If the night before the brackets are announced is comparable to Christmas Eve, the tournament itself feels a bit like Christmas itself. It's festive, and it's fun. <p> Tennessee basketball fans who will be in Thompson-Boling Arena this Sunday ended up with a lot of presents – the Lady Vols as a No. 1 seed with a coach poised to make history, and two former Lady Vols on the staffs of teams coming to Knoxville. <p>

Lady Vol Shanna Zolman sums it up with one word.

"It's a lot of fun," said the junior guard from Syracuse, Indiana. "We have four parts of the season. The worst is the preseason. The regular season – fun. Then you get tournament time with the SEC conference. That's a lot of fun. But when you get to (NCAA) tournament time, that's what everything is about."

Knoxville is the place to be – or one of eight at least – for women's basketball fans. Another No. 1 seed will be here in LSU.

"Absolutely," Zolman said. "Eight separate teams are going to be playing. That in itself is exciting. The atmosphere is going to be so electric. Not only us, but LSU is going to be here. Having two ex-Lady Vols come here with their teams. I think it's going to be very exciting."

Zolman's coach certainly agrees.

"I think that it's exciting to have eight teams coming to Thompson-Boling Arena," coach Pat Summitt said. "Without question, there is quality basketball to be played. When I think about the fact that you have Tennessee and LSU, I don't think anyone can match that in terms of seeing the teams that have battled it out this year and that have been successful. SEC fans in the area will get to see SEC basketball.

"The makeup of this bracket for our fans (will be good), with Kellie Jolly coming with Western Carolina and Bridgette Gordon coming as an assistant coach with Stetson. It will be a homecoming in some respect for those two and our fans. It should be great basketball, and I think there will be some great games."

TENNESSEE CONNECTIONS: The LSU Lady Tigers first round opponent is the Stetson Hatters, whose staff includes former Lady Vol Bridgette Gordon.

Gordon, an assistant coach from Deland, Fla., played for Tennessee from 1985 through 1989. The Lady Vols play Western Carolina in their opener. The Catamounts are coached by former Lady Vol Kellie Jolly Harper of Sparta, Tenn., who played from 1995 through 1999. Gordon and Harper have five national titles between them during their tenure at Tennessee – 1987 and 1989 for Gordon and 1996, 1997 and 1998 for Harper.

"We kind of figured that," said UT assistant coach Nikki Caldwell, who played for Summitt from 1990 through 1994, of the placement of Western Carolina. "You flip it around it could have been Bridgette Gordon at Stetson. It's just a tribute to coming out of this program and how many players have gone on to pursue a coaching career and how many of them have been successful. Kellie's going to have her team ready. They're going to be competitive. She's obviously going to take what she learned from Pat. We just wish both teams the best."

Summitt has spoken by phone to both Gordon and Harper. Gordon told her that her mother hopes to attend, and it will be the first time for Summitt to see Gordon's mother since the former player's graduation day.

Graduation day is also Summitt's proudest accomplishment, though the number of former players and staff members in the coaching ranks also ranks high – currently 57 in high school, pro and college, with 39 of those being former players.

Summitt has a 100 percent graduation rate of players who have remained for four years, and said that statistic is her favorite "because first and foremost we want them to leave here with a degree."

"But to have so many of them in the profession – I think every summer when I go out recruiting it's Tennessee everywhere you turn, and of course they're recruiting against us now – that makes me proud that they love the game enough that they want to make a career out of it," Summitt said. "We've got a few of them in the tournament."

BRACKET BASH: Summitt was thrilled to see the brackets revealed Sunday. It's the waiting that is trying.

"I cannot wait to get the brackets," Summitt said. "It reminds me of when I was a kid. It's like Christmas Eve. I couldn't sleep, would wake up. Obviously maybe it's not the best gift when you get the bracket, and you're not getting exactly what you wanted. At the same time it gives you a focus on an opponent. …. Just to see the people coming here and what we're going to be faced with."

Summitt passes the time by cooking because she invites the team, staff and area media to her house for a full-course meal before the brackets are announced on television.

"We've always watched the Selection Show at the house," Summitt said. "I love to cook, and that's a good thing to do the day you've got a long day and you've got to wait. I like to have them over for an occasional meal, and let them pick the menu. That keeps me busy all day. I started at 8. I had some people help me. The managers were terrific. Everybody pitches in. That's the way we do everything around here. It's all family.

"That's where we really started out this year when the team came to campus back in the fall. We had them out. We had Family Night. We all sat in a circle and talked about our upbringing."

Over the years the players have picked several favorites to be served.

"They like jalapeno corn. It'll bite you," said Summitt of the recipe she got from a sorority sister at UT-Martin. "They wanted me to cook steak and salmon and chicken, which is easy. They really like veggies. Tye (Fluker) has to have broccoli, and hers has to be a little more firm than the rest of them. They want it really soft so we have to cook it in two different steamers for that.

