It will be the first game in Knoxville in more than two weeks, and senior guard Shanna Zolman is looking forward to seeing the home fans.
"I am," Zolman said. "I said before practice I long to play on this floor again. I'm glad to be home for awhile."
Zolman will return to the starting lineup after a one-game absence. She will be joined on the perimeter by Alexis Hornbuckle and Candace Parker. Nicky Anosike and Tye'sha Fluker will start in the paint.
"Just a different look," Pat Summitt said. "We've got right now six people that can start, and you can only start five."
The Crimson Tide is expected to start: Lauren Hill, No. 33, 6'0 junior forward (10.3 points per game, 4.7 rebounds per game, 1.2 assists per game), tied a career high at Auburn on Jan. 26 with 22 points, also hit four three-pointers; Harriet Barnes, No. 50, 6'2 sophomore forward (8.3 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.1 apg), posted second straight game in double figures on the boards against Auburn with 12; Dee Merriweather, No. 52, 6'4 sophomore center (6.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 1.5 blocks per game), fifth in the SEC in rebounding and third all-time at Alabama in career blocked shots with 120; Marverly Nettles, No. 2, 5'10 senior guard (11.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.6 apg), averaging 14 ppg in SEC play, sixth-best in conference in league games, and had season highs against Auburn in points (20) and rebounds (eight); and Leah Drury, No. 10, 5'8 senior guard (3.3 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 1.4 apg), running the point in the absence of the injured Kate Mastin (ankle) and scored a career-high 11 points against Georgia Southern.
Tennessee is protecting a 62-game home winning streak in SEC play, but that almost seems like an afterthought in light of what happened this week – two losses, including the first defeat of the Lady Vols by Kentucky since 1986.
"Things will change," Summitt said Saturday after preparations for the Alabama game. "Our defense will change. If we have to have a revolving door in and out we're going to find five people that understand the commitment it takes. Our defensive rebounding has been horrible. Offensive rebounding has been average for the size and the presence we have on the floor. Unacceptable."
Summitt has opted for a big lineup in Parker, Fluker and Anosike. Parker has been playing well in the high post, but moving her out to the perimeter gives Tennessee a solid defensive presence on the wing. Also, fellow redshirt freshman forward Alex Fuller is better suited to the power forward position so the relocation of Parker possibly gives Fuller a better chance for significant minutes. Sophomore center Sybil Dosty also should accrue some time in the paint, where she is an effective scorer especially on putback baskets.
Summitt had hoped to play Dosty more in the Kentucky game, but she pulled her off the floor for free throw reasons in the close game.
"Late in the game I didn't put her in because of her free throw shooting," Summitt said. "She's got to get in the gym and work on her free throw shooting."
But it's also paramount that Tennessee builds some bench play over the next five weeks in preparation for the postseason in March. Summitt is seeking rebounders, and Dosty fits the bill.
"She does, and I respect her for it," Summitt said.
Tennessee leads the series against Alabama, 35-2, and the Crimson Tide last won in 1984. Alabama is led by first-year head coach Stephany Smith, who previously coached at Middle Tennessee State University.
"Stephany did a great job at MTSU," Summitt said. "I think getting into the NCAA Tournament was an opportunity for people across the country to see what she had done and the impact that she had on the program there. People are respecting her for that. Certainly she is no stranger around the Southeastern Conference because a lot of teams competed against Stephany's teams at MTSU. She did a great job."
Tennessee's concern is not so much the scoreboard Sunday – though of course the team wants to win – but their performance in the wake of two losses.
"We are a very poor rebounding team, more so on the defensive end than the offensive end," Summitt said. "Our bigs have got to rebound; our guards have got to rebound. Everybody has to feel like that they have to finish off our defense with rebounding."
Zolman said Sunday's game mattered a lot to the team because it was a chance to prove all was all right in Lady Vol land.
"It's going to be very important. It's going to be a huge confidence booster just for us showing that we can be knocked down," Zolman said. "We had one hard week. That's college basketball for you. It's one hard week of the season, and people think the world is going to end for us. With the expectations we have at Tennessee it has been a big letdown. But it's one week, and we're going to get back to playing our style of ball on Sunday. Whatever that looks like, whatever the final score says, don't really care, as long as we get back to playing Tennessee defense and boarding like Tennessee can board and hitting open shots like we can and executing offensively, I don't really care what the score says."
