Gauntlet of games about to tip for Lady Vols

Pat Summitt has said she assembles a schedule to get her team ready for the post-season, not to go undefeated. That's why the Lady Vols are the perennial No. 1 in strength of schedule with no other team even within sniffing distance by the end of the season. But she's outdone herself this year.

The stacked schedule in November and December – five games in seven days, including the runner-up to the national champs – forced her to tinker with her practice schedule to give the team some time off. She added a rest day last Sunday and will give the team off Thursday of this week after three days of practice.

"Just looking at the number of games we have within a week I want to make sure we don't over train," Pat Summitt said. "Instead of going four on and one off, we'll probably have to go three on and one off. We'll take Thursday off. That'll give us three good days and take a day off and then obviously train Friday, Saturday and play Sunday, Monday. We'll take that Tuesday off to travel. I don't know who scheduled that."

That last sentence was tongue in cheek. She scheduled the upcoming gauntlet of games and it was more or less by design. Back-to-back games (Stetson on Sunday and UT-Chattanooga on Monday) followed by back-to-back-to-back games (Michigan State, Gonzaga and Maryland on Nov. 24-26 in the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands) are draconian even by post-season conference tournament standards, but Summitt said the team would learn a lot about its talent, conditioning and depth.

"Ideally I didn't want these two back to back but just trying to work with Stetson and UT-C and looking at what we might do when we return from the Virgin Islands, it just was going to be better to go ahead and play the way we had to play," Summitt said. "I thought why not? We'll have two days between playing three in a row so at least we get that back-to-back preparation and prepare them for it. We'll be in the same situation hopefully in the SEC Tournament."

The top four seeds in the SEC tourney get first round byes and thus have to only win three in a row, as opposed to four, to claim the championship trophy. So a post-season atmosphere in November is pretty much in line with Summitt's philosophy.

She has maintained that her schedule is intended to challenge her team throughout the season so that there are no surprises in March, and the players are battle-tested and well-traveled. Her intention is not to go undefeated. If that were important, she would load up early with schools she knew she could beat.

Instead in the first two months of this season, the Lady Vols will line up against Michigan State (lost to champion Baylor last year in the title game and beat Tennessee in the Final Four to get there, now ranked No. 10), Maryland (No. 14), Texas (No. 12), Stanford (No. 11), Temple (No. 21) and Notre Dame (No. 15). Two other opponents in the 2005 portion of the 2005-06 season, George Washington and Louisiana Tech, received votes in AP's Top 25 poll.

"I've lived with a number of losses," Summitt said when asked if she could live with an early season loss in the face of that schedule. "November and December seem to be a time in which we're still learning. I've always said I couldn't be a football coach because I couldn't ever win early. With a long schedule, you can afford to schedule the way that we schedule and hopefully be ready when the conference starts. Basketball is just different in that regard. You can have several losses. We had 10 losses and won a championship (in 1997). I wouldn't have said that that was necessarily going to happen in the end, but those losses made us a lot tougher. Also, by the time we got to post-season we were prepared. We had seen it all.

"That's been my philosophy my entire coaching career. When I got here we didn't play a national schedule. We had to build up to that (financially). That's when we started to schedule people like Southern Cal, Texas, Louisiana Tech and Old Dominion when we had our budget in place."

With that philosophy in place, what is Summitt looking for in this stretch of the season? Keeping everyone healthy?

"I'm probably more concerned about our defense and turnovers," Summitt said. "I think we have enough bodies. And that's what you have to decide as a coaching staff. Are you going to rotate people, are you going to play your best eight, try to be the most-efficient team? We're going to start out playing everybody on the roster and see what happens and see if we can maintain some efficiency while we rotate a lot of people."

The Lady Vols have looked very efficient on offense in the first two exhibition games – though the start against Carson-Newman in the second one was a little sluggish – but the defense is playing catch up.

During Tuesday's early morning practice at Stokely Athletics Center and at Monday's afternoon session at the arena, Summitt stressed defense. She was in full teaching mode Tuesday and spent a lot of practice crouched down and watching the action at nearly floor level. When she saw anything she didn't like, the whistle blew and the teaching began.

