The first two games offer some intriguing match-ups for Tennessee. Western Carolina is coached by Kellie Harper, better known to Lady Vol fans as Kellie Jolly, who led UT to three national titles in 1996, 1997 and 1998. Harper, who played from 1995-99, is from Sparta, Tennessee, and has the Catamounts in the NCAA Tournament in her first year as head coach. Western Carolina won its conference tournament in double overtime, and both Harper and Tennessee coach Pat Summitt predicted a UT-WCU match-up in the first round in Knoxville.
"I'm all smiles," Harper said Sunday evening after the brackets were announced. "I haven't stop smiling yet."
There are several storylines in this game starting with a former player going against her coach. It's also the game in which a Tennessee win would give Summitt 879 for her career and draw her even with Dean Smith, the legendary former coach at North Carolina.
For two players on UT's roster – Indiana natives Shyra Ely and Shanna Zolman – the possible second round match-up is tantalizing as they could take on Purdue. Ely's college choices came down to Tennessee or Purdue, and both Ely and Zolman know players on Purdue's roster.
The only disappointment for Tennessee was not getting assigned to the Chattanooga region – No. 1 overall seed LSU was tapped for that region – and having to travel to the Northeast. The coaches and players said they were ready to play anywhere, but Summitt expressed regrets for Lady Vol fans, many of whom were anticipating having the team stay in the state of Tennessee through the first four games.
The ultimate destination is Indianapolis on April 3 and 5 at the RCA Dome, site of the 2005 Final Four. In that regard Sunday was a relief now that the staff and players know what path will lead them there. The players gathered at Summitt's house for a home-cooked meal of steak, salmon, chicken, deviled eggs, rolls and an assortment of vegetables – with a cooking assist from the family of assistant coach Nikki Caldwell – and then watched the brackets unfold as a group.
LSU was announced immediately as the overall No. 1 seed – which the Selection Committee rewards by keeping the team as close to home as possible by geographic location – in the Chattanooga region so the only remaining suspense for the Lady Vols was which region they were headed to and who would join them. Summitt was delighted that no other SEC teams were lurking in Tennessee's bracket.
"I'm absolutely thrilled," Summitt said. "I just kept wondering (while watching) who is going to pop up. I do not want to see Vanderbilt for a fourth time. That is one of the first things I look for every year, to see if we have an SEC opponent in our bracket, and fortunately we do not. We have plenty of competition there, but if you can stay out of the family at this time (it is good), because it is different when you play a conference team. I'm glad that we don't have the potential for that to happen."
Four other SEC teams made the tourney field of 64 – LSU, Georgia, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss – but Tennessee won't play any of them unless they make it to the Final Four.
The players let out an initial groan when they realized they weren't going to Chattanooga, but they quickly refocused on where they were going and who else was in the bracket.
"Of course we were looking forward to playing in Chattanooga, which didn't happen," freshman guard Alexis Hornbuckle said. "Either way it goes we're just going to have to take care of business."
"I was a little shocked we didn't go to Chattanooga, but I feel good about our bracket," said senior guard Brittany Jackson, who played high school basketball about 20 minutes from Chattanooga in nearby Bradley County. "I think it's a great bracket. We can't change it. We've just got to play our basketball."
Fellow senior Loree Moore said she had never been to Philadelphia and – assuming Tennessee makes the Sweet 16 – she was looking forward to traveling to Pennsylvania.
"I'm just glad to be where we are," Moore said. "Philadelphia seems like a great place – never been there before so that will be something to look forward to. I think we've got to (pay attention) to who we've got first, see how it goes from there. It's going to be fun to see what happens."
The assignment of Purdue to Knoxville brought smiles to the faces of Ely and Zolman.
"I want to see Purdue. I really want to see Purdue," said Ely, who is from Indianapolis. "It was either here or Purdue when I was being recruited. I'm really excited about that. I love (coach) Kristy Curry still. I played with a lot of those girls in AAU. It would be something fun for me."
"The moment I saw them (in the bracket), Shyra and I looked at each other, and we just started going crazy," said Zolman, who is from Syracuse, Indiana. "I'm very familiar with a lot of their players, played AAU with them a lot. Having that Indiana connection it's always fun to play against players you've played against in the past. That's obviously something we're looking forward to. I hope that does match up. I really do."
