Insell, a 1977 graduate of Middle Tennessee, guided the Golden Eaglettes to a record 10 TSSAA Class AAA state championships and two USA Today National Championships (1989, 1991) during his 28-year tenure.
"Dreams do come true," Insell said of his post as head coach at his college alma mater. "It's something you think about. I'm a coach and it's all I've ever done, from elementary to junior high to junior pro, AAU and high school. To be able to come on board at Middle Tennessee, a Division I school, that's a dream come true, not only for me, but for all of the high school coaches and junior high coaches across the country and it says if you stay in there long enough and dream big enough, one day it will eventually happen."
Summitt needed to add more home games – without the requirement that Tennessee make a return visit – and Insell wanted to play the state's flagship school. So the two in-state programs – one a reigning power, the other a rapidly rising mid-major looking for national stages – will meet for the first time since 1984.
"He wanted to play," Summitt said. "He called us."
Whether or not the series will be continued depends on openings in Tennessee's home schedule. Next year's slate is already full. Arizona State will come to Knoxville as part of that home-and-home series, but it won't be next season because there are no open slots yet.
"Right now we're pretty full," Summitt said of subsequent matchups with Middle Tennessee. "Everybody's wanting to play us for some reason. I guess they think they can beat us. I guess they've been listening to Nancy Lieberman. I don't know."
Those last remarks were made with a mischievous gleam in her eye. Lieberman wrote a column online at espn.com earlier this month in which she opined that this might be one of the least-talented teams that Summitt has assembled at Tennessee, an assessment that didn't sit well with the fan base of the Lady Vol Nation.
So far Tennessee has answered the early bell. The Lady Vols beat Chattanooga to start the season and then defeated in solid fashion three Pac-10 programs in UCLA, Arizona State and Stanford.
Middle Tennessee is knocking on the door of national recognition. They nearly took out defending national champion Maryland and lost to South Dakota State – which is opening eyes in its own right with wins over Southern California and Virginia – before winning three straight games against Maine, Minnesota and Chattanooga.
Still, a loss by the Lady Vols would be considered a major upset, especially on its home floor, where Tennessee has lost only once to an unranked opponent – Florida last February – since the arena opened in 1987.
Tennessee sophomore Alex Fuller, who is fully recovered from the knee injury that forced her into a redshirt year and the hip injury that hampered her last year, will have a coach on both benches. Insell was her high school coach when Fuller was a McDonald's All-American and Tennessee Miss Basketball at Shelbyville Central High School in Shelbyville, Tennessee. Fuller's family has since relocated to North Carolina, but the Middle Tennessee town still follows the career of its former star.
"Obviously she has great respect and admiration for coach Insell. I'm sure she'll be glad to see him, but I certainly hope she's not too glad to see him," Summitt said with a smile.
"He's had such an impact on the kids' lives that he's coached and taken a great interest in them. When we were recruiting her he sang her praises. He said all the things I needed to hear: You're not going to have a problem out of her. She's going to work hard. She's going to bring it everyday. She's going to make shots for you and do the dirty work when she has to do the dirty work. You could just tell – he's does that for all of his players – but for her I could tell he had a lot of respect for her work ethic and what she brought to the team."
Insell and Summitt have been longtime friends – the other Shelbyville players to come to Tennessee were Tiffany Woosley, sisters Amanda and Abby Canon and Michelle Johnson – and Insell called her when he was considering the job at Middle Tennessee.
"We just talked about the differences and if he in fact got the job what it would entail," Summitt said. "But he knew. He knew it was important to have great staff because he had a very loyal, hard-working staff at Shelbyville. Once he got the job and called me, we just talked about some different concerns and direction."
Summitt has remained in touch with Insell and his wife, Debbie, despite the fact he is now no longer part of the pipeline for prep players and has instead become a rival recruiter on the Division I level.
"We've been great friends," Summitt said. "I have tremendous respect for him. He and his wife Deb I've stayed in touch with them even if we weren't recruiting some of his players. I was excited that he had the opportunity to move to the college ranks. He feels like, I'm sure, he did all he could do at the high school level. He built a tremendous program there. … He sent a lot of players to the college game. It seemed like every time I went to the state tournament I watched them. He just got there over and over and over. That speaks volumes for Rick and his staff."
