Coach Pat Summitt has complimented this year's team for its competitive desire; she is also picking up on a sense of urgency that she didn't see last season. That is a function both of the team's key players being a year older and the sobering shots delivered in the regular season by Kentucky and Florida last year.
"I would hope that they would understand what it's like to play in this league and that you can't take a night off and that you have to respect every opponent and bring it every game," Summitt said. "Last year's team just had a different personality. There was not a great sense of urgency, and I think even in the Florida and the Kentucky games they came back and put themselves in position to win the game, but this team, they have a different personality.
"I'm not being critical of last year's team but last year's team didn't have the sense of urgency that this year's team has. This year's team, they've got a competitive edge to them, which I think is really going to benefit us."
Parker and junior Alexis Hornbuckle were critical pieces of last year's team and are filling the same roles this season.
Hornbuckle pointed out the team's makeup and its realization that time is short, especially for seniors Sidney Spencer and Dominique Redding, to explain what Summitt's assessment of the current group.
"I think it's just the team, the chemistry, the makeup of our team, we're more competitive," Hornbuckle said. "I think we want it a lot more. Most of us have been there a couple of times (postseason) and fell short. We're about to come towards the (back end) of our career, Dom and Sid's last year. We have this year and next year. You feel like you're running out of time so you want to make everything important."
Parker pointed to the flipping of a calendar and the accompanying maturity of age. A season of SEC basketball offers a trove of experience and perspective.
"I think the sense of urgency is greater because we're a year older, and I think we realize how important every game is," Parker said. "We want a No. 1 seed (in the NCAA tourney). We want to make the Final Four. We don't want a disappointing (end to the) year like we did last year. We don't want to take as long to realize that defense is important and rebounding is just as important. So I feel like we're a lot older. We have leaders across the board. We motivate each other, and we understand just how important it is."
Rebounding has been the watchword of the week. Summitt used Tuesday's practice to underscore its importance. Parker is snaring her share – she has 117 boards on the season – but Summitt wants additional production out of everyone else, especially on defense.
The next closest to Parker is Nicky Anosike with 73. Parker has 90 on the defensive end; Anosike has 42. Sidney Spencer has 42 total – 22 on offense and 20 on defense. Alex Fuller, who comes off the bench and plays less minutes per game than the other post players, is the third-leading rebounder on the team with 61 – 26 on offense and 35 on defense.
"They are a better offensive rebounding team; we're pursuing the ball there and not on the defensive end," said Summitt, who spent Monday evening watching film of her team's rebounding opportunities in games this season and didn't see enough fighting or jockeying for position. "I feel like we have to be consistent on both ends, and our numbers reflect that we are not. Rebounding is all about heart and desire to play defense and having a nose for the ball and that kind of mentality. I think a lot of people sit around and watch Candace Parker go to the boards.
"Nicky Anosike and Alex Fuller have to be as committed to rebounding as Parker is. Alexis Hornbuckle (55 boards total) to me should be one of the best rebounding guards in the country. Alberta Auguste, (34 boards) who backs her up, is a pretty instinctive rebounder. She is always making an effort to get to the paint and rebound. Shannon Bobbitt (15 boards) is not getting rebounds to speak of and you may say that's her size, but I've always encouraged defensive rebounding from point guards, because they can help start the break.
"That is something we're going to have to watch and pinpoint and be aware of as we play through games. Bobbitt is just not involved in rebounding at all; she's more involved in positioning herself for an outlet. With her speed, she and Cait McMahan (18 boards) both could position for rebounds and still lead the breakout."
Tennessee is averaging 37.1 rebounds a game for a +4.9 margin over opponents. The numbers are merely decent, and the Lady Vols have often stayed even with teams on the boards, barely beaten them or been edged out by the opponent. The exceptions were against Middle Tennessee, Tennessee-Martin, George Washington and Texas. In those games Tennessee dominated the boards.
"We can definitely get better," Parker said. "We need to be a great rebounding team because when our shots aren't falling we need to depend on that to get us going. We started taking care of the ball a lot better."
Turnovers were the other issue that had cropped up of late, but against Notre Dame on Saturday the Lady Vols had 12 at halftime and only one more giveaway for the next 18 minutes. Two other turnovers came in the closing 90 seconds of the game with the starters and ball-handlers on the bench.
