"I think it's very important," Zolman said. "Every single year that I've been here I've never started off on a good note after Christmas."
Last year when Zolman was a junior, the Lady Vols returned from Christmas break and embarrassed themselves at Rutgers, 65-51. Her sophomore year, Texas came to Knoxville and walked away with a 70-60 victory. Her freshman year, Tennessee actually won the first game after Christmas – 77-61 over Notre Dame at a neutral site – but lost a few days later at Connecticut in overtime, 63-62.
Considering the January portion of the schedule – Old Dominion, the start of SEC play, UConn and Duke – Zolman wants to close out December on a winning streak.
"I think that that does in some sort of way set the tone for the second half of the season," Zolman said. "Instead of going into an environment like Temple like we did with Rutgers last year and coming away from it totally devastated and depressed because of how bad and poorly you played, I would like to get off to a great start and being able to play the Tennessee way and coming out with a win so we can look ahead to prepare for Notre Dame and not go back and see what we have to fix in our game necessarily. That will be very, very important."
There also isn't much turnaround time between games. Tennessee, 10-0, will return to Knoxville from Philadelphia after the Temple game, practice at home on Thursday and then leave for Indiana on Friday and hold a practice session there that afternoon. Tennessee takes on Notre Dame on Saturday to close out 2005.
It's also the first road game since the Dec. 19 announcement that sophomore point guard Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood had left the team and intended to transfer. The next day, No. 1-ranked Tennessee steamrolled Princeton, 107-39, in Knoxville, but Temple, 8-2, is ranked No. 22 and playing on its home floor at the Liacouras Center.
Sophomore guard Alexis Hornbuckle (10.3 points per game, 4.9 rebounds per game, 2.9 assists per game) has moved from the wing to the point position. She should be joined in the starting lineup by Zolman (17.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.6 apg); freshman forward Candace Parker (15.6 ppg, 9.5 rpg); sophomore forward Nicky Anosike (6.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg); and senior center Tye'sha Fluker (6.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg).
Temple is expected to counter with: Khadija Bowens, No. 5, 5'11 senior guard (8.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg); Jennifer Owens, No. 3, 5'9 senior guard (6.2 ppg, 2.3 rpg); Kamesha Hairston, No. 21, 6'0 junior forward (13.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg); Lady Comfort, No. 42, 6'2 sophomore forward (7.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg); and Candice Dupree, No. 4, 6'2 senior center (16.3 ppg, 9.8 rpg).
It was prior to the Monday practice before the Princeton game that the entire team found out Wiley-Gatewood had left the program. After that practice, Hornbuckle called a players' meeting.
"Lex called it initially," Zolman said. "All of us were wanting to meet. It was necessary. When you have someone that you love, someone that you care for, a teammate that's been with you, you've tried to help throughout the course of her career here, just suddenly up and leaves, that's a big blow to you from the heart. It's not just, ‘Hey we lost someone on the court.' We lost a teammate; we lost a sister.' That for me was unbelievably difficult."
The players spoke one by one about what they would do to make up for the loss of Wiley-Gatewood.
"We had a great team meeting and (had) each person go down the line individually and say what they need to do to improve, what they need to do to give this team the extra boost of giving back what Gate did for this team and what she gave to us," Zolman said.
That helped the team deal with the "emotional experience," Zolman said, and turn the players' focus "more on the physical aspect on the floor." For her part, Zolman knows that if Hornbuckle gets in foul trouble she must assume the leadership at the helm and provide "different looks at the point position if that were to happen, but yet still being effective in that."
Otherwise, get ready to see a lot of Hornbuckle. In close games, coach Pat Summitt can foresee playing her 30 to 35 minutes a game. Zolman will provide some brief rest periods. If Tennessee can get a comfortable lead, Summitt wants to get freshman Lindsey Moss some more repetitions in real game situations.
"If things aren't as tight, we'd like to get other players experience," Summitt said. That includes the deployment of the 6'4ish Parker at the point, a mismatch waiting to happen with every team on the schedule.
