"Hopefully playing the schedule that we do it will then enable us around March, April to face a North Carolina or a Notre Dame or an Arizona State or whomever. I think the hard schedule pays off in the end."
Notre Dame, 9-3, is in town Saturday at 2 p.m. (CSS, Lady Vol Radio Network) to take on No. 4 Tennessee, 11-1, at Thompson-Boling Arena. It is the second of three Big East teams that the Lady Vols will face. They took care of West Virginia last week and take on the top team in the league next Saturday in UConn.
But first Pat Summitt will get to gauge her team against Notre Dame – the Fighting Irish are expected to throw a lot of zone defenses at Tennessee – and then against Alabama on Wednesday in the always-important SEC opener.
Tennessee already has shown Summitt one thing this season: her players can bounce back from a tough loss. They haven't faltered since the North Carolina game Dec. 3. Last year a loss to Duke was followed by a loss to Kentucky, the first to that program since 1986. Tennessee later lost on senior day to Florida, which became the first unranked team to ever beat the Lady Vols in the arena. The Gators were in the poll the next day.
"I think every game hopefully is important to us," Summitt said. "I think last year we learned a couple of lessons and lost to teams – we lost to Kentucky; we lost to Florida. I thought they handled the loss at North Carolina better this year than say the way they handled our Duke loss, which obviously the margin was a lot greater. But I just think the maturity of our team is at a greater level."
Sophomore Alex Fuller, a potential starter for the Lady Vols who comes off the bench, is an example of that maturity.
"Obviously it's very important because it will start off this part of our season, and we'll be able to see where we are as a team," Fuller said of the next three games. "We'll be able to tell all about ourselves as a team."
Summitt had been raving about Fuller since the preseason – for her work in the off-season and for the way she came to campus in great physical condition. She started Fuller in the second half against Old Dominion – she finished with eight points, seven rebounds, four assists and two steals – because junior Nicky Anosike was having a rare outing of uninspired play. The change was a reward for Fuller's effort.
"Oh absolutely," Summitt said. "I'm really pleased with Alex Fuller and how she's playing. She could easily be a starter and may work herself in to that position. I like her coming off the bench quite honestly. When you've got a real touch off the bench, some firepower, it definitely can help your basketball team, and she's been a tremendous asset to us in that regard."
Now, Summitt admires Fuller for her willingness to be a team player and accept either role.
"Absolutely," Summitt said. "She's all about the team."
Fuller's work in practice demonstrates that it's not just a show of unity in the games. She hustles, listens to the coaches and executes on the floor.
"Basketball is a team game," Fuller said. "There is no individual aspect about it. I just come in practice and in the games and do whatever is best and do whatever the coaches ask of me."
When asked what she is thinking as she waits to check into a game, Fuller laughed and said, "To rebound."
It's her determination to get on the boards that will keep Summitt sending Fuller to the scorer's table.
Summitt has always been known for her emphasis on board play, but this team has a slim +5.4 margin per game and averages 36.9 a game. The record is 47.0 rebounds a game set by the 1992-93 team.
"That's a theme every year isn't it?" Summitt said when asked about the sporadic rebounding performances.
But this season she's having to shake the proverbial trees a little harder to find rebounders. Candace Parker is averaging 8.9 boards a game, but that drops considerably if she is moved to the three spot.
"It's like I told Candace. I can't play her on the perimeter; she's not going to rebound," Summitt said. "The one kid that's got a nose for the ball right now is Fuller. Anosike ought to be putting up more numbers. You've got Dom and Sid."
Sidney Spencer's board play has been inconsistent so far. Dominique Redding will earn more playing time when Summitt sees that she will go the glass from the three spot, and she had an excellent week of practice since coming back from the break. Alexis Hornbuckle is going to the boards from the two spot. It's the three spot that is troubling Summitt right now.
