Given the team's extensive travel to start the season and gauntlet of games against ranked opponents, some respite away from the court is sorely needed. Add to that the stunning announcement that Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood was leaving the school, and the players and coaches will likely welcome some time to recharge their batteries and narrow their focus to the rest of the season.
But first the Lady Vols must take care of Princeton, 6-3. Summitt had already intended to shorten her bench in the first half of this game – she hasn't been pleased with the team's efficiency and her doling out of minutes to everybody didn't help she realized – as she wanted to see what a tighter rotation would bring. Now her depth at guard suddenly dropped off with the loss of Wiley-Gatewood.
Sophomore guard Alexis Hornbuckle will take over at point, and senior Shanna Zolman will stay on the wing. Freshman Candace Parker will move out to the small forward spot on the perimeter and senior Tye'sha Fluker and sophomore Nicky Anosike will fill the blocks. Fluker had been coming off of the bench of late and said her preparation doesn't change whether she starts or finishes.
"I think as far as a player you just come to the game ready to play and bring what you can bring to help the team," Fluker said. "As a starter you have to prepare yourself to get the team off to a good start. That would be the only different mindset. Coming off the bench your mindset is keeping the energy level up or bringing energy, getting your mind ready for what your team needs when you go in. That would be the only difference, but it's still the same. You still come and prepare and get ready to play the game."
Summitt is particularly pleased with sophomore center Sybil Dosty's play of late and intends for her to be the first post player off of the bench. She also has raved about freshman forward Alex Fuller, but she was slowed by a hip flexor strain so her court time has been limited by that. Fuller has practiced very well over the last three sessions.
Summitt's rotation is likely to shrink to eight or nine players. The starting guards will likely log a lot of minutes, but Summitt will still reach as deep as she can into the bench. It's a matter of how comfortable she feels doing so.
"I haven't liked playing (all) players because we haven't had the efficiency on offense or defense," Summitt said. "I just want us to be more efficient. This team should be able to shoot 48, 50 percent every night. Our defense should be a little bit better. Sometimes you're playing a lot of players it's hard to be as efficient. Our '98 team did that pretty well. But it's hard for some of these kids to understand how important a possession is when you come off the bench. I think it's harder sometimes to come off the bench than it is to start. You seem a little bit more forgiving with your starters than you do sometimes with your bench players."
Summitt wants the first five to get off to a fast start, and she wants the bench to maintain the level of play. Lately she's been unhappy with the energy of the reserves and with nearly everyone – there are notable exceptions in Anosike, Parker and Hornbuckle – with regard to rebounding.
Fluker has been offensively efficient but has drawn Summitt's stare for her lack of rebounds. Fluker knows what she has to do against Princeton to please Summitt, although she knows the ceiling of satisfaction is set stratospherically high.
"Pursue the ball and grab the rebound," Fluker said. "I've been getting a lot of tips and knocking the ball out of bounds. I've just got to grab the ball." She added with an understanding grin, "She's never going to be satisfied, but we've got to get the boards more. We're boxing out, but we've just got to pursue the ball, me personally."
Assistant coach Dean Lockwood, who coaches the post players, said the bigger lineup could be imposing to an opponent.
"In our mind we've had six starters on this team so it's not that different," said Lockwood, alluding to Wiley-Gatewood, who is now gone. "But now we're leading off with a 6'5 player along with a 6'4 player along with Candace so your sightline across your frontline is obviously bigger. It definitely gives us a little bit of imposing type of look to us that we want to take advantage of. We want to live up to the look. We want to be able to hurt you inside; we want to be able to rebound the ball very, very well. That's the biggest thing is that you're going to see a marked difference along our frontline, and we want to take advantage of it. We want to be able to bully people a little bit."
Princeton has some size, but nothing that stacks up to Tennessee's frontline. The Tigers are expected to start: Jessica Berry, No. 10, 5'7 freshman guard (10.4 ppg, 2.2 rpg); Katy O'Brien, No. 22, 5'6 senior guard, (10.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg); Casey Lockwood, No. 23, 6'0 junior forward (8.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg); Meagan Cowher, No. 20, 6'1 sophomore forward (13.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg); and Becky Brown, No. 32, 6'2 senior center (13.3 ppg, 8.6 rpg).