Hornbuckle also wants to see the team restore its trademark swagger.
"I'm concentrating so much on getting it back," Hornbuckle said. "When you over-think you lose a lot of the natural attitude that comes with it. I think we had this attitude that no matter what the situation we knew we were going to win. We thought we were going to win. After the Duke game all that went away. We played with heart in the Kentucky game, but we still didn't have our swagger. I think attitude has a lot to do with the end result. Because if you're the team that's always fighting but never believes that you're going to come out on top then you won't. I think we kind of lost that. We met with each other and we believe that we're going to get that back for Alabama on out."
Tennessee held a team meeting Friday before practice. The meeting and a film session – the team watched its defensive possessions against Kentucky – consumed most of the allotted time.
"Defining our roles again and as a team collectively just knowing what each person needs to bring and what we need out of everybody," Zolman said of the meeting. "It means a lot more when you hear it from your teammates I think than from the coaching staff all the time. It was a really, really good meeting, and it was very much needed."
Zolman, Hornbuckle and Sidney Spencer all struggled from the field against Kentucky – they were a collective 6-28 – in a performance that didn't seem likely considering the scoring capability of each one.
"One of those games," Zolman said. "You're going to have those – one of those nights where the shot wasn't falling from the outside. It was a rough situation, but those kind of games you have to expect. At Tennessee the foundation has been laid with defense and rebounding, and we can say that until we're blue in the face, but until we actually get back down to the basics and we actually start doing it, and we actually start executing what the Tennessee system is about, that's when we'll start being successful again. Whenever that is I hope it starts on Sunday, because the coaches have emphasized it tremendously these past weeks."
Hornbuckle, one of the best rebounding guards in the history of Tennessee's program and one of the team's best defenders, was ready for a shot at redemption.
"You can't control shooting," she said. "You can control defense, you can control your hustle, you can control your heart, your emotions and all that. You cannot control your shots falling. We were getting great looks (against Kentucky), but they just weren't going in the hole. I curled once and I was only eight feet from the basket and it still rimmed.
"I say third time's a charm. This is not Tennessee basketball. This is not what I've seen since Pat Summitt's been coaching, since players have been in and out of this program."
Summitt said the coaching staff gives the players the instructions they need and then turns the game over to them.
"We (coaches) can't go out there and guard anyone," Summitt said. "We can tell them how to go do it and then they have to decide whether or not they believe in each other, and they are committed to each other. And then it happens or it doesn't happen."
One thing that Summitt said can't happen is foul trouble for Hornbuckle in the first half – she can't pick up more than one foul – and fouling out in the second half. Summitt cited former SEC player Temeka Johnson of LSU as an example for Hornbuckle to follow.
"Alexis Hornbuckle can never foul out of another basketball game at the University of Tennessee," Summitt said, and if she does then "we get beat. She put us in a terrible position the last two games. She has to keep herself on the court like Temeka Johnson. I don't ever remember her fouling out of a game as long as I watched LSU play. That's her job."
"She said I can't get two fouls in the first half, and I can't foul out in a game any more for the rest of the season," Hornbuckle said. "She went on to talk about how Temeka Johnson never fouled out. … It puts a hurtin' on our team. I know my team needs me out on the floor rather than sitting on the bench spectating and coaching from the bench."
Johnson rarely fouled out in her career – never as a senior, twice as a junior, twice as a sophomore and three times as a freshman. Hornbuckle has fouled out once this year, and that was in the Kentucky game. As a freshman, she fouled out three times. By Johnson's standard Hornbuckle has one more pass this season, but neither she nor Summitt wants to see it come to pass.
"You've got to play aggressive, but at the same time you've got to play smart," Hornbuckle said. "A lot of my fouls come from hustle plays. I know for a fact I'm going to give up at least one of those a game. That's my playing style, but if I know I already have one, play a little smarter, not necessarily giving up on defense but maybe letting a play go and relying on my help defense. That's where we've got to get better as a team. If I can rely on my team maybe I wouldn't go all out and commit this foul if I knew that no matter if she got by me my team is there to stop her. That's all a matter of trust, and I think we're starting to feel that."
