluated to determine if, and when, she can play. That makes UConn a possibility but still a long shot.
"Basically in talking with Candace and Jenny I said I would not want to play her for at least two weeks," Summitt said. "I want to be fair and have enough time to assess. And obviously we're in our second week right now. We'll have to take a look at the end of the week."
Dr. William Youmans, the team orthopedist, will be making the trip to Hartford, because he's never been to UConn and wants to go with the Tennessee team. That might come in handy. But Summitt's not counting on Parker just yet.
"I just try not to think about it until I get the green light," she said.
‘ONE EYE TYE:' During a defensive drill Monday, Alexis Hornbuckle and Tye'sha Fluker were scrambling for a loose ball when Hornbuckle inadvertently jabbed Fluker in the right eye. Fluker fell to the floor and grabbed her eye, which immediately swelled.
"She sustained a contusion to the cornea and a scratch on the cornea," Moshak said.
Fluker left practice to see an eye doctor and received medical drops and a dual patch designed to fit over the orbital bone and keep the eye closed. She will return to the doctor to determine if she can play in the morning and/or afternoon practice sessions today.
"If that cornea is healed up she can practice. If not, she cannot practice," Moshak said. "The good thing about the eye is it heals very quickly if it rests."
SCOUTING REPORTS: UT's assistant coaches usually put together scouting reports on the opponents, but this week Summitt assigned the players to do so. Since they are still on Christmas break, the players don't have classroom obligations, so Summitt figured this would be a good learning experience.
"When I started coaching I learned basketball from scouting. To me it's a great way to understand the game and to learn how to see things," Summitt said.
It's also another way to get the team to assume accountability for their play.
"Absolutely, take a little more ownership," Summitt said.
The assignment paid off against ODU – "They really knew that team. And I think it gave them confidence going in," Summitt said – so the team will also prepare a report before the UConn game.
(But Dean Lockwood had his report ready "just in case" before the ODU game, Summitt said, and Holly Warlick will have her UConn report ready, too.)
The players have always said the coaching staff gets them well prepared, but they apparently were somewhat surprised at how long it takes to put together a thorough report – about 12 to 20 hours.
"You have to watch so much tape," Summitt said. "You have to know the personnel. You have to put it all together. You've got to show their offenses, their out of bounds, their quick hitters, their defense."