Brown is shooting 62 percent from the field and leads the Ivy League in shooting percentage and rebounding. Her next 10 points will put her fifth on Princeton's career scoring list. As a team Princeton averages 10.3 steals a game.
Brown and reserve Whitney Downs, a 5'11 freshman forward, both played for Harpeth Hall in Middle Tennessee. Downs is from Franklin and Brown is from Nashville. Princeton head coach Richard Barron went to high school in Knoxville and his family still lives here. Barron's wife, Maureen Davies Barron, is the Tigers' softball coach.
This game helps fulfills Summitt's administrative mandate to add more home games to the schedule. It is not a home-and-home series so Tennessee will not travel there next year.
Lockwood put together the scouting report on Princeton. Here is his assessment:
"Princeton is a team that we feel is going to come in and want to slow the tempo," he said. "We don't think they're going to want to come in and make this game a track meet. Our first thought is we want to create our game tempo and maintain it. We don't at any point in time want to make it a real slow, sluggish type of basketball game. What we want to do is really exercise our pressure and ability to put full court pressure on them or even pressure in the three court or half court just to make them speed up their game a little bit.
"They're a team that if allowed to set they've got people who can shoot the ball very well so once again, we want them to have to dribble into a lot more shots than we want them to catch and shoot. They don't run a lot of sets, but what they run is very consistent and then it has some wrinkles, has some variations in it. You really have to be on guard. We don't want to let them run what they've practiced for two months. We'd like to take them out of that if we can. They do a lot of high-low action where they use high post to throw low and interchange those two. We can't just let them have free catches in the high post area.
"For us we want to generate paint scoring. We want to get to the paint and penetration. We want to get offensive rebounds. We want to kind of really take the game to them interior-wise."
Summitt's deployment of her big lineup should aid matters considerably. For her part, Fluker is excited about going big, and she noted that just because Parker is on the perimeter to start that doesn't mean she won't post up.
"I think it's a good lineup," Fluker said. "We can run any play if Candace is in there. Either me or Nicky can step out and let her post. She can post being at the three or whether she's at the four. It's good. We have a good chemistry when we're all three in there or if it's just two or us. I enjoy it. It's cool, because we can do anything and interchange the positions. She can post out of the three spot and have the advantage over who's guarding her."
Summitt has made it clear her starters and primary substitutes will be the group that rebounds the ball well. So for everyone this game is an audition of sorts. Hornbuckle has passed her rebounding test, but she wants the team to come out with the mindset it last showed against Texas.
"Basically we want to go in there and just set the tempo like we did in the Texas game," Hornbuckle said. "Every last person that hit that court came fired up early. And everyone saw that."
Hornbuckle has an additional motivation. She wants to have a merry and peaceful Christmas.
"If Pat's happy, and we can go home happy and we can go home coming back knowing, ‘Hey we're not going to die our first day back,' that's lovely," she said.
When the players return the day after Christmas, school is out so there are no NCAA limitations on how long the team can be kept on the practice court or in the film room.
"Nobody's here. All we have to do is practice so she can keep us as long as she wants to," said Hornbuckle with a look on her face that she clearly didn't want to return to campus to a coach who had had several days to stew about a poor performance.
The coaches will be watching to see how the team responds to the challenge to rebound better. They know that playing time – at least early to set the tone and at crunch time – is tied in with rebounding and defense.
"I think it's very clear," Lockwood said. "There're certain players on our team that will impact. Is Tye going to play? No question she's going to play. But the quality of those minutes is going to certainly to some degree be determined by her efficiency in the rebounding area. And I think she understands that, and now we're going to see how we respond to that challenge."
Hornbuckle thinks the team is on the horizon of putting it together. Ironically, the team has excellent practice habits that haven't always transferred to the games.
"We practice a lot harder than we played in the past few games," Hornbuckle said. "Practice is the hard part; games are the fun part. And we're making games the hard part and practice the fun part. If we can transfer that over – we're still going to play hard – it should be more fun."
Considering what this team has already done – going undefeated to start the season – and then having to withstand the abrupt departure of a key player, it's time to have some fun.