The prime time game on Thanksgiving night is Tennessee-Michigan State (8:30 p.m., Fox Sports Net, Lady Vol Radio Network), a rematch of last year's Final Four semifinal game in which the Lady Vols squandered a 16-point second half lead and fell 68-64 to the Spartans. In the off-season the players used the loss as motivation during conditioning workouts. Now that the 2005-06 season is officially under way, the players have said it's behind them. Coach Pat Summitt has adopted the same line.
"Neither of these teams are the same ones that played in Indianapolis," Summitt said. "We are typically a team that wants to go in and dictate with defense, board play and take good shots. In our last game with Michigan State, the one thing we constantly reminded our team of was that our scouting report defense let us down, and our defensive system also let us down."
Forward Candace Parker, who didn't play last year as she rehabbed from knee surgery but who watched the game from a courtside seat on the bench, said she learned a lot in her role as "Coach Parker." She specifically mentioned how important the scouting report was and what happens when players don't incorporate it. Assistant coach Holly Warlick did the scouting report for tonight's game against Michigan State, 2-0. Presumably she had everyone's attention on the island resort at Wednesday's practice. The assistant coaches split up tape of the three teams so each could prepare a detailed report. Dean Lockwood has Gonzaga; Nikki Caldwell has Maryland.
"Formidable. All three formidable," Lockwood said. "We're responsible for breaking that down and presenting it to the team, coming up with helping Pat with the game plan. It's a cliché, but it's a game one by one, game at a time thing. We're not thinking at all right now about Gonzaga or Maryland. We're thinking strictly about Michigan State. After that game's over, we think about the second one. It's going to be three great tests back to back to back."
"Everyone has a team they're watching," Summitt said. "We're pulling out things that we might see and have to defend, which gives us a gauge for defensive preparation, offensive preparation. We know we're going to see man, what kind of zone we're going to see, pressure. We're trying to cover all of our bases and what kind of sets – whether we have to defend motion or box sets. There's a good variety. It's helped us (in practice) get a lot of looks."
Sophomore Alexis Hornbuckle played in that Final Four game last season – and played well overall. In the locker room after the game she said the hurt from the loss wouldn't fully end until she wins a national title. And she also knows that although championships aren't won in November, the groundwork can be laid for one. With that in mind, she knows tonight's game is important for the future, but she cautions against getting too caught up in the past.
"You have to put it behind you," Hornbuckle said. "It's two different teams. You can't take it personal. Everybody has to go out there and play their game and play the team game. The media is going to show it, they're going to hype it up, they're going to show some recaps, they're going to talk about the 16-point deficit and them coming back. As long as we don't listen to the news and the media and people in our ears, I think we'll be OK."
For Hornbuckle, who is one of the most-competitive people on the team (she has said she wants to beat somebody in any endeavor, even one as simple as finishing a container of Gatorade the fastest), the bottom line is winning. Tennessee's intention is to sweep the games on St. Thomas.
"Of course," she said. "If you don't go in there trying to win all three games then you won't bring it every game, every possession. I think you have to have the mentality that you want to win, and you want to send a message."
Would the team rather play three in a row than have regular gaps in between games with practice sessions?
"Fifty-fifty," Hornbuckle said. "We have a lot of knee problems so the thing is to stay healthy. It's going to be more mental than physical I think."
Hornbuckle has tendonitis in her knees that is manageable. Four players – Parker, Alex Fuller, Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood and Sidney Spencer – are coming off knee surgeries that claimed part or all of their season last year. Freshman Lindsey Moss has missed practice time this month after hyperextending her knee.
Summitt has said depth is a key this season – and will come into play early in the Paradise Jam. Tennessee, 2-0, used all 11 players in the first two games. She would like to be able to go deep into her bench this week, too.
"I think these games will really give us a better indication of who's ready to play, and who's ready to play when the game is on the line," Summitt said. "Our defense I think it's better. Our decision-making at times it's been very poor. The same people are making the same mistakes. That concerns me. What that means is in tight games you may shorten your bench. You want to be efficient."
In terms of minutes played, she will pass them out as they're earned. Her intent is to distribute the minutes throughout the team, but there are no guarantees.
"I am but not at the expense of efficiency," Summitt said. "If that has to come into account, maybe instead of going 11 deep, we go nine deep or we go eight deep. They'll all get their opportunities. I'll put them on the court, and they'll have the opportunity to keep themselves there."
Before the season started Summitt jokingly asked who put together UT's schedule and said, "We lost our mind with scheduling." But in her weekly teleconference she acknowledged that although it wasn't a carefree holiday tournament, all four teams are playing under the same format of three games in three days. The experimental rules will be used in these games – a 10-second backcourt call and the pushing of the 3-point line back from 19 feet, 9 inches to 20 feet, 6 inches.
