Tennessee will open up NCAA tourney play this Sunday, March 19, at noon (ESPN2) against No. 15 seed Army at the Ted Constant Convocation Center in Norfolk, Virginia, in sub-regional action. If the Lady Vols advance, they will meet the winner of No. 7 seed George Washington-No. 10 seed Old Dominion on Tuesday, March 21, at either 7 or 9:30 p.m.
As coach Pat Summitt watched the bracket unfold in front of her, she remarked that the committee must have thought Tennessee was not only not a one seed, but the worst of the four No. 2 seeds by placing her team in the Cleveland Regional with Carolina.
The Cleveland region was announced first so the team watched the rest of the 30-minute Selection Show with growing discontent and openly bristled when the chair of the selection committee, Joni Comstock, the athletic director at American University, appeared at the end to discuss the seeds.
When the show ended, Summitt stood up to address the team.
"I think what we can say in all my years of watching the Selection Show, trying to put together the toughest schedule in the country, we play everybody … it's my understanding if you look at the top four seeds and then you go to the two seeds, of those four we had to be the last or we wouldn't be positioned in North Carolina's bracket," Summitt said.
"All I can tell you: No respect. Where can we gain it?"
"On the court," the players responded.
"And we're going after it," Summitt said. "Anytime you see a bracket, just take it one team at a time. That's a slap in your face. That's a slap in the program's face. I guess it's my fault for putting together the toughest schedule in the country year in and year out. But as far as I'm concerned we had no respect, and I don't understand it.
"Are we upset? Yes. But what really matters is when we step over the line what we bring on the court, and we take it one game at a time. We do that; I like your chances. But you've got to keep your focus. You don't go in there mad; you go in there focused, determined, and you have every opportunity to earn respect. Are you with me?
"Yes ma'am," came the answer.
Summitt then asked if any of the assistant coaches wanted to address the team, and Dean Lockwood stepped forward.
"Right now I think it caught us by surprise a little bit," he said. "There's some anger. Use that energy to prepare and use that energy to focus ourselves. Because you know what? All this is like everything else. There's going to be a time when we step across the line, and that's why we play the games. Don't ever forget this was done by people who don't play the games."
"I think coach said it best," Zolman said. "We've never been disrespected before. We've had the most difficult scheduling year in and year out, being able to win an SEC championship, being able to overcome so much adversity as we have since the first of the year. When they showed us a two seed in by far the toughest region it was just complete disrespect. That's done by people who don't play. It's time for us when we step across the floor to continue to carry across not only our confidence but just Tennessee swagger that we always have, we never lost, and we will never lose."
Zolman and Fluker have been to three Final Fours in their careers, and each trip through the bracket started as a No. 1 seed. Getting to Boston will be a far more difficult journey.
"For Shanna and I we never went into the tournament as an underdog, as a number two seed," Fluker said. "We've always had a number one seed. We've lost five games, six games in a season and still came out with a number one because we played the toughest schedule. To hear that on TV that it doesn't really matter, that it's just a tool, to me shows that they won't respect it. All they did was give us motivation. We're tested every game, and we play teams that are in the top 25 more than anybody does. To see that that doesn't matter I'm stunned. I was shocked. I almost walked out of the room. I definitely can say that I'm mad."
Tennessee, 28-4, has been in the last four Final Fours, and as the show was broadcast it was openly speculated that perhaps the Lady Vols weren't welcome this year, and the committee opted to erect barriers to make their path excessively difficult. Tennessee is thin at the guard position, which is a source of strength for North Carolina and Rutgers.
"It does look that way," Summitt said. "We've been to the last four. Maybe they don't want us there."
"Pretty much. That's what they did," Fluker said. "When they have to make T-shirts for us, then they'll be … ."
"Exactly," Zolman said.
"I think that just motivates our team," Fluker said. "I think it gets everybody fired up."
After the media pinned down the players and coaches for interviews, they scattered out of the TV room and back to the pool area and outside kitchen, where the desserts were waiting. Their smiles returned, and the mood began to lighten.
"We can't really do anything about it now," freshman Candace Parker said between bites of ice cream. "That's my point of view. We just have to take it for what it's worth and use it as motivation and just go out and play it game by game. I think we'll be all right. I think we've been excited about it ever since the SEC Tournament was over. We moved into the postseason."