No. 4 Tennessee, 12-1, gets its first chance to improve board play Wednesday against Alabama, 10-5. The Crimson Tide will be in Thompson-Boling Arena for the SEC opener for both teams at 7 p.m. (CSS, Lady Vol Radio Network).
Summitt is expected to start: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 junior guard, No. 00 (7.5 points per game, 3.8 assists per game, 1.3 rebounds per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 junior guard, No. 14 (9.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.7 assists per game, 3.5 steals per game); Sidney Spencer, 6'3 senior forward, No. 1 (12.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 sophomore forward, No. 3 (20.1 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 2.5 blocks per game); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 junior forward, No. 55 (8.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg).
Alabama coach Stephany Smith is expected to start: Nikki Davis, 5'7 freshman guard, No. 12 (7.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg), true freshman point guard for Alabama, played chess before games to relax in high school, competed in four state championships for Lexington Catholic in Kentucky; Kate Mastin, 5'9 senior guard, No. 21 (13.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg), a one-time youth state champ in chess in Alabama, has engaged in several matches with Davis with the results in dispute and each declaring herself the better player, leading three-point shooter for Alabama; Navonda Moore, 5'10 senior guard, No. 34 (14.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg), enters the game with 1,000 career points, scored a career high 31 points against Tennessee last season with 26 in another game for 57 points against the Lady Vols, Second Team All-SEC last season; Tamara Williams, 6'0 freshman forward, No. 32 (5.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg), played on five state champion AAU teams with the Alabama Lady Warriors, played volleyball at Alabaster High School in Alabama, basketball coach was former Tide player Cara Crasslin; Talisha Chandler, 6'2 freshman center, No. 40 (6.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg), High School Girls Report Class AAA Player of the Year in South Carolina at Clover High School in Greenwood.
Prior to this game with Alabama, Summitt had not yet watched film of SEC teams.
"I'm not aware of what they're running," Summitt said of the league's schools. "I'm aware of how they're doing against their competition. I look at the scores. I don't think I've seen an SEC team play."
There is one SEC team Summitt would have seen by happenstance – Arkansas played North Carolina, and Summitt scouted the Tar Heels – but with her narrow focus she didn't notice the Lady Razorbacks.
"I did see that tape, but I did not watch Arkansas," Summitt said. "I just can't do it. It's always been my philosophy not to look ahead."
Alabama starts three freshmen (among seven newcomers) so the Lady Vol coaches know it's a game in which Tennessee will be heavily favored – the Lady Vols also have won the last 30 matchups against the Crimson Tide – but they know an SEC loss at home to anyone is not acceptable.
"In this league, if you're going to win the conference, you'd better do very well at home," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "You'd better win at home and obviously go on the road and have a high degree of success. But you'd better defend your home court.
"This is just being very, very frank about it. Alabama is not a team that was picked in the preseason like an LSU, a Georgia, even a Kentucky or a Florida. They're not in that tier yet. They're fighting to get there. If you look at it strictly on paper you're going to say, ‘If you're going to win the championship, you're playing Alabama at home, you'd better win that game.' "
At least the coaches don't have to worry about getting the upperclassmen's attention. The Gators and Wildcats took care of that last season.
"I understand every game you're playing for a No. 1 seed," Parker said. "If you take possessions off now … Me taking possessions off at the beginning of, say, the Kentucky game may have not allowed us to get a No. 1 seed or me taking possessions off at the beginning of the Florida game.
"It's put in perspective how important and how crucial everything is. Looking back our loss to North Carolina (this season) hurt us and it was a blemish on our record, but we can't afford to lose to many teams because we're playing for a No. 1 seed. That's our goal. I just realized with one more year under my belt that defense is important and playing hard is really important."
The Lady Vols also will get every team's best effort. It's the current players' job to explain this to the newcomers, but that's a message that sometimes takes experience to really absorb.
"My freshman year people told us, but you never really believe it until you actually experience it," Anosike said. "Last year we really got it when we lost to Kentucky, and that's when it really sunk in. It took my class a loss to really understand that but no, they shouldn't have to experience that. We should let them know beforehand."
"Take no team for granted basically," Bobbitt said of her teammates' advice. "Come to play."
The team hasn't dwelled on the Kentucky loss or relayed it in "great detail," Bobbitt said. "They said they lost it, and they shouldn't have lost it."