Zolman said she wasn't surprised that LSU was awarded the No. 1 overall seed and correctly surmised that going undefeated in the regular season in the SEC would carry considerable weight. LSU also spent much of the season atop the polls and only lost twice in close games – to Rutgers on the road and to Tennessee in the championship game of the SEC tourney.
"I didn't really question that they were going to get the overall No. 1 seed just because of the season they had," Zolman said. "They won out the toughest conference in America. I'm not disappointed. It doesn't really matter."
After Tennessee beat LSU to win the SEC tourney title, Summitt said she thought her team had earned the right to play in Chattanooga.
"I thought we had a great chance of being the No. 1 seed overall so that shows me how much I don't know," Summitt said. "LSU obviously had a great season, and the rationale is to keep them in their region, and they are in fact the No. 1 seed, you've got to respect that. I'm not opposed to going to Philadelphia. My thinking was more selfish than anything. I knew my family could be there. I knew all of our fans would be there. We'll have some orange in Philadelphia I'm sure. It doesn't bother me basketball-wise, more for our fans, family and friends."
Tennessee's bid for the overall No. 1 seed might have been hurt by having four regular season losses to Texas, Duke, Rutgers and LSU. Tennessee is perennially ranked No. 1 in RPI and SOS, but that didn't lead to the top seed in the NCAA tourney. Summitt, however, has no intention of changing how she schedules.
"We're going to play the schedule, because we want to be ready to play wherever we go," she said. "It's just about going and getting your team in a position to get to the regional level so you can compete for championships or Final Fours. The schedule helps us. This schedule has toughened this team up so much. The losses have really helped them to define their character and what kind of team they want to be."
Summitt seemed happy just not to have an SEC foe in Tennessee's bracket.
"There's no SEC team in it. That I like. Always like not seeing an SEC opponent," Summitt said. "It's family. We know each other far too well. Let's get some new people involved."
Tennessee and Vanderbilt have landed in the same bracket before. Another match-up would have been the fourth of the season after Tennessee won twice in the regular season and once in the semifinals of the SEC tourney.
"Especially not Vanderbilt after we played them three times," assistant coach Holly Warlick said. "I'm happy with the bracket. First of all you don't have any control, just glad to be in it. Seeing some teams that we've seen and seeing some teams we haven't seen, which is good. It's kind of a new season for us. Chattanooga wasn't going to have an impact on us; it was more so for our fans to get there. LSU had a great year, and they obviously deserve to go."
Assistant coach Nikki Caldwell said playing an SEC opponent can be advantageous in terms of scouting, but she's also glad to see some new faces.
"It is good to see somebody else besides Georgia and Vanderbilt because they're such tough opponents," Caldwell said. "We definitely have a tough road ahead of us. There's a plus and minus with going into new territory. There's something to be said when you've played against somebody in your conference. You know their personnel, you know what worked against them, what didn't. In that regard it can be to your advantage. I think we're up for the challenge. Our conference is strong. We always seem to beat up on each other. Now this gives our conference the opportunity to go out nationally and compete against other conferences."
"I really like our bracket and our path right now just looking at it on paper," said assistant coach Dean Lockwood as he perused the bracket shortly after the teams were announced. "All these teams are good; they're all worthy opponents. Every game is going to be tough. I like our bracket. I would have loved to have been in Chattanooga, but I like our bracket. I'd take our bracket right now."
There are some familiar faces in Tennessee's bracket with the presence of Rutgers, Temple, Louisiana Tech and N.C. State. Ohio State, which is coached by former Vandy coach Jim Foster, also is in the Philly region.
"It is an interesting mix of teams," Summitt said. "I think the one thing I have always tried to do is to not think we have to play everyone in the bracket. Just take one game at a time and focus on one team at a time. When you start to look ahead, you can get distracted as a coach.
"I see this bracket as being a lot of very athletic teams. You look at Temple, who played us absolutely to the wire, and we were fortunate to win at home. Louisiana Tech is a great athletic team that I'm sure is much improved since we played them. Looking at Rutgers, they were a whole lot more than we were ready to handle. Texas Tech can step up and beat anyone on a given night. It's a tough bracket, but I'm not going to go to bed thinking I've got to play all of them. Just Western Carolina right now, Kellie Jolly."
