"Well they say it takes 21 days to form a habit, whoever they are, but I somewhat believe in that theory," coach Pat Summitt said. "It's repetition, repetition, repetition."
The practice time allotted the basketball team between games – it is exam break so no games could be scheduled – has had one theme: get tougher. Early indications are that the attitude is starting to stick.
"Well, it's about time," Summitt said.
Summitt and assistant coach Nikki Caldwell led an up-tempo practice that challenged the players to be physical and to put a body on somebody.
One scrimmage-type drill of teammates split among different squads was both exhausting and physical with bodies hitting the floor on both ends. The drill emphasized transition offense and boxing out. One of the standouts from beginning to end was senior Dominique Redding. A later full-court drill against the male practice players focused on transition defense. Both drills raised the level of competitive spirit on the floor, but Summitt wants more than that from her players.
"They're a lot more competitive than they are physical," Summitt said. "Sometimes the only time we touch anybody is when we kind of bump into them. It just amazes me how hard they work in the weight room. … Look at our bodies. We're very strong, but we're not imposing our will physically on other people."
The extended time off means Summitt has had spare time to watch film of her team and other teams.
"The more I think about the Arizona State game and the North Carolina game and with the Texas game coming up, they are physical," Summitt said. "I watched their game with Duke. Duke's physical. North Carolina's physical."
So she is using practice – from beginning to end – to instill that attitude. Will it make a difference in a game when Summitt can't take the floor, walk the sidelines, blow a whistle and instruct individual players in either docile or intense fashion, depending on the situation?
"We'll see," Summitt said. "This is practice. I don't get to do this during a game. They're in control."
The Lady Vols finished practice without freshman post player Nicci Moats, who took a tumble in the scrimmage-type drill. She tweaked her left knee and felt pain on the outside portion.
"She tested out fine," Summitt said, so the initial indications are that she will be OK.
Tuesday's practice was a good indication of how male practice players can help a team. The practice pace never eased up, and the drills were run with efficiency with players rotating in and out of one drill and segueing into the next set.
But the NCAA Committee on Women's Athletics came out Monday with a "position statement" calling for a ban on male practice players. The committee believes the use of men has somehow hurt the development and opportunities for women, though it offered no proof as to exactly how. The committee also sees the use of men as violating "the spirit of gender equity and Title IX."
The matter has been taken up in all three Divisions of play – I, II and III – but only Division III has legislation pending for now. That proposal limits the use of men to one practice session a week during the season and to no more than half of a team's starting players. So for basketball, only two men would be allowed on the floor at one time.
The committee has announced its opposition to the use of men at all and is recommending a ban throughout the NCAA. Division I and II remain in the information-gathering stage about the use of men.
Summitt indicated it is a bad idea that needs to be derailed before it picks up any more misguided momentum.
"I think it will set women's basketball way back," Summitt said. "If you look at having male practice players – males are stronger, quicker, faster – to challenge us in practice and I'm sure a lot of other coaches in Division I would agree it has done nothing but help us improve our game."
Summitt was the coach of the 1984 Olympic team, which won a Gold Medal in Los Angeles, and she sought out men then to help the women get ready for international competition.
"When I coached the '84 Olympic team and we played all our exhibition games only one was played against women and that was a group of former World Championships players, Pan Am players and Olympic players," she said. "Could we find any other women out there to help us? No. The same is true of the college level. Will your last five people make you better? No. But, well, they're going to get a lot of practice time. Does that mean they're going to play in the games? No."
The committee doesn't seem particularly concerned with the teams being better, only that everyone on the team gets plenty of practice. For basketball teams carrying 15 players, a third of whom likely will rarely play, that could be an issue. But Tennessee has a roster of 10 scholarship players this year – the Lady Vols will have 12 next season – and the male practice players become a necessity, especially if someone is ill, injured or has a class conflict.
"The committee acknowledges that the most common argument in favor of using male practice players is that it improves the skills of female student-athletes and strengthens the team as a whole," the NCAA said in a statement. "While there is no way to measure the true validity of that argument," the committee said, "if accepted, it still leads to the question – what cost in participation opportunities for women is the (NCAA) willing to pay for such improvement? The message to female student-athletes seems to be ‘you are not good enough to make our starters better, so we need to use men instead.' "
Which is basically absolutely correct and ignores a major point: The male practice players are used to make everyone better, from the starters to the substitutes. The committee seems to think only the starters are getting the practice repetitions. An efficient and well-managed practice means every player on the roster will rotate in. In this case the committee appears to be trying to legislate competence.
Summitt sees a group thinking it's doing something good for women, but, in her opinion, it will actually harm the sport and dilute the quality of the product on the floor.
"It sounds like we've got a large number of senior women's administrators across the country that think this is going to be good for women's basketball," Summitt said. "Good luck. You're talking about parity? Forget it. There're only going to be a few teams who are going to get the best players, and you're not going to see parity. I think it would be a huge mistake for our game."