"You've got to have a three player that will rebound," Summitt said. "Lex will rebound, but we're not great at the three. Sid will get eight one night and two the next. You've got to have consistency to me from your frontline game on the boards. We're going to; it's just a matter of when we're going to make it a habit every time, every possession."
Usually such a situation could lead to a change in the starting lineup just to shake things up a little. But Tennessee only has eight healthy scholarship players available for Saturday's game – freshman point guard Cait McMahan has been sick with stomach flu and could play if she had to, but freshman forward Nicci Moats is out for personal reasons –so Summitt doesn't have much wiggle room. Removing a player from a starter's slot or shifting a player on the floor to a different position could set off a domino effect that causes more problems than it addresses.
So the starters are expected to be: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 junior guard, No. 00 (6.6 points per game, 1.2 rebounds per game, 4.0 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 junior guard, No. 14 (10.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.4 steals per game); Sidney Spencer, 6'3 senior forward, No. 1 (11.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 sophomore forward, No. 3 (19.9 ppg, 8.9 rpg); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 junior center, No. 55 (8.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg).
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw is expected to start: Breona Gray, 5'9 senior guard, No. 32 (6.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg), a team co-captain this season, will pick up the opponent's best backcourt player, was the Nevada state champion in the 400-m in high school; Charel Allen, 5'11 junior guard, No. 2 (14.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg), leading scorer this season after averaging 8.1 ppg over her first two years, has scored in double figures in 10 out of 12 games this season, can play inside or out, one of eight players in Pennsylvania high school history to score 3,000 career points (3,110), Tennessee's Michelle Marciniak was another; Tulyah Gaines, 5'7 junior guard, No. 1 (10.7 ppg, 1.9 rpg), also a co-captain, joins Gray as the first players at Notre Dame from Nevada, was the 2004 Gatorade State Player of the Year, running the point with the graduation of All-American Megan Duffy; Melissa D'Amico 6'5 junior center, No. 33 (11.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg), significantly improved post player this season, went to Pete Newell's Tall Women Camp in San Diego over the summer; and Crystal Erwin, 6'2 senior forward, No. 34 (5.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg), emotional leader for the Irish and will hit the glass, played in all 30 games last season with 19 starts, had seven boards in the Tennessee game last year.
The sixth woman for the Irish is 5'9 freshman guard Ashley Barlow, who is averaging 11.3 ppg and plays starter's minutes at 26.3 per game. On Thursday, Barlow scored a career high 21 points against Prairie View A&M and hit 13-13 free throws. She is averaging 6.0 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game.
Notre Dame lost scoring guard Lindsay Schrader to a season-ending knee injury in October. The Fighting Irish have had some perplexing losses – to Penn State and Indiana – but they also have beaten tough teams, including Purdue and Bowling Green, which recently gave Duke all it could handle.
"They're very active defensively," Summitt said. "They're running more full court pressure than I've seen them in the past. I think they really play well together. But you think about her teams – the team that won the national championship? They played so well together. They share the ball very well, good ball movement, good player movement, more aggressive defensively."
Summitt likes having this game on the schedule to start out from the Christmas break and expects a stiff test for her relatively young team.
"I think it will," she said. "I think our defense has got to be imposing without question."
With 12 UT games now out there on film to reveal tendencies Summitt expects opponents to look for more ways to disrupt her team, starting with zone defenses. She also expects opponents to want to slow down the Lady Vols. They are averaging 78.2 points per game and would like to push that into the 80s. Opponents will want to keep the scores in the 65 to 70 range.
"I think definitely they'll be some strategy involved at keeping the score at a different place and not allowing us to go on our runs," Summitt said. "We just have to see. It will be a game of wills. Obviously we know what we have to do, and we have to stick to our game plan."
Tennessee clearly wants to run. Summitt has speed at the guard spots and post players who can run the floor. Parker, Anosike and Fuller have combined this season for 51 steals. Hornbuckle leads the team with 41 and Alberta Auguste has 25 coming off the bench.