Kellie Jolly, as she was known during her playing days at Tennessee is now coach Kellie Harper at Western Carolina. The Catamounts represent the Southern Conference and earned a nod to the NCAA Tournament after winning its conference tournament.
Harper's players told her before the final game that they wanted to meet Summitt.
"I said earlier I called Kellie to congratulate her (before the brackets were announced), and I told her that I'd see her in Knoxville," Summitt said. "She said some of her players wanted to meet coach Summitt. She thought about that match-up long before I did. Kellie was always smart. She'll have her team ready to play."
Harper said Sunday evening that the Western Carolina campus is covered with congratulatory signs, and the players have received standing ovations when they walk into class. They were excited before the brackets were announced and anticipating possibly having to travel across the country to open play as a No. 16 seed.
"They kind of blamed that on me, going to Knoxville," Harper said. "They were obviously teasing about it, laughing and having a good time."
Harper knows her team is an underdog and also having to take on Tennessee when Summitt has a chance to make basketball history by tying Smith in the record books.
"I think they're not looking to that as much as they're looking to win six and a national championship," Harper said of her former team and coach. "If I know Pat that's more important to her."
Harper also doesn't want her relationship with Summitt and the subsequent media attention to detract from what her players have accomplished.
"The biggest story is our players are playing in the NCAA Tournament," Harper said. "I think our players need to enjoy this. At the same time I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't try to win this basketball game. Pat taught me better than that."
Regardless of the outcome of the game, Western Carolina benefits in the national picture, Harper said.
"That's going to be huge for this program," Harper said. "That's the kind of publicity you want when you're recruiting."
Freshman center Nicky Anosike is happy to have an opponent. She enjoyed her first selection show and looks forward to a week of practice with an actual scouting report.
"I didn't really know what to expect," Anosike said of the brackets being announced. "I didn't really know how to react to certain things. It was a learning experience just watching the upperclassmen and how they reacted to certain things. This week has been kind of weird. We're just guarding concepts and usually we'll have a scouting report and we know players and what we have to defend. Just guarding concepts is kind of different."
There are no more concepts. The field is known, and Tennessee knows what it has to do to reach its fourth straight Final Four.
"We'll play wherever we need to play," Zolman said. "We just want to get to Indy."
ODDS AND ENDS: Pat Summitt picked three of the top four seeds correctly. The surprise for her was Michigan State instead of Baylor. She also said she wasn't surprised by North Carolina's selection as a top seed.
"You look at North Carolina and the way they beat Duke in that (ACC) championship game," Summitt said. "I don't think you can erase that from your mind. They were just overwhelming. And I think the committee, they're human and they see it. I thought they would be a No. 1 seed."
Last year's champion, UConn, got a No. 3 seed and will play in the Kansas City region. The Big East has four teams in the tourney – UConn, Rutgers, Boston College and Notre Dame – after sending eight last year. The SEC has five.
Tennessee – which now has been a No. 1 seed 17 times – and Louisiana Tech are the only schools to be invited to all 24 NCAA tournaments. LaTech was considered a bubble team with its 20-9 record but made it to the tourney finals of the Western Athletic Conference.
Several other bubble teams also were breathing easier after the announcements – Virginia Tech, Purdue, Oklahoma, Houston, Arizona, Oregon and Richmond. But Delaware, Gonzaga, UT-Chattanooga, Iowa, Villanova and Xavier won't be in the Big Dance in March.
A team with a losing record did make it. Illinois State, 13-17, won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament to earn the automatic bid and opens NCAA play with Baylor. Illinois State isn't the lowest seed in the Tempe region, however, at No. 15. That distinction went to No. 16 seed Coppin State, which will play North Carolina.
Virginia Tech's selection pushed the ACC's teams to seven with the Hokies joining North Carolina, Duke, N.C. State, Virginia, Maryland and Florida State. The Big 12 got six teams; the Pac-10 and Big Ten got five teams each.
Since eight teams are being sent to each sub-regional, four other teams will open play in Knoxville on Sunday, March 20. LSU faces Stetson, and Oklahoma will play Arizona. The winners face off Tuesday, March 22, with the victor going on to Chattanooga.
Game times in Knoxville on Sunday are: Oklahoma-Arizona, noon, espn2; LSU-Stetson, 2:30 p.m. ESPN; New Mexico-Purdue, 7 p.m., espn2; and Tennessee-Western Carolina, 9:30 p.m., espn2.