While smiling, Summitt added, "It's great until we throw it (the ball) up. Hopefully it'll be great afterwards."
Summitt is expected to stay with her starters: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 junior guard, No. 00 (6.8 points per game, 1.8 rebounds per game, 3.2 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 junior guard, No. 14 (11.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 4.3 steals per game); Sidney Spencer, 6'3 senior forward, No. 1 (13.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 sophomore forward, No. 3 (21.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 junior forward, No. 55 (7.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg).
Insell is expected to start: Amber Holt, 6'0 junior guard, No. 1 (21.2 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 2.6 spg), has two double-doubles this season after getting 26 points and 10 boards against Chattanooga; Johnna Abney, 5'4 sophomore guard, No. 2 (7.0 ppg, 1.2 rpg, 3.7 apg), hit four three-pointers against Maine; Starr Orr, 5'8 junior guard, No. 12 (6.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.8 apg), made the All-Tournament team at the Subway Classic in Minneapolis; Chrissy Givens, 5'11 senior guard, No. 22 (21.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 5.6 apg), led the Blue Raiders last season in points, rebounds, assists and steals and is the Sun Belt Conference preseason player of the year; and Lakira Boyd, 6'2 junior guard, No. 31 (1.2 ppg, 2.2 rpg), played in all 31 games last season, has started the last three games.
"We've got to take the mindset in that every possession is going to count for something," Insell said. "We've got to play an aggressive defense and go to the boards. If we do those things, we are going to have a shot. We put Tennessee on the schedule to get us ready for the tournaments. Playing teams like Tennessee will give us national attention and will be a measuring stick for our program."
Holt, a junior college transfer from Southeastern Illinois College, was a member of the Kodak/WBCA JC/CC All-American Team, along with Bobbitt and Alberta Auguste, who now play at Tennessee. She has added a dimension to Middle Tennessee that makes the Blue Raiders a very dangerous team.
"Very athletic, play up and down, they get after you," Summitt said. "Obviously Amber's added a lot to their team. She has junior college experience, and she's a very active player."
Both teams played Friday night so the players had a short turn-around to get ready for Sunday. The Lady Vols practiced and watched film for about two hours Saturday morning in a half-court workout.
"It's hard," UT Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said of the one-day break between games. "You let them enjoy the night because you can't start focusing on Middle Tennessee that night. But that next day, coaches, we have to set that tone. We have to come in, and we have to be very zeroed in on Middle Tennessee.
"We also have to do it in a very timely fashion. We don't want to keep our kids for three or four hours total time. So in two hours we've done shooting, walk-through, tape and scouting report. You just try to focus as best you can. This is the world. You change from one thing you go to the next."
Tennessee will once again be tested on defense from behind the arc. Middle Tennessee is averaging 8.6 made three-pointers a game and has launched 122 attempts on the year for an average of nearly 25 per game – more than a third of the team's field goal attempts – and is hitting 35.2 percent. Abney is 11-23 from long range for 47.8 percent. Holt is 3-9; Givens is 4-22. Freshman guard Chelsia Lymon is 9-17 (52.9 percent) and despite coming off the bench is the team's third-leading scorer at 8.0 ppg.
The Lady Vols, by contrast, have taken only 53 three-pointers and have made 24 for an average of 45.3 percent with six made per game. Spencer is a stellar 8-13 (61.5 percent) and Hornbuckle is 4-8 (50.0 percent). Bobbitt is 3-6 (50.0 percent) and senior forward Dominique Redding is 5-8 (62.5 percent). Freshman guard Cait McMahan has struggled (2-10, 20.0 percent), but she had been stroking threes before missing two weeks in October for arthroscopic knee surgery. Parker is at 100 percent after making her first attempt on the season behind the arc against Stanford on a nifty backwards flick pass from Bobbitt.
Spencer was a proven sharpshooter, but with the graduation of Shanna Zolman, the school's career and single season three-point records holder, Summitt didn't know how much of a weapon the long-range bomb would be this year. As of now, she would like to increase the attempts.