"I think last year we had a different look than this year," Summitt said. "We didn't have the speed or the quickness. We could not generate as many opportunities with our defense. We just couldn't generate offense from defense on a consistent basis. This team has been able to do that, and we've done it more in spurts, but I think the overall capabilities of our team to disrupt and generate easy scoring opportunities is better than it's been in awhile.
"Because of that it seems we haven't seen as many people change their style, but I think as you get into SEC play you'll see it even more because that's family and you better believe they all know what we're wanting to do, and they want to make sure they handle our pressure and make us beat them in a half-court game, not a full-court game."
One way for Tennessee to push up its scoring totals is to get consistent help for Parker. Hornbuckle and Bobbitt are emerging as scorers – in the last two games Hornbuckle had 18- and 10-point outings, and Bobbitt added eight and 13. But another scorer in the paint would help considerably. Summitt could get the one number she needs per game from two players.
"I think Anosike has got to be more of a force inside," Summitt said. "I really believe she needs to be putting up bigger numbers, and the combo of Fuller and Anosike should give us the kind of offensive punch in the paint that we need."
Auguste, who has stood out on defense, also has to find an offensive rhythm in the second half of the season.
"Last two games she tried to take the ball to the hole on every possession," Summitt said. "She's got a really nice pull-up. It's almost like she was trying to make things happen instead of let things happen for her.
"I just pointed that out to her (Thursday at practice). You've got a great pull-up game. There will be times you can get to the hole, but she's walking a tightrope down on that baseline and getting herself in trouble. She's comes out of junior college, she's a starter. She's having to learn to come off the bench. She is a scorer. She has a scorer's mentality."
Auguste could talk to Fuller about adapting to a different role after being a starter until getting to Tennessee.
"She's such a hard-nosed utility player and she's done a very good job of coming in and not only being solid defensively but being a great offensive threat," Caldwell said of Fuller. "With her ability to shoot the three she's going to make the defense have to extend, which obviously opens up our inside game, plus it opens up dribble penetration. I think Alex has done a great job of just being a solid scoring post player for us not only with her offensive putbacks but also with her ability to shoot the three."
Anosike noted that versatility and its impact on the post game since Fuller can begin an offensive set in the paint and take her defender onto the perimeter if necessary.
"She just adds a different type of player," Anosike said. "She's more versatile as far as shooting from the outside. She can play the three and the four. So it gives us a different look there as opposed to just being more in the post."
After two long days of practice this week on Wednesday and Thursday and a preparation session Friday morning the players are ready to line up against the last opponent of the year and then get ready for the 2007 portion of the 2006-07 season.
"I think this is a big test for us," Anosike said of the next three games. "What we do here is going to show us what we're going to do as far as postseason and the SEC championship. This is really going to prepare us for the oncoming games. I think what we do here is going to tell us how good we really are."
FROSH UPDATE: Cait McMahan was courtside at practice Friday but is still recovering from stomach flu. Pat Summitt said she is probably out for Saturday's game.
"She's better," Summitt said." She's far from 100 percent that's for sure."
Nicci Moats returned to campus Thursday evening with her parents, and they met with Summitt because of some personal issues that Moats needs to resolve. Summitt said Moats will return to the team, but she is definitely out for now.
"I don't know when she'll rejoin our team but hopefully soon," Summitt said. "It's not basketball-related. I'm giving her her time with her family."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Nikki Caldwell handled the scouting report for the Notre Dame game. Here is her assessment.
When Notre Dame has the ball: "Obviously transition defense is a big concern, because they like to run off of turnovers so taking care of the ball is going to be key for us and limiting their transition baskets. Then defensively just really playing hard-nosed man-to-man defense and disrupting their high-post action. That would be key and then limiting their shots. One and done, that's it.