"I look at it as obviously we just all have to step up and play," Summitt said. "It's not about what we don't have, it's about what we do have. We've been in this situation before. You move on. You move on as a team; you move on as a staff. You immediately ask some players to do a little bit more. I think in our situation right now it's just a matter of deciding how much we want to play Shanna at the point, try to get Lindsey some time there. I haven't put Candace there, but I'm not opposed to it out of some of the sets that we run. I think this team the good thing is the versatility of our team, and we've got a lot of people that can handle and play multiple positions."
That versatility is ever important now. Hornbuckle, who played both guard spots in high school, seemed destined to play the wing at Tennessee since she arrived with Wiley-Gatewood. But last December now-departed senior point guard Loree Moore had a tonsillectomy, and Wiley-Gatewood was out with an injured knee so Hornbuckle practiced and played the point. She continued to get practice reps and playing time at the point for the rest of the season. That has now paid off big time for the team.
"She wanted to play both," Summitt said. "She just wants to play. That's one player that's ‘Just play me coach. I'll do whatever you want me to do. I just want to play.' I think a lot of people talked to her about being a point guard, about being a two guard. She's a player. She's a guard. I think people sometimes (get fixated on the positions). She's a perimeter player. … The thing, too, is we're trying to teach them to be basketball players. If they're on the perimeter, they have to all pass, handle, score, penetrate, defend."
In Hornbuckle's case, she must also rebound, and it's one of the strengths of her games. Although she's now at the one spot, she will continue to crash the boards as if she's at the two or three spot. Zolman will retreat back on defense.
"I would not take Alexis off the boards," Summitt said.
Hornbuckle is a special player to Summitt in that she's not worried about overloading the honor roll student. Perhaps last year that would have been a concern, but Hornbuckle learned three positions in the crucible of the 2004-05 season. She also has a rather unflappable personality. A year ago when it was apparent she would have to start at point guard, Hornbuckle was told by a writer that playing point for Summitt would be a challenge that a lot of players would balk at. It takes a special player to handle the responsibility of being Summitt's coach on the floor, and she was notoriously hard on her point guards. Hornbuckle's eyes lit up.
"Really?" she asked, and then she raised her eyebrows and grinned.
"She's one player that can have a lot on her plate," Summitt said. "She knows what she needs to do. She likes being in the leadership role and seldom do I have to say, ‘Turn your volume up.' I feel really good about how she's been playing. It's just how much she's going to be able to stay on the floor (without fatigue or fouls becoming an issue). She's got to play a lot of minutes. I think she can do that."
Zolman has complete confidence in her, too.
"Lex does a tremendous job at the point guard position," Zolman said. "She's a great ball handler; she's a great vocal leader. None of us have a problem looking to her for what the play calls are. I'll help her out with that a lot. It's another situation where I myself as a leader, Lex as a leader, Tye as leader, Candace as a leader, Nicky as a leader, you can go on down the line. … "
Zolman just rattled off the starting lineup, and it's down that line with the second five – Moss, Sidney Spencer, Dominique Redding, Alex Fuller and Sybil Dosty – that Tennessee's long-term success will hinge. Two of those players, Spencer and Fuller, could land in the starting lineup on occasion as Parker gravitates more to the paint. At any rate, everybody has a chance to play significant minutes in various combinations on the floor.
Moss clearly must get comfortable playing some at the point.
"She's still learning, but she's getting better," Summitt said. "I told her, her best basketball she played late in the Princeton game. I think sometimes she goes in thinking she's got to do something spectacular to stay on the floor. Quite the opposite. She's got to do something simple and basic and so fundamental that you don't even notice it. In high school she was the go-to player. At point guard she brought it up, she shot it, she rebounded it, she brought it back. She's learning how to play a different type of game."
Dosty can finish in the paint and rebound. Her board play already has been rewarded by Summitt. Spencer is one of the best shooters on the team and can hit short jumpers and from behind the arc. She also can play in the paint or on the perimeter. Redding is an outstanding shooter and athletic enough to play Summitt-style defense if she ratchets up her intensity. Fuller, who looked the healthiest she had in weeks at Monday's practice, can play both forward positions. She finishes in the paint and also has shooting range, including three-pointers.
Summitt wouldn't hesitate to put Fuller on the perimeter so that Parker can play power forward in the paint, "which is where Candace looks her best," Summitt said.