"That was something I didn't know going in whether or not we would (be a good three-point shooting team)," Summitt said. "I think Shannon maybe (needs to) take a few more shots. Cait does, too. Cait being out kind of got her into a little bit of a just run-the-offense mentality. She can shoot the three ball. I wouldn't mind us taking a few more on the kick-outs."
Meanwhile, Anosike's defensive play – she can play in the paint or on the perimeter when the Blue Raiders have the ball – will be key in this game because of the athleticism of Holt and Givens. That means Anosike must stay out of foul trouble for the Lady Vols.
"Nicky is really a player we depend on defensively, and when she's not in the game it makes a big difference in our interior defense," Summitt said. "She can also play on the perimeter. She's just so valuable to us in so many aspects of our defensive schemes that if we don't have her on the floor you can tell. When she's on the floor it makes a big difference. I think she's a great support defender, but she's also just very smart on and off the ball."
Fouls have become a concern for Tennessee. Bobbitt and Hornbuckle have both missed considerable stretches because of picking up fouls in the first half – Bobbitt got whistled for a third infraction in the first half against Stanford because Hornbuckle and McMahan were both on the bench with two. Anosike didn't foul in the first half against Stanford but fouled out in the second half.
"I felt like we had some early fouls and were not as aggressive as maybe our Arizona State game," Summitt said after the Stanford game. "But that's what happens. You go to different parts of the country and play, the officiating does vary some just because of the style of basketball. But we handled it. We're going to get in foul trouble at times. We really would like for Shannon and Lex not to take themselves out of the first half of play with two quick fouls. That's something that I think we just have to be more mindful of and more disciplined."
Tennessee will have a size advantage over Middle Tennessee, and that's one area the Lady Vols will look to exploit with mismatches, though they hope without the nettlesome foul calls. Anosike, always a stalwart on defense, is developing a complementary offensive game this season.
"She's showing that (complete game) and give all the credit to Nicky, because Nicky is an incredibly hard worker," Lockwood said. "She's willing to put in extra time, which has been a real asset to her game, and it's showing. She's also very receptive and very coachable so you get a good athlete who's a hard worker and very coachable, you've got a pretty good package.
"I give Nicky all the credit in the world for her development. She's worked on them. It's not practice ends and it's over. Nicky puts time into her game. I love the pace that she's playing. She's not in a hurry, her tempo is good, and she's finishing now. We're very pleased. Obviously it's a long year, and we need that to keep going."
Another key player for Tennessee will be Fuller, who is workmanlike on the court. She is averaging 8.3 ppg and 5.3 rpg in 20.5 minutes of playing time. Although she comes off the bench, the staff refers to her as if she starts and on Sunday she should have some extra incentive to play well.
"Anytime that would happen I would think there would be a story within a story," Lockwood said of a former coach becoming a foe. "I would assume if it's somebody you care about, even though you care about them and love them, when you compete against them you want to beat them. It's like playing against your brother. I may love my brother, but when I play against him I want to beat him. I'm sure that's a little bit of what's going on with both of them."
"YOU GO WE GO:" Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Middle Tennessee game. In a 30-minute presentation to the team Saturday, Lockwood outlined the strategy.
The players first heard an overview of specific players with discussion about how they score and how Tennessee should attempt to attack on the other end. Then Lockwood provided the keys to victory. That is followed by an edited film that showed what he just discussed – specific players and plays with pauses to see the action unfold and examples of the opposition's offenses and in-bound plays from the baseline and sideline. The film study then focuses on defense.
Throughout the film session the players are asked to identify what they are seeing and how to either defend or attack it offensively. They get snippets of full-court and half-court action and then isolated shots of key individual players to pick up tendencies. It is an interactive session, much like a teacher and students in a classroom discussion.
The film is accompanied by a thorough written report for the players to study, and each one is provided a copy. Lockwood concluded his presentation with a reference to the movie, "Backdraft," and two of its stars, Kurt Russell and Scott Glenn, who play firefighters. Russell's character is holding onto Glenn's character at considerable peril to himself. If Russell lets go, Glenn will fall into the pit of a building fire and die. Glenn tells him to let go and save himself, but Russell replies, "You go, we go."
