Lady Vols tip off season Sunday

The Lady Vols failed to reach the Final Four last season for two reasons – defense and a lack of quickness. Pat Summitt took responsibility for the defensive deficiencies. The speed issue was addressed with two transfers and a healed guard. So when the season debuts Sunday with the first game that counts, the first question that matters is: Can this team end Tennessee's national title drought?

The ball has to bounce the Lady Vols' way – with a scholarship roster of 10 the team has to stay healthy – but Pat Summitt has been smiling throughout the preseason. She has assembled a team of competitors who hold each other accountable, and she likes the overall attitude of her team.

In 2004-05, Summitt fielded the worst shooting team in program history. In 2005-06, she had a team that could shoot but struggled to stop opponents. In 2006-07, she has players that have embraced her system – defend, board and play as a unit on both ends of the floor.

"The upside was we had good outside shooting, but we just could not disrupt people as we are accustomed to doing," Summitt said of last year's team. "I think that certainly was a problem, and I take responsibility. I don't think I did the job I needed to do to emphasize defense constantly, because it's not something that most kids just go out and want to do. You've got to drill it, drill it, drill it.

"Looking back I thought you've got to get back to how you built this program. You built it with defense and work ethic and playing together on offense. I don't think the team last year, I don't think we played as well together offensively either. When you see a team not play well together offensively there's usually something going on at the other end that reflects that, too. For whatever reason we were not a team that really played well together so we didn't have the support on defense, we didn't have the movement we needed offensively."

Tennessee's first official test to see if those problems have been resolved comes Sunday at 3 p.m. when the Lady Vols tip off against the Lady Mocs of Chattanooga at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville. The game is available on the Lady Vol Radio Network and via Yahoo video stream from

Summitt is expected to start the same five who wiped out two opponents, Carson-Newman and the Houston Jaguars, in exhibition games: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 junior guard, No. 00 (9.5 points per game, 1.5 rebounds per game, 6.0 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 junior guard, No. 14 (15.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 5.0 apg); Sidney Spencer, 6'3 senior forward, No. 1 (11.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 sophomore forward, No. 3 (15.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 junior center, No. 55 (12.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg).

Bobbitt will join some elite company if she does indeed start her first game as a Lady Vol.

"She doesn't look like she's bothered by being in that role," Summitt said. "She loves it. I think she's embraced it."

Chattanooga is expected to counter with: Tagan Hatchett, 5'8 freshman guard, No. 4 (5.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 2.0 apg); Laura Hall, 5'5 junior guard, No. 10 (7.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.0 apg); Brooke Hand, 5'8 junior guard, No. 12 (12.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 2.0 steals per game); Alex Anderson, 6'2 junior forward, No. 40 (23.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.0 apg); and Erin Ogan, 6'1 sophomore forward, No. 44 (7.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.0 blocks per game), who played at Powell High School in Knoxville.

Look for Tennessee to push tempo and then some. The Lady Vols have team speed this season – with the healed Hornbuckle (broken wrist) back in form, the athletic Parker, junior college transfers Bobbitt and Alberta Auguste, freshman backup point guard Cait McMahan (who practiced Saturday after some knee swelling kept her out of Friday's practice and is available), a remade player in Alex Fuller and the still quick Anosike – and trailers (Spencer and fellow senior Dominique Redding) who can drain a jumper in transition.

The Lady Vols will hasten the pace when they have the ball and pester the opponent to get it back when they don't. That's not just the game plan against Chattanooga; it's the hoped-for standard operating procedure against a slew of teams this season.

"A great deal of the time," Summitt said. "It all depends on how the game plays out. There're going to be times we want to go and work in our half-court game. They'll be some teams that we'll want to press and some teams we won't press as much.

"They'll be situations where obviously if we're not effective in our transition game offensively, we're going to want to set up. We're going to have to be able to score in the half-court, because you play great teams and the coaching that's in the women's game today you can't just do it your way the whole time. You have to adjust, and we're going to have to adjust and play in the half-court some. We want to be efficient when we're put into the situation."

Tennessee also doesn't expect to soften its pressure once the ball crosses the centerline.

"I don't think we'd be smart not to press, just to sit back and waste our speed and quickness," Summitt said. "We can cover a lot of ground there (in the half-court game), but we can also cover 94 feet."

As always the first game that counts in the record books is exciting, whether you're a coach entering her 33rd season at the helm or a freshman forward.