"St. Thomas is a great place for us to go for a tournament. At the same time, this is not your typical trip to St. Thomas in terms of competition," Summitt said. "We may have decided at one time that we wanted good competition. Now that you start looking at it you think, ‘Wow, this is going to be tough.' But it's no more difficult for Tennessee than it is for anyone else there because we're all in a situation where we have back-to-back-to-back games. I think we'll learn a lot about our team and certainly will come back with a better understanding of who has the mental toughness and what we need to work on when we play quality opponents. We will find out a lot about our strengths and weaknesses."
The level of competition will certainly let Tennessee know if its defense and post play are significantly improved. The Lady Vols' offensive efficiency has been all the rage so far this season, but the other three teams on the island will provide a much-stiffer test for Tennessee to gauge its progress than Stetson and UTC did, although Chattanooga is a well-coached team that has been picked to win the Southern Conference this season. Stetson, which also is picked to win its conference (Atlantic Sun), had its moments but was overmatched from the beginning.
"What a great test for our basketball team early," Lockwood said of the Paradise Jam. "Pat knew exactly what she was doing and what she was getting into and that was precisely why she did it. She wanted to see in November what we have."
POST PLAY: Against Stetson on Sunday the starting post players – Tye'sha Fluker and Nicky Anosike – were 1-9. What a difference 24 hours makes. Against UTC on Monday, Anosike was 4-4 and Fluker was 3-6. Anosike came off the bench; Fluker set the tone early.
"Obviously Sunday we didn't perform well," Lockwood said. "We didn't make shots. It all looks better when the ball goes in. So collectively, we were 1-9 in our two starters … in terms of our interior we just didn't do a good job. (Monday) was much better. Tye started the game for us and was just solid. She just gave us some solid play in there. That's what we're looking for. We just need to be solid. Nicky came in and was just so much more composed and poised. She didn't look frantic; she didn't look rushed. I was so proud of both of them for that. We've got to keep that going. Now it's got to become consistent."
"I thought our post play was a lot better," Summitt said after the UTC game. "I thought Nicky and had a lot of composure offensively. I thought Tye started the game just really big on the inside. So knowing that we have depth there I think it's important that we focus on two bigs being in the game and really trying to be productive, play four or five or six minutes and then we can change. I don't mind rotating two at a time as long as they bring the kind of play that we're looking for."
One of the biggest bright spots off the bench was the play of sophomore center Sybil Dosty. She had 11 rebounds and eight points in 16 minutes.
"Eleven rebounds, eight points, she was three of five from the field, she had five offensive rebounds," said Lockwood, who rattled off Dosty's stats without looking at a box score. "She came in and just from a sheer energy standpoint – now you're talking about Nicky-type energy – and this is what we hope Sybil understands from this game, that if she can bring this our team, how much more effective will our frontline be when she contributes that? And from a personal standpoint, it opens the door for her to get more minutes and more playing time. Anytime you get somebody to go out there and be that productive with the minutes that they got, there are going to be more. You can only hope that the light goes on with players. We hope the light goes on with her, and she realizes that is what we're looking for. That's how we want her to play."
Dosty was fully aware of that and said before the season opener that she wanted to use the first two games to show Summitt and the coaching staff what she could do and set herself up for a productive season.
"Before the game (against UTC) he was pushing the energy factor, just come out with a lot of energy," Dosty said.
Dosty sat out the two exhibition games for missing class so her performance was particularly satisfying.
"When the bench players come in we have to keep the same energy level as when the game started," Dosty said.
When Anosike was asked if she also was trying to show Summitt what she could do, she gave a thoughtful response. Her situation was much different. Dosty missed games for disciplinary reasons; she had to show Summitt she was committed both on and off the court. Anosike didn't start for production reasons; she needed to show her teammates they could count on her on the court.
"Obviously what Pat thinks is important, but when I play I think that what my teammates think about me is the most important," Anosike said. "I'm just trying to prove to them that I want to do it for them."
DOM'S DEFENSE: The coaching staff knows junior forward Dominique Redding can fill up a box score with offense. She played 11 minutes against Stetson and had eight points, including two three-pointers. She played 15 minutes against Chattanooga and had seven points. But against UTC she displayed some defensive intensity and was often in a lockdown defensive stance that Summitt has implored her to deploy.
"Dom was working," Lockwood said. "And again that – I hope she understands – pleases us tremendously to have her be in a position where she's out there working defensively – not just playing the offensive end – but really working and committing to being in a stance and working defensively."