"They're tough at home. I'm sure they'll have a great crowd," UT coach Pat Summitt said. "It's the perfect setup for this team."
Summitt's comments came just minutes after Tennessee had defeated UCLA, 83-60, in the first of three consecutive games against Pac-10 opponents. The Lady Vols other win this season came against Chattanooga, 102-72. Arizona State's four wins were notched against Nebraska, New Mexico, Florida Atlantic and Nicholls State with an average winning margin of 31.5 points.
For both teams Sunday's game (2 p.m. Eastern, Lady Vol Radio Network, Fox Sports) will provide an early season measure on how good they might be.
The Tennessee veterans realize it's their job to get the newcomers ready. Tennessee's two junior college players are playing major roles – point guard Shannon Bobbitt starts, and Alberta Auguste has earned significant minutes off the bench. Freshmen Cait McMahan, who backs up Bobbitt at the point spot, and forward Nicci Moats will be playing their first ever college game on the road.
"I think the upperclassmen will sit down with the new players and we'll have a team meeting about what's expected on the road and what happens on the road – a real hostile environment," said senior Sidney Spencer, who has performed in her fair share of places where the fans turn out to see and cheer against Tennessee. "Everyone wants a piece of us. We thrive under that. We love that. I don't think these players will have any trouble adjusting to that whatsoever."
Said junior Nicky Anosike, "As far as a road game I have already warned them about what happens on most of our road games, just how fans are kind of hostile, and they really don't love us too much. I don't think it's anything that they can't handle. They'll be fine."
When junior Alexis Hornbuckle was asked about the ASU game, the UCLA contest had not yet been played.
"I heard it was tough to play there," Hornbuckle said. "They're a really good team just from watching them past years and the type of basketball that they play, so fundamentally sound. They play well together. They have shooters. Their team chemistry is just amazing to watch. … This team is good. You cannot overlook that. I think it's very important for us not to even look past UCLA because that's a test in itself, but we can't rest after UCLA. We don't have a day of rest yet. As long as we keep our mindset and don't become what Pat calls mental midgets and die at any point on this little journey, I think we should be OK."
The Lady Vols had one mental lapse against UCLA – Hornbuckle was sitting on the bench with two fouls, along with forward Candace Parker – before halftime when they let the Bruins battle back into the game by letting up defensively.
"We were pretty much an offensive-minded team and you can't do that when you go against teams that can shoot the basketball and take advantage when you don't close out (on defense) or when you're not extending in the passing lanes," Summitt said.
Parker rued her stint on the bench – she got in early foul trouble against Chattanooga, too, because of a crackdown on hand-checking – and promised to adjust.
"This is the second game that I've done that to the team, and I take full responsibility," Parker said. "It's just not getting stupid fouls. I'm really going to try to concentrate and try hard to adjust to the new rule about putting your hands on the person. I won't do that to the team anymore. I learned a lesson."
Tennessee will need Parker on Sunday, especially the version of herself in the second half against UCLA. In the first half she was settling for jump shots and had eight points on 3-7 shooting. In the second half she went to the basket and ended up with 22 points on 10-15 shooting.
"Candace scored in a lot of different ways," Summitt said. "First half, I thought she was settling for face-ups and not really establishing herself as a post-up player. I don't think there's anyone one on one that's going to take away her inside game. I thought second half she went back inside and got some easy baskets and hit some face-up shots and showed obviously the type of player that she can be and a lot of dimensions to her game."
Summitt will stick with her same starting lineup, which features four players averaging double digits in points: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 junior guard, No. 00 (10.5 points per game, 3.5 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 junior guard, No. 14 (11.5 ppg, 5.0 steals per game); Sidney Spencer, 6'3 senior forward, No. 1 (12.5 ppg, 2.5 rebounds per game); Candace Parker, 6'5 sophomore forward, No. 3 (18.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 junior center, No. 55 (7.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg.)
Sun Devils coach Charli Turner Thorne is expected to start: Jill Noe, 5'11 senior guard, No. 22 (11.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg), missed two seasons after twice tearing the ACL in her left knee, returned to starting lineup last year, hit a career high five three-pointers against Stanford; Briann January, 5'8 sophomore guard, No. 20 (8.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg), earned All-Pac-10 Freshman honors, led team in assists (86) and steals (46); Reagan Pariseau, 5'5 junior guard, No. 2 (3.5 ppg, 1.3 rpg), point guard started every game last season, had one or zero turnovers in 18 of 32 games; Emily Westerberg, 6'0 senior forward, No. 4 (14.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg), selected to 2006-07 preseason All Pac-10 Team, needs 39 points to join 1,000-point club at ASU; and Aubree Johnson, 6'2 senior forward, No. 32 (8.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg), started all but one game last season, was an AAU teammate of Pariseau and Westerberg, picked ASU to play with best friend Westerberg. January also played with all three in AAU ball.