So her teammates are trying to impart the message, but Summitt knows it takes firsthand knowledge to really get it.
"I'm not sure they totally understand it; we talk about it," Summitt said. "Teams look one way on film, and their intensity level differs in the actual game. As we go through the season, they will understand it better."
Summitt added, "People play at a different level against us."
Bobbitt has already figured out the importance of getting off to a good start in the SEC and trying to win the league outright in the regular season.
"That's where our standings are going to be in the NCAA Tournament (to get) the No. 1 seed," Bobbitt said. "We're definitely going to try our best not to lose not one in the SEC. Just take every game serious and don't take nobody for granted, don't underestimate teams, and don't look past Alabama."
Summitt scans the league and sees more depth this season with Arkansas and Auburn being much improved over last season. Kentucky established itself last season as an SEC team to be reckoned with. Plus there are the usual power programs in LSU, Georgia and Vanderbilt.
Wednesday is the first chance to start a new SEC season and put the memory of three regular season losses behind them for the Lady Vols. The first step to winning a regular season title starts against Bama.
"It's always important to us because it's in the SEC," Summitt said. "It's a goal every year. Obviously as tough as the top three or four teams have been it's becoming increasingly more difficult to do it. If we can't win the regular season we want to win the tournament. I think there's something to be said for the consistency game in and game out of winning your league, because that's the real challenge.
"You'll play some teams that obviously your team will look at and know that it's going to be a real battle, and they'll be other teams that should not be as challenging. What you don't want to do is lose to someone you should beat."
Bobbitt will be making her first run through the SEC, though the start of league play doesn't mean she changes her approach. She expects toughness overall and rowdy road environments.
"I take every game like it's my last," Bobbitt said. "I'm guessing the SEC is going to be like a North Carolina or a Texas. I know it's also going to be tough games. It's definitely going to be rivalries, and it's going to be competition and may the best team win basically."
Parker can remember her first SEC game last season. The Lady Vols opened on the road against South Carolina and only led by four at halftime as Parker struggled to score and Anosike sat with foul trouble. The Lady Vols pulled away in the second half to win, 66-51, behind 18 points by Tye'sha Fluker.
"I remember my first SEC game last year on the road against South Carolina," Parker said. "They're always a tough team to play. They always play us tough. So we just try to get out of the gate and start off the SEC. We ending up winning the SEC (tourney) with three losses. But this year it's just important to set precedent of how we're going to play. We're entering into our regular season so we have to show that we're making improvements rebounding, defensively. We're not the same team as last year."
Part of the reason Tennessee is not the same team is because Parker has elevated her game offensively all season and stepped up her defense of late. She mentioned better rebounding and going hard every possession on defense and changing up speeds and making harder cuts on offense. She also cited the aggressive play of the guards as inspirational.
"I don't think last year I denied the middle of the floor well at all," Parker said of her defense. "This year I'm making a concerted effort to do that. I just want to work hard for my teammates because it's really cool when you have a backcourt that can pressure the ball like we have. It makes it fun to get out there and block shots and steal and deny the high post. I think it just makes it easier because our team this year just puts defense first."
Hornbuckle is starting her third season of SEC play. She lost one regular season league game her freshmen year and three as a sophomore. She has already laid stake to two SEC tourney trophies. She views the league opener as the first chance for a team to announce its intentions.
"I think it's very important," Hornbuckle said. "You're setting the tone for what kind of SEC team you're going to be. It doesn't matter (which SEC team is next). Alabama, they're aggressive. They don't quit. I've noticed that in the past years every time we've played them. If you overlook them they're going to hang in there with you.
"I feel like we need to come out here and establish how we want to be looked at in the SEC and shoot for winning the regular season, as well as the tournament."
Alabama had the misfortune of playing Tennessee last season after the Lady Vols lost consecutive games to Duke and Kentucky. With 5:33 in the first half, Tennessee was up 33-7 and went on to win 89-54. Still, Parker knows the effect that Tennessee on the uniform has on the opponent.
"We know that every team is going to be ready for us," Parker said. "We're every team's big game. We're every team's big game that they mark on their calendar, that they put the asterisk by. So I think everybody is going to play their heart out against, and we have to be ready for it."