Although Parker will start at small forward, expect her to move toward the paint – Tennessee will post her up from both forward spots – as the game progresses.
"Absolutely," Summitt said. "She's been so efficient there. That's where she plays her most efficient basketball. But to allow her the opportunity to get the reps at the three it's just going to help her expand her game on the perimeter. She has to handle (the ball) more, she's got to make more decisions. It's a little more difficult to play the three, than the four."
Summitt will split Parker's time between the three and the four depending on the game situation, she said.
"If we've got a tight game, typically she's going to be at the four," Summitt said.
Against Louisiana Tech, Parker unveiled her shooting game. She made an assortment of jumpers from short, mid and long range. Against Princeton, her eight points came from three layups and a putback. She passed up open shots to dish to her teammates and ended up with five assists.
"I think she's a team player," Summitt said. "I think time and score allowed her to do that, probably a little more casual, a little more freedom but getting her teammates involved. I thought they all did that, very unselfish."
Zolman said the Princeton game was the time to make a team statement.
"All of us were clicking," Zolman said. "We were firing on all cylinders and we were just ready to come out and play. I know there was a lot of anticipation from the crowd's perspective and from the outsiders wondering how we were going to react and how we were going to handle the situation (of losing Wiley-Gatewood).
"Whenever a team faces adversity it's always interesting to see how they will respond because that shows the heart and the character of your team, and I think that we showed it very well against Princeton. We could have come out early and started off great and then just kind of coasted from there, but we kept on going. We kept on pounding. It was a great way to end on the break. Everybody was happy; everybody was excited. Finally playing the way we needed to be playing again."
The team wants to keep that going against Temple. Assistant coach Dean Lockwood also remembers the team's first post-Christmas outing last season.
"Horrific. It was horrific," Lockwood said. "Rutgers was foaming at the mouth, which Temple's going to be, Notre Dame's going to be. You've got some of the same dynamics at work. I think Temple is so well disciplined and so well versed into their game plan. They're going to dig their heels in and be bound and determined that game's going to be in the 60s."
Lockwood agrees with Zolman that these two last games this month against Temple and Notre Dame – historically Summitt's teams stumble a time or two early in the season, especially December – are crucial in terms of setting the team on its course. Tennessee has lost 42 games in December in Summitt's tenure as coach. Of course, the Lady Vols also have won 164 games in the 12th month of the year.
"Both of these games I see them as so important," Lockwood said. "Number one you've got NCAA Tournament teams. I think, unless I'm just missing my boat somewhere, we're going to see both of these teams in the field of sixty-four when March comes around. Secondly, both of these teams are notoriously tough at home. You're going to have large crowds so you're going to have very hostile environments against very good teams. I think there can be no greater preparation for us in terms of going into league play and then also going down the line, I think they're gut checks. They're great testing, kind of benchmark games. Where are we now? Are we capable of going into an environment like this and winning a big game? In my eyes, these games are very big.
"Even though Rutgers might have been a tougher test in terms of the athleticism we faced I think these teams might be every bit as strong-willed in terms of trying to play their game on their home floor and saying, ‘Hey, we want to show that we can play with Tennessee and this is our forum to beat them.' Our team has to know we're going into two potential buzz-saw type games. It should be very fun."
SCOUTING TEMPLE: The Temple Owls are coached by women's basketball great Dawn Staley, a standout at Virginia, Olympian and WNBA player.
Temple came to Knoxville last season, and the Lady Vols escaped with a 52-48 win when Temple missed the tying score under the basket with the clock winding down. It was the first time the schools had played each other.
"The main reason that we scheduled the series with Temple was because they contacted us," Summitt said. "Dawn Staley had a lot to do with my decision. She's a player who's really made a difference in the women's game. I've long admired her leadership, her play, her coaching, her longevity and what she's done on the international level. My thoughts are that Philadelphia is a great city to go play in, and Dawn Staley's also had a great impact on the game. That's why I wanted to schedule this series."
One of Staley's biggest impacts on Tennessee was in an NCAA regional final in 1990 – a Virginia win that kept the Lady Vols off their home floor at the Final Four.