Junior Sidney Spencer also had found the ice cream and took the approach that this was the next step for the team.
"My attitude is that it's just a challenge," Spencer said. "I just see it as a challenge. I don't see it as a negative thing but a positive thing. We can build on it and improve on the court."
One player who could assist in that challenge is sophomore guard Alexis Hornbuckle, who can handle pressure from quick guards but whose right arm remains in a cast after she broke her wrist Feb. 12. Hornbuckle practiced Monday with the team – she had two steals that she converted to layups despite the fact she must play with one arm – and has kept herself in shape just in case she can play before the tournament is over.
She returns to her doctor this Wednesday for the first time in two weeks to determine how much the wrist has healed.
"It tells me if it's healed completely or how far along the process is. The next step – whether it's another cast, start physical therapy. It's all up in the air right now," Hornbuckle said. "My attitude is I'm never down so it is a just in case (in terms of continuing to practice). I'm not counting myself out for the rest of the season. A lot of the healing process has to do, one, with prayer, and two, it's a mental thing. As long as you do everything the doctor asks you to do then there's not much room for disappointment."
There certainly have been several good signs. She has complete movement in all her fingers and now her thumb, too.
"I'm able to move my thumb, which was hard to do because of the bone that I broke," she said. "When I went in two weeks ago the fracture you could barely tell so I'm just hoping that now it's completely healed. I can't give you a gut feeling, because I'm hoping. It's more of a hope that it is healed."
Tennessee would happily suit up Hornbuckle, but she won't be cleared to play unless the bone is healed, and she can strengthen the muscles in her lower arm and wrist to allow her to play. The calendar is working against her, but the regional games won't be played until March 26-28 so the window of opportunity remains open.
Of course, the Lady Vols first have to survive Norfolk to get to Cleveland. Army is 20-10 and got invited to the Big Dance after winning the Patriot League tournament. Both Tennessee and Army played Princeton this season. The Black Knights lost, 73-52. Tennessee beat Princeton, 107-39.
Tennessee has already played both potential second round opponents. The Lady Vols defeated George Washington, 59-43, on the road, and beat Old Dominion at home, 83-67. Both teams enter the tournament at 22-8. ODU won the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, and George Washington is an at-large team from the Atlantic-10 Conference.
Tennessee's assistant coaches now have one focus: find game film.
"We'll split them up by rounds," Lockwood said. "We'll divvy up teams and start diving into mounds of videotape."
Despite the lack of emphasis the committee appeared to have placed on RPI and SOS, Summitt said she wouldn't back down from her philosophy of scheduling the top teams in the country.
"We've got too good a thing going at Thompson-Boling with our fan support," Summitt said. "People come in on weekends all over the Southeast to see the Lady Vols play and if we're playing an unranked opponent would we put 18,000 in there? Probably not."
Comstock was asked specifically in her media teleconference how RPI and SOS affected seeding.
"First of all, I would like to talk just a little bit about how the committee views and uses the RPI," she said. "We do not use it as a tool to rank the teams. It's really a tool that we use to organize the information that's provided to us about the teams. So while it is something that guides us in our deliberations in terms of gathering all of the information, it's not something that ranks the teams.
"Certainly as you said, strength of schedule is something that we do look for. It is very important to the committee. And certainly the schedule that Tennessee played this year and plays most years is very strong. However, in looking at everything, we felt that as close as it was, that Tennessee this year was a two seed.
Summitt expected Tennessee's tough schedule and its performance in the SEC Tournament to help its seeding. It appeared to have negligible effect.
"I'm obviously surprised and disappointed that this team did not earn more respect from the committee," she said. "We felt we had put together the schedule. Between our schedule and our RPI and how we finished in the conference tournament, I didn't know what to say to our team. I'm really baffled by it. I don't understand it. It is what it is.
"Obviously, not a lot of respect was shown to what the team accomplished. The place we can respect is on the court. It will certainly be challenging. I don't know the first thing about Army. I hope to learn a lot more before going to practice tomorrow afternoon. We certainly watched Old Dominion this past weekend. They are a tough team at home. George Washington is a tough team. It certainly is not an easy start for us."
That is what Summitt told the national news media when reporters called into her teleconference after the selection show ended. But she has had her say about the committee's treatment of her team to her players.
"I just wanted them to hear it tonight," Summitt said. "Now it's all business."