"They have a balanced attack. They've got four players in double figures so you're going to have to guard everybody. Their guard play has been strong for them. They've got guards who can shoot the three, who can penetrate and then they've got very, very solid post play. They've got the size to match up with us, as well as the athleticism, so we're definitely going to have to stick to our game plan and make sure that we're not wavering from the defensive pressure."
When Tennessee has the ball: "They're (Notre Dame) going to mix it up (defensively). They'll use some zone, some man, some full-court pressure, some three-quarter-court stuff. We're going to have to make sure we keep our composure. We're always wanting to establish an inside-outside attack and in doing so you can do that by obviously pounding the ball inside to your posts but also attacking off the dribble."
Caldwell also expects to see a 1-2-1-1 zone deployed against Tennessee, which will be a new look.
"It will be because we haven't been zoned that much," she said. "I just think when you play a team like Notre Dame – they won a national championship (in 2001) with a matchup zone; it's been successful for them – so we're going to have to make sure that our perimeter players are able to knock down open shots and do a good job of balancing and have great spacing against that zone."
Pat Summitt watched film of Notre Dame over the Christmas break and came away impressed with the defense, which Irish coach Muffet McGraw has said is still a work in progress. Irish opponents are averaging 22.5 turnovers a game. Michigan had 30 turnovers this season against Notre Dame. The Irish average 12.6 steals per game. (Tennessee opponents are averaging 22.7 turnovers with UT stealing the ball 13.3 times per game.)
"Their matchup zone defense is quite active; they'll run a 1-2-1-1 press," Summitt said. "We haven't seen as much pressure in the full court, and we also will see a different look from a defensive standpoint. They will play some man, but it's like they can disguise their matchup zone and their man, and they're very active, very aggressive out of it and very stingy."
ON TAP: Nine other SEC teams are in action Saturday: North Dakota State at Alabama; Arkansas at St. Louis; Georgia vs. Brown; Kentucky vs. Memphis; LSU vs. Louisiana Tech; Ole Miss vs. Fordham; Mississippi State vs. Georgia Tech; South Carolina at UNC-Wilmington; and Princeton at Vanderbilt.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Notre Dame, 17-0. The series began in 1993. This is the second time in a row that the teams will end the year together. Tennessee played Notre Dame last season in Indiana on Dec. 31. … Tennessee is 6-2 in games played on Dec. 30. The two losses came to Maryland in 1992 and Connecticut in 2000. … Tennessee is 67-19 against Big East teams. The only teams that have beaten the Lady Vols from that conference are UConn, Rutgers and Cincinnati. … Notre Dame isn't ranked coming into this game. After the ODU win, Pat Summitt now has 550 career victories over unranked teams. … Candace Parker has been to the line 71 times so far this season. She set a single-season school record in 2005-06 with 218 shots from the stripe. She has hit 54 this season for a percentage of 76.1. … Saturday's game ends Notre Dame's out of conference schedule for the season. The Fighting Irish are seeking the program's first road win over a top five opponent. Tennessee is the only opponent Notre Dame has never beaten when given at least five cracks at it. Tennessee also is one of only five programs to tally at least 10 wins against the Irish. The others are UConn (19), DePaul (15), Purdue (14) and Rutgers (13). … Injured Notre Dame sophomore guard Lindsay Schrader (torn ACL, right knee) and Tennessee's Candace Parker have been friends since grade school. They were teammates on an AAU team coached by Parker's father, Larry Parker. They still chat regularly by e-mail and text messaging. Both are from Illinois – Parker from Naperville and Schrader from Bartlett. … Notre Dame freshman guard Melissa Lechlitner is a 2006 graduate of St. Joseph's High School in South Bend and played three seasons with Sydney Smallbone, a member of the class of 2007 who has signed with Tennessee. Heather Mason, Tennessee's strength and conditioning coach, spent five years on the staff at Notre Dame from 1998 to 2003. Two of Mason's graduate assistants on the UT staff are twins Jessica and Kristen Kinder, who played volleyball for the Irish from 2000 to 2003.