"My staff and I paid a visit to Dawn when we were trying to recruit her to come to Tennessee," Summitt said. "I remember she pretty much single-handedly beat us to deny us a chance to come back to our home court to play in the NCAA Final Four. I have tremendous respect and admiration for Dawn's playing ability and her competitiveness. You could see her leadership then on the court, and now you see it on the sidelines as a coach. I believe that what allowed her to be a special basketball player has also allowed her to be a successful coach. She possesses the knowledge of the game and has great composure. She obviously knows the game, and with the communication and leadership skills gained from her playing days, she now shares that with her team. It's great to see players coaching the game and giving back to help build on the success of our sport."
Lockwood had the task of scouting Temple over the Christmas holidays. He noted the Owls beat Georgia in overtime but still kept the game score in the 60s. Here's his assessment:
"This is a team that other than two games I can recall, they want to play the game in the 60s and 50s," Lockwood said. "They want a low tempo. They're very deliberate. They want a very controlled pace. Obviously we want a fast tempo. This is going to be a battle of wills as far as who can control game tempo. They're not a great perimeter shooting team to date; they haven't shot the ball exceptionally well from the three-point arc. That's why a lot of people have opted to play them zone, but they still manage because of their patience, because of their ability to get the ball into the paint (to be) successful against people.
"Therein lies the real challenge for us. Number one, get the game tempo to be more our way. Number two: Don't give up paint points. We've got to make this team a jump-shooting team. We can't let this team be a paint-scoring paint-point type of team. If we let Candice Dupree have shots eight feet and in, we're going to have (a difficult game). We don't want to give them paint points."
Both Summitt and Lockwood see board play as the key to pushing tempo.
"We really want to control the rebounding," Lockwood said. "If you can control rebounding, you can really go a long way toward controlling tempo. When we get it off the board, we want to run. We want to really put them on their heels. If we walk it up and allow them to set their defense, they become that much better. Are we going to able to run every possession? No. But we want to get as many possessions as we can when we're attacking them when they're still setting their defense as opposed to when their defense is set."
Once Tennessee is set up in the half-court, the players must move the ball.
"We want to really spread them and really move them off their spots," Lockwood said. "Once again, if the ball gets stuck in one or two player's hands or we're doing a lot of dribbling and not really going anywhere that plays to their game plan beautifully. Temple's a happy team if that happens. If we're passing, moving, cutting, spreading out, creating lots of movement, that's Tennessee's game and that's what we want to do. We want a lot of action in the game. We want defensively for them to constantly be guarding movement. All of that plays to a faster tempo."
WELCOME BACK: The team reassembled Monday evening in Knoxville for a lengthy practice session and then weight-lifting. Summitt was so pleased with the players' effort and hustle over the nearly three-hour practice that she canceled Tuesday morning's session that had been scheduled prior to their departure for Philly.
Fluker had the longest journey to and from Pasadena, Calif., but sprinted the floor end to end during full-court drills. Zolman continued to stroke three-pointers. Anosike finished her shots in the paint. Hornbuckle took the reins at the point and brought the heat on defense. Parker took over after she got warmed up. Dosty showed why she's getting more minutes lately. Fuller played effectively inside and out. Spencer's shot was on target. Redding remembered her defensive stance. Moss took her turns at the point position to speed up her learning process. Were their mistakes and miscues? Of course, but overall the team looked sharp, and Summitt was smiling post-practice.
Summitt knew the players might be a little tight – most of them flew in the day of practice after five days off – but it didn't show up on the floor. It was important to her to wait until Dec. 26 to practice.
I just couldn't bring them back on Christmas day, never have," Summitt said. "That's the one holiday season that we always have family time. I hope we don't ever have to do that."
MAKING THE GRADE: The Tennessee team's cumulative grade point average for the fall semester was 3.03. Six players earned Dean's List honors: Anosike, 3.88, Arts & Sciences; Fluker, 3.75, retail and consumer science; Spencer, 3.5, sports management; Zolman, 3.25, journalism and electronic media; Hornbuckle, 3.00, exercise science; and Moss, 3.00, undecided major, leaning toward business.