Summitt was asked about the Sun Devils directly after the UCLA game. She hadn't seen any film yet – she won't watch a game ahead – but she likely has seen quite a bit by now.
"I have a policy I don't watch except the next opponent that we play," Summitt said. "Holly Warlick and Dean Lockwood I know have both watched. Holly says that they're going to be a real challenge for us just because they're very, very aggressive defensively. Obviously they shoot well; they space well. She said we have to be ready to play. I could tell both of them were very impressed, but I didn't want to hear much about it until I got finished with this game. I think they're tough."
Tennessee's guard play will be key, and outside of Hornbuckle, the Lady Vol guards are not yet road-tested.
"I think it's going to be kind of difficult for our new players to adjust to playing on the road, because it's not easy," Anosike said. "It's going to be the first time that they've played anywhere outside of our gym with this team. It's our job as upperclassmen to get them ready, but it's nothing we can't handle."
Two of those guards, Bobbitt and McMahan, have already done enough to earn the coaching staff's trust in the backcourt. McMahan got a late start – she spent two weeks of the preseason rehabbing her right knee and missed the two exhibition games – but she showed in the first two official games that she could run the offense.
"I think Shannon and Cait both bring a calmness to the point and on the floor when they come in," said Warlick, who played point guard for Tennessee from 1976 to 1980. "Shannon has more experience right now than Cait, but they're good vocal leaders and they're both positive. They're both very positive. It's calming when you're on the floor. They both handle the ball, and they're both pretty quick, especially Shannon. It's difficult to get trapped, and they get us in our offense."
That has been a tremendous gain for Tennessee because it has allowed Hornbuckle to stay on the wing.
"I love playing out on the wing," Hornbuckle said. "To me it's like two different Alexises when I'm at the point and when I'm playing on the wing. Obviously y'all can probably tell from watching me. I get out and run.
"It's easier to crash the boards. Sometimes I forget because I think I'm the point guard still and I run back, and I'm like, ‘Oh, I've got to go rebound.' Little things like that kind of confuse me every now and then, but other than that I prefer to play on the wing. That's my natural position. It just opens up a lot more. I think it's easier to create on the wing for other people and myself.
"I enjoy playing on the wing. I joke with them in practice if they give me a ball: ‘I'm not the point guard. I'm going over there. I'm going to the wing.' "
Hornbuckle also has enjoyed the presence of Bobbitt, a battler on the court with an impish attitude on and off of it.
"The biggest thing she's done she lightens the mood on the court," Hornbuckle said.
She also can lighten up a post-game press conference. After the opening game of the season in which Parker dunked, the diminutive Bobbitt delivered a deadpan routine in which she said she thought about blocking it until she remembered they were teammates.
"She had Candace and I just cracking up in there," Hornbuckle said. "I was like, ‘Wow, Shannon.' "
Hornbuckle likes to crack on Bobbitt's height, but she appreciates her motor.
"I say ‘Lil Bit,' 5-foot even; she says she's about 5'1, 5'2," Bobbitt said.
When told that Bobbitt was listed at 5'4 in junior college, Hornbuckle replied: "5'4 is out of the question. 5'2 is a maybe with tennis shoes on."
Regardless of Bobbitt's height, "she's like a little ball of energy throughout the whole practice, start to finish, she wants to learn, she takes stuff in," Hornbuckle said. "You say, ‘Shannon, push it.' That's all she needs to hear because the next thing you know she's down the court, and you've got to keep up with her."
Tennessee needs to be ready for a fast pace Sunday. So far the Lady Vols have been the ones to push it and they haven't shown any signs of slowing down. After the season opener Hornbuckle was asked if the pace was tiring.
"No, I was talking to Holly and I was like I didn't even get tired until halfway through the second half," she said. "I think we trained so hard, and we practice the way we play. I think that's a lot different than last year. We had good days, but there were no consistent hard practices where everybody across the board was going all out. I just think we train ourselves every day for game tempo, and I think that helps out a lot. When we get in a game, it's not much different."
Sunday will be different from the last meeting against Arizona State, not the least of which is the fact the game will be played indoors at Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe.