"That is something really special to me," said Nicci Moats, a first-year player from Lord Botetourt High School in Daleville, Virginia. "I'm really excited – just running out of the tunnel and the experience of it and having all the fans and everything here. I think that's just going to be awesome. I can't wait to get things started. I'm excited about it. I'm excited to be here."

Summitt will be courtside for the second season on a court named "The Summitt" in her honor in an arena that opened in 1987. Since that time, Tennessee has won 94 percent of its game there for a record of 265-16. Overall Summitt has 913 career wins during her tenure at Tennessee. Still, every season is new – new players, new expectations and new questions.

"We're going to learn a lot about our basketball team," Summitt said. "You can always predict some things you think you're going to see, but that doesn't mean your predictions will be true. I think we're going to see a team that does a better job playing this game baseline to baseline, both ends. We're getting up and down, pressing more. I think our transition attack is better. We've got to be more efficient with the basketball. I thought we were careless at times in both exhibition games. And we had our lulls. We've got to learn to play through every series."

Still, Summitt expects to see a tougher squad than the one that took the floor last season for two reasons: She has quicker players and the ones returning are a year older.

"Sure. Absolutely," she said. "More aggressive and just commitment to playing a certain way on the defensive end is something I'm seeing from this team now. And accountability. It's glaring when they're not. If you've got four people out there busting butt and one not getting the job done they stand out.

"Last year it might have been two or three people not inspired to play. That affects the whole team and how we play. I do think now we have enough people that believe that defense can be a difference-maker for us and have bought into it."

SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report on Chattanooga. The Lady Mocs already have one game under their belts after beating Austin Peay, 80-56, at the home opener in McKenzie Arena on Friday. Alex Anderson had a career high of 23 points.

Here is Lockwood's assessment.

When Chattanooga has the ball: "We've got to take away threes for sure. We cannot let them stand and spot shoot. They've got some very good shooters. They'll shoot quick in transition. We've got to get back in transition, identify, pick up, keep a lot of pressure on the perimeter.

"Second thing, Alex Anderson, she's very deceptive. She's a very good, athletic, slashing, root-around-the-lane type player. She's good with either hand around the basket. She got 23 points against Austin Peay last night on nine of 13 shooting. She's a kid we have to defend. She can't go for a big night against us. We've got to make it tough for her to touch the ball in the paint, and we've got to make her shoot through our body. We can't let her drive and have looks to the basket. She's got to shoot a night full of medium-range jump shots that are highly contested. We've got to defend high-low action, and we've got to defend some screening action as well."

When Tennessee has the ball: "We want to really dictate tempo. We want to push the ball, be very aggressive and have an attack mentality. Every time the ball touches our hand we want to be on the attack mode. I think it's going to be important all year for us to generate paint points so we want to be able to do that – inside touches, offensive rebounding tries, getting fouled. We want to really assert ourselves on the boards. We want to really generate points with boards."

ANOTHER IN-STATE FOE: Middle Tennessee State University comes to Knoxville on Sunday, Nov. 26, just two days after the Lady Vols take on Stanford. The Blue Raiders won't be the typical post-Thanksgiving foe fodder. MTSU barely lost to defending national champion Maryland, 80-76, on Friday, before a record crowd of 10,010 in Murfreesboro.

Amber Holt, a junior college transfer from Southeastern Illinois College, and Chrissy Givens, a guard from Monroe, Louisiana, led the team. Holt had 28 points and eight rebounds, and Givens had 14 points, seven assists and three steals.

If UT fans thought this was a fill-in game for the Lady Vols between contests against Stanford and Louisiana Tech and North Carolina (both away, Nov. 28 and Dec. 3), the coaching staff didn't. Lockwood tuned into the MTSU game on his computer on the video stream.

"I watched the second half last night on the Internet," Lockwood said after practice Saturday. "Let me tell you, they're darn good. They're athletic. They've got Amber Holt, one of the best multidimensional players in the country. She was a First Team All-America JC last year. She's the real deal. She can drive it, pull-up game is good, she shoots it well enough (from outside) that you have to respect her. Givens, another player that can create so much off the drive and is so athletic. Those two players are key but then they've got a slew of other people who really contribute as well. They're scrappy.

"We knew all along this team was good. They're not a surprise to us. We knew they were good and then when they got Amber Holt they became very good. JC All-Americans and great athletes have a way of making you a lot of better in a hurry."

Tennessee should know, and the Nov. 26 matchup between UT and MTSU just got a lot more interesting for the fans.

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