Depth is one of Tennessee's strengths this year with 11 players on scholarship and several who can play multiple positions. Freshman shooting guard Lindsey Moss did miss her second full day of practice Tuesday after slightly hyperextending her left knee in last week's exhibition game. She also has a very mild flare-up of patellar tendonitis so she has spent the past two practices doing rehab exercises.

"She just kind of tweaked her knee," Summitt said. "She's got a little bit of irritation so at this time we want to be cautious."

Moss hopefully will be back this week because Summitt intends to use all 11 players. Senior shooting guard Shanna Zolman dislocated her ring finger on her left hand in practice Saturday, but she had it put back in place, taped to an adjoining finger and then went back to practice. Her shooting stroke in Tuesday's practice was pristine, as it has been for much of the preseason.

Sophomore center Sybil Dosty will see her first action of the season this Sunday after missing the two exhibition games for a violation of team policy (missing class). She has practiced very well of late, and Summitt has had nothing but praise for her work ethic and offensive efficiency.

"Hopefully we'll have everybody healthy, and obviously Sybil will be back in the rotation," Summitt said. "The thing we have to be mindful of more than anything besides spacing out and giving them some rest is just how we rotate players and to keep fresh bodies on the floor. In these first two games, we want to see how we do when we sub. The first (exhibition) game I thought we did a lot better than the second game. I thought we got off to a much better start in the first game than we did in the second game. And they were a little fatigued then because we trained straight through prior to our second exhibition. That's one of the reasons I want to back off the training and just really look at rotating more players."

Tennessee played Carson-Newman last Thursday, but the team went through a lengthy practice Wednesday that included full court work. With the season officially under way this Sunday, that practice style on the day before a game will stop. Summitt will make sure they're fresh for the game, and – if the depth pans out – she'll keep them fresh during the game.

"There are a lot of talented teams in the country. I do think our team is talented and deep," Summitt said. "Why would you have depth and not take advantage of it? That's how we're going into the year unless they prove to us that they can't come off the bench and be efficient."

It should be a good season to have a deep bench, because from Summitt's point of view the number of teams who will contend for the national team is deeper than ever before.

"I watched those four teams play Sunday," Summitt said of Georgia and Baylor and LSU and Texas Tech. "I'm looking at that, and I'm looking at the polls, and I'm thinking this is the deepest that I've seen women's basketball in terms of quality of teams out there in my coaching career. I really believe that. Usually you have four or five teams that stand above. Right now I think you can go 10, 12 deep easily."

The early season magazine polls reflected the depth as it seemed everyone had a different top five with various teams vying for the top spot.

"Oh I know. It's because I think a lot of people understand there is more parity than ever before," Summitt said. "You've got a number of teams that I think can not only get to a Final Four but can win it."

And even though Summitt doesn't expect to go undefeated early, she's not exactly conceding anything either.

"I'm not sitting here projecting that we're going to lose X amount of games," Summitt said. "I'm just saying we have scheduled in a fashion that is not favorable for a team to go undefeated. If they want to surprise me and do it, that'd be fine, too. The goal in the end is to be in Boston and cut down the nets. What happens in November and December might very well help us grow."

STETSON TIP TIME: Fans need to get to the arena earlier than usual Sunday. The tip time against Stetson University is 1:30 p.m., not the usual 3 p.m. The earlier tip gives the Lady Vols a little more time between games since UT-C comes to town Monday (7 p.m. tip). The team then leaves Tuesday morning for St. Thomas for the Paradise Jam.

Both games offer fans a chance to help out by donating winter wear as part of the "Coats for the Cold" program. The Lady Vols partnered with ARAMARK and the Knox Area Rescue Ministries to help the needy. The coats will be collected at both games at the ticket office at Thompson-Boling Arena. Fans who donate a coat will receive a free general admission ticket for each coat donated on the day of the game. Fans who already have game tickets are also encouraged to help out.

The rescue ministries organization has distributed thousands of coats over the years through the program. New and used coats can also be dropped off at any Knoxville area Goody's clothing store or Prestige Cleaners until Nov. 30.

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