Part of the trust means buying into Summitt's system and relying on teammates to collectively do their jobs. An inclination to play as individuals doomed the team this past week.
"In the past couple of games it showed our selfishness and our lack of discipline," Zolman said. "It showed extremely throughout the course of the game. When it's gotten in crucial situations like it was (Thursday) night it showed even more when we didn't have the discipline to establish whatever part of the game we were trying to – turnovers at crucial times, not being able to put the ball in the hoop, not making crucial stops. We showed to be very, very undisciplined and that's terrible, too, when we have the most disciplined coach in America coaching us."
That coach is curious to see how her team responds. She wasn't ready Saturday to declare the players championship-caliber but nor was she ready to write them off.
"Don't know. That's yet to be determined," Summitt said. "I think they do. I think that's in them. It's a wait-and-see. It's a wait-and-see how they respond. It won't be one game. It will be how they close out the regular season."
The team did have a noticeable bounce in its step at Saturday's practice in an indication that the letdown from Duke and Kentucky was finally behind it. Was that the case?
"I'll tell you after tomorrow," Summitt said Saturday.
Hornbuckle hopes the answer is readily apparent.
"I think – and I'm hoping – that you'll see that fire, that swagger that Tennessee carries, the winning attitude, that as soon as we set on the floor, we're going to jump on Alabama," she said. "We can't take any team for granted. Kentucky is a great team, but at the same time I think Tennessee is so talented this year that we should have gotten after every team we played. Hopefully in Alabama we get back to that. The way we've been practicing, especially in defense, is just taking over. We should be dominating."
Zolman, one of the team's senior leaders, preached persistence and patience. She sees what the team is capable of doing, especially on defense, and she knows it starts with her.
"From a defensive point of view you've got to look everybody in the eye and say it's go time," Zolman said. "You've got to look at everybody individually and say, ‘You're doing this for me; you're doing this for the team. Get it done.' From that point of view that's where we've got to have the ownership of this team. At practice we're fantastic. We're working hard. We're playing like we can be national champions right now. But then when it gets out into the game where it's our game because we're the ones that are the leaders out there, that's where we need to make sure that everybody is taking priority of their own game and what they have to do for us whether that's defensively or offensively. It takes us individually taking ownership.
"There're a lot of things that need to be worked on before we get to where we need to be. It's only the end of January right now; it's not March yet. We're going to take this next month, and we're going to use it to the best of our abilities."
SCOUTING REPORT: Associate head coach Holly Warlick handled the scouting report on Alabama. Here is her assessment.
When Tennessee has the ball, "We're trying to score. We want to score more than our opponent," Warlick said to laughter as a way of lightening up the mood after two straight losses. "We're going to do our usual thing depending on what they do. Let's go inside and play out; try to make shots."
Defense is the buzzword for the week, and the coaching staff will be watching to see which players are getting after it.
"We're going to play man-to-man defense, try to get after them early, feel pressure on the ball and try to focus on our help-side defense," Warlick said. "We're trying to emphasize it and we want to finish out our defense by boxing out and rebounding. We haven't been consistent on that end so that's what we're trying to clean up."
Warlick, a former Tennessee player and longtime coach, has endured her share of losses and down cycles in college basketball.
"It's part of the game," she said. "People keep asking what's wrong. There's nothing wrong with us. We've just got to get back to doing what we do best and that's playing defense and rebounding. We've been on the road, and our schedule has probably caught up to us a little bit. We can't fold our tents right now. It's just January. We've got to go back to basics and get after it in practice."
This squad has proven itself to be a team with excellent practice habits. The last game of January and the month of February will give the team a chance to transfer those habits to games.
"We've had great practices; we've just had a hard time carrying over practices to the games," Warlick said. "I don't have an explanation for it – I would change it. I just think we've got to make a bigger commitment during the games. We've played very well in practice. We've played hard; we've played intense. They've got to learn to carry it over to the games. I don't know if it's the fear of making a mistake or what it is, but hopefully we can get past that setback."
ON TAP: Eight other SEC teams play Sunday in the following matchups: Arkansas at South Carolina; Mississippi State at Auburn; Georgia at Florida; and Ole Miss at Vanderbilt. LSU hosts Baylor in an out-of-conference game – and a rematch of last year's Final Four semifinal – on Monday. Kentucky doesn't play this weekend.