"We had to bring out Nikki Caldwell's family to do the potato salad and deviled eggs. Eighty deviled eggs. Those were good. It's a big part of who we are. On the court it's serious, business-like, intense. I don't want them to see me as just a coach. I want them to see me as a real person and someone they can sit with and relax and just be at home."

BACK TO WORK: After the selection show ended, and the media and players had gone their separate ways, Summitt got to work with her staff Sunday. Assistant coach Dean Lockwood stayed even later to watch film of Western Carolina with Summitt.

Summitt went to sleep late and got up early Monday morning to watch New Mexico and Purdue. If Tennessee beats Western Carolina on Sunday – a victory would tie Summitt with former North Carolina coach Dean Smith on the all-time list with 879 – the winner of Purdue-New Mexico is waiting in the second round.

Zolman said the players also welcome an identified opponent.

"That's what everything is in preparation is for," Zolman said. "We know who we're looking at as far as tournament seeding. We can start preparing how we need to prepare. We have six games to focus on. One game at a time, survive and advance."

The announcement of the brackets causes the team to buckle down and refocus on practice, she said.

"It does. Tremendously," Zolman said. "Last week was basically refreshing on our plays, working on concepts – how to fight through stagger screens, be on the help side, whether switching or trapping on a ball screen, that kind of stuff. But this week we have more of a game plan. We have an idea what people are going to be running. More of an idea and purpose for why we're out here."

NEXT OPPONENT: Western Carolina, 18-13, earned an invitation to the tourney after winning the Southern Conference Tournament. The Catamounts were the No. 6 seed in the conference tourney.

"I think what was impressive they just flipped the script from the first half of their conference play to the second half," Summitt said. "To me that's coaching. That's learning from the first round and improving in the second half. She did a great job of managing and kept her composure in timeouts. That made me really proud to watch her coach in that environment."

Harper enters the NCAA tourney as the No. 16 seed and must face not only her former coach but a No. 1 seed in Tennessee, 26-4. To make matters more foreboding, teams from North Carolina have not fared well against Tennessee in the early rounds.

Tennessee scored 113 points – an NCAA tourney school record – against Appalachian State in 1999. That broke the record of 111 points posted against North Carolina A&T in 1994.

But Summitt is expecting more out of Western Carolina, primarily because of the coach on the sideline. She watched Western Carolina's tournament final – it went to two overtimes – with both bemusement and pride.

"She shows a little more emotion as a coach than she did as a player," Summitt said. "I had to laugh because people were asking me to describe her. Kellie was as competitive a player as you would ever want, but you never really saw that in her emotions outwardly. She got pretty excited on the sideline. Of course two overtimes would probably do that to you."

Harper held a teleconference with the media Sunday night, and like Summitt, had already watched film.

"We'll do everything we can to help our team," Harper said. "They're a good basketball team, and they're talented. It's a huge challenge for us."

When asked for predictions on the outcome, Harper politely passed.

"No I do not have any predictions on the game," she said with a laugh. "It's March. You never know what's going to happen."

Harper is hoping that Thompson-Boling Arena will be packed for Sunday's game.

"I hope it's a big crowd," she said. "I want our players to play in front of a crowd like that."

Harper acknowledged that the crowd would be overwhelmingly in favor of Tennessee, but she understands. She did add, "The LSU folks might be pulling for us."

LEFT OUT: After the brackets are announced, it's always worth noting who was left out. One surprise was Villanova, which is coached by Harry Peretta, a friend of Summitt's.

"Figure that one out," Summitt said of the Wildcats' exclusion. "I thought 19 wins was good enough. I was actually dialing his number when he called me (Sunday) night. I said, ‘What happened?' He said he wasn't sure what happened. They were feeling that they would probably go. They beat Boston College in the tournament. Boston College got in, and they had 19, but I'd say they go back to strength of schedule."

LATE NIGHT WITH THE LADY VOLS: The Tennessee-Western Carolina game is set for a 9:30 p.m. tipoff. That's OK for the young players, but it's a little rough on the coach.

"Not with these people, but I might have to for myself – 9:30 I'm about ready to hit the bed," Summitt said when asked if she would have to make adjustments for the late game. "I'm going to have to take a nap that day."

Summitt remembers the last 9:30 p.m. tip. It came in 1997 against Colorado in Iowa. Her pre-game routine includes a 30-minute massage, but she made an adjustment for that game.

"Literally I had a hard time getting myself up emotionally," Summitt said. "We were in a tight game. I always do a 30-minute, but I did an hour because we had all day."

Needless to say, there will be no hour-long massages Sunday.

"It made me kind of flat if you can imagine me flat during a game," Summitt said.

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