The last meeting, won by Tennessee, 67-63, took place in Phoenix at Bank One Ballpark (now Chase Field), the home of Major League Baseball's Arizona Diamondbacks, on Dec. 27, 2000. The ballpark features a swimming pool beyond centerfield, but it's unlikely anyone would have ventured into the water that evening even if it were open. A crowd of 16,782 braved cold desert temperatures in the 40s with frigid winds to watch the first-ever women's basketball game to be played outdoors.
Summitt liked the notion of participating in a first and also realized the game would draw attention to the sport.
"I wanted to go to (the state of) Arizona and play and I thought why not," Summitt said. "As I tried to coach I almost froze to death."
She won't have to worry about game-time temperatures on Sunday. Instead she's looking forward to seeing how her team responds to a heated environment against a ranked opponent so early in the season.
"They need that right now," Summitt said. "They need to go into a hostile arena and play against a great basketball team, and they're going to have that opportunity to do it."
SCOUTING REPORT: Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick handled the scouting report for the Arizona State game. She expects a physical battle on both ends on the floor and said the Sun Devil guards will bring a lot of pressure.
When Arizona State has the ball: "They run a motion offense. They don't run set plays as much as passing, cutting, screens, down screens," said Warlick, who added that Tennessee had to be prepared to defend "concepts" as opposed to offensive sets.
"I expect to play man to man (defense)," she said. "They're getting a lot of shots in the paint. We've got our work cut out for us."
When Tennessee has the ball: "They are very active, hands on. They try to disrupt you. We're going to have to have player movement and ball movement. We're going to try to establish our inside game first."
Warlick said Arizona State would try to impose a physical style of play and force Tennessee out of its comfort areas.
"It's a good test for us," said Warlick, who noted that with Stanford coming to Knoxville on Friday – the third Pac-10 team in a row for the Lady Vols – "we might as well (be ready). We're going to be in that situation a lot this week."
Stanford is expected to bring a physical game to Thompson-Boling Arena when the Cardinal comes to town Nov. 24.
Since she's running a gauntlet of Pac-10 schools, Pat Summitt can at least look for some similarities among the styles of play to help the team get ready.
"I know with Arizona State typically they're going to put up a lot of threes, they're going to spread you out," Summitt said. "Stanford does the same thing. That's one reason we've just really been emphasizing our defense. We're going to have to have some influence on their shot selection. And they're physical. Typically when we've gone to Stanford, I've felt like (it was) one of the most physical games on our schedule."
TENNESSEE AND TALENT: Commentator and columnist Nancy Lieberman created a bit of a stir among Tennessee fans – and Summitt mentioned the remarks on her radio show last week – when she said this Lady Vol team may be among the least talented ever in Knoxville.
Alexis Hornbuckle, who could have been one of the players offended by the words, took them in stride instead.
"You expect it. Think about it," she said. "Pat just accepted two junior college transfers, which she hasn't done in how long? (Three decades.) We have that. We have a freshman who is the second point guard. We're not as tall. We struggled in rebounding even in exhibitions, and we didn't even out-rebound (Chattanooga).
"But where we might not have the height, yeah we might have newcomers coming in and starting or being main starters off the bench but the energy compared to last year … . We come in ready to make a statement even if it's in practice, even if it's just a high school team watching us practice. We want them to be able to go back and say, ‘Man you should see Tennessee this year.' So it kind of motivates us to want to get out there and want to prove people wrong. And when we have that motivation across the board there's not too many things that can go wrong."
ODDS AND ENDS: The Lady Vols will see a former teammate in Sybil Dosty, who transferred to Arizona State after last season and must sit out this year. "I'm sure our players will be glad to see her; they are friends," Summitt said. … Jim Beitia, who started the Tennessee softball program, is now the director of operations for Arizona State. … The Lady Vols are 7-0 when playing on Nov. 19. … With the victory over UCLA, Tennessee notched its 50th win against Pac-10 teams overall. It also marked UT's 370th win against a ranked foe to 145 losses for a winning percentage against top competition of 70.3 percent. … ASU coach Charli Turner Thorne is the winningest coach in Sun Devil history with a record of 176-129 and has led the program to a school-record seven consecutive postseason appearances. She played at Stanford, graduating in 1988, under Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer. … Since the 2003-04 season, ASU is 43-2 in Wells Fargo Arena. Since 2004-05, the Sun Devils are 21-3 in pre-conference regular season games with wins over Georgia, UConn, Vanderbilt and New Mexico.