Lockwood said the line reminded him of how the Tennessee team has come together this season in terms of unity and trust on the court and relying on each other.
After hearing the presentation it is certainly understandable why Summitt is livid after a game if the team hasn't paid attention to its scouting report defense.
"Exactly," Summitt said. "It's like you're going to take a test, and you have all the answers right in front of you. This is their cheat sheet and whoever does the scouting report is the professor and here's what on the test. Now you've got everything that you need to know. I didn't get that in college. We just went out and played."
The coaches rotate scouting assignments during the season, and each one takes hours to put together.
"You watch four videotapes, three to four is what we average per game," Lockwood said. "Each videotape takes probably an hour and a half to watch because you're stopping it and going back. Then you do your cuts, and you go back and watch just your cuts, which is another 30 or 40 minutes of editing and going through stuff.
"Then you write a report. By the time you add hours up you've probably spent 10 to 12 hours on each report. You've got a little investment."
Lockwood understands the frustration of watching a team not take full advantage of the information, but he acknowledged, "There's a human factor. It's great if you can program what you want but we're human and there's slippage, and on game day that's what we have to be tuned in to."
Here is his distilled assessment of the game.
When Middle Tennessee has the ball: "We've got to guard dribble drives. We've got to guard player screens and back screens. We've got to keep them out of the paint. We can't let them average 18 offensive rebounds a game. We've got to guard the pure shooters that they've got. The main thing is we've got to make it tough for Holt and Givens.
"You've got a first-team JC All-American and she (Holt) was going to Georgia, so she would have been in our league and would have been a good player in our league. She is the real deal. Chrissy Givens is a candidate for player of the year. You get a player of the year in the Sun Belt, they can play just fine against SEC players.
"They don't push tempo. What they do is they will run on turnovers or if they have an advantage. Other than that they're going to set their offense. They want to set up. They're not pushing it and taking quick shots on every possession. That's what we want to force them to do.
When UT has the ball: "We're looking to push the tempo. We want to run. We want to use our size. We want to get paint points. We want to be very, very physical, and we want the game fast. It's not going to be easy. They're athletic. They're not going to sit still. They're very active defensively. They'll front; they'll try to deny. Our perimeter people are not going to have free looks to throw the ball inside. It's going to be a challenge."
RECRUIT WATCH: Amber Gray, a 6'1 junior forward from West Chester, Ohio, attended the Lady Vols practice on Saturday. Gray, who has a five-star ranking from Scout and a No. 5 ranking at her position, is in the class of 2008. The All-Star Girls Report has Gray, who plays for Lakota West High School, ranked No. 8 nationally and No. 4 at her position.
Last season Gray averaged 21.5 points, 11.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.2 blocks per game as an inside-outside player. A Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper article last week said that Gray had added three-point shooting to her overall game and quoted her coach, Andy Fishman, as saying "that mostly every school in the country is interested in her playing there."
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series against Middle Tennessee, 14-0. The series was played from 1971 to 1984 so this will be the first meeting in 22 years. The last game was played March 17, 1984, in the NCAA Tournament; Tennessee, a 70-52 winner, was led by Mary Ostrowski, who had 22 points and 14 rebounds, and Tanya Haave with 14 points and four boards. … On this day, November 26, Tennessee is 8-2. One of those eight wins was against Middle Tennessee in 1979. The two losses were to Southern Cal (1983) and Cincinnati (1984). … The average score when these two teams have played was 75.3 for Tennessee and 57.1 for Middle Tennessee. Tennessee has been playing in-state schools – 18 in all – since 1903 and has a 195-55-1 overall record. In 53 meetings with SEC in-state rival Vanderbilt, the Lady Vols have a 47-6 record. … Both Tennessee and Middle Tennessee are defending conference tourney champions – the Lady Vols in the SEC and the Blue Raiders in the Sun Belt. … Middle Tennessee's 98 points on Friday against Chattanooga were the most under Rick Insell and the most since 1999 when the Blue Raiders scored 99 against Eastern Illinois. Middle Tennessee hit 12 three-pointers against Chattanooga.