There's another reason for Tennessee to perform well Wednesday against Bama. One of the program's biggest rivals looms Saturday in Hartford for the annual clash of UT-UConn. A good showing against Alabama gets the Lady Vols headed in the right direction. After the UConn game, two SEC road matches await against Florida and Georgia next week.
"It's a momentum builder," Lockwood said. "Certainly you're not going to look past them by any stretch because SEC teams are just too talented, too good, even teams that aren't picked in the top two or three, they can still come and bite you. We've seen that.
"But I think we know that there is a big game on the horizon. Tennessee-UConn is always a big game and leading up to that you want to go in with some momentum. You want your team to feel good about their performances and, let's face it, you want people to have a healthy respect for what's coming in."
Lockwood used a boxing analogy to make his point, an apropos one considering two women's college basketball heavyweights will square off Saturday afternoon.
"If I fight one fight before I'm going to fight the champion I don't want to go and get knocked down two or three times and finish with wobbly knees," Lockwood said. "I want to make a convincing showing, and that's what we want to do against Alabama certainly."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Alabama game. Here is his assessment.
When Alabama has the ball: "Their two best scorers are Moore, number 24, and Mastin, number 21. We're just concerned about not letting them go to their strengths. Moore is the perimeter player who can do the combo. She's really good at driving, getting to the paint. She also can make threes. Mastin is their best pure shooter so we can't let her have uncontested easy three-point looks. We've got to make her dribble into her shots and Moore we just have to make her play more on the perimeter and make her take contested shots and not get into a rhythm.
"Honestly those are the two players I think we really have to focus on. They don't have another player in double-digit scoring figures, but we can't give up garbage points. They've got two or three kids that are good rebounders, and they can score around the rim so we've got to block them out. We've got to do a real good job of blocking them out.
"So the biggest thing is making sure Mastin doesn't get good looks and Moore doesn't get in the paint."
When Tennessee has the ball: "They haven't played a lot of zone yet, but I think we'll see zone. I think they'll try to mix their defenses to keep us off balance maybe a little bit or attempt to. I don't foresee them playing a whole game man-to-man, but I don't know; I'm not in their camp. I just think they'll probably vary their defenses a little bit and certainly be concerned about our inside presence and try to collapse a little bit, maybe even throw some doubles.
"We want a fast game. They're averaging in the 60s (69.3); we're averaging (close to) the 80s (78.2). We definitely want to pick up and play a fast tempo. We want to get the ball inside. We want to generate paint points. We just want to be on the attack. We would like them to be on the defensive for 40 minutes. Whether we're picking up in a press or we're in a half-court defense we want to make them feel like we're attacking them."
ON TAP: Only one other SEC team plays Wednesday with LSU at South Florida. On Thursday, eight other SEC teams are in league play: Arkansas at Vanderbilt; Ole Miss at Auburn; Florida at Georgia; and South Carolina at Kentucky.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Alabama 37-2. The last time the Crimson Tide beat Tennessee was March 3, 1984, on a neutral court at the SEC tourney in Athens, Ga., before the Lady Vols had even checked into their hotel. The Lady Vols got revenge 20 days later by knocking the Crimson Tide out of the NCAA tourney in a semifinal of the Mideast Regional. The other win for Alabama in the series was Nov. 28, 1980, also on a neutral court. … Tennessee is 6-1 in games played on January 3. The one loss was to UCLA, 65-62, in 1981. … Tennessee is 22-5 in SEC season openers. Georgia (1984, 1996), Auburn (1988, 1989) and Vanderbilt (1990) are responsible for the defeats. The Dec. 8, 1996, game with Georgia, the last time Tennessee lost an SEC opener, went to overtime, where the Lady Bulldogs prevailed 94-93. … Alabama and Georgia are Tennessee's home-and-home partners for this SEC season. The SEC plays a 14-game regular season schedule with each team playing each team in the league once, a natural rival twice and designated rotating teams from the SEC East and West an extra time for two years. Vanderbilt is UT's natural rival for a home-and-home series, and Georgia and Alabama are the rotating partners. Last season, Tennessee went 6-0 against the three teams during the regular season. Tennessee's rotation will change next season… No SEC team has a winning record against Tennessee, which has a 365-57 record all-time against the 12 SEC teams. Only 11 of the 57 losses came at home. The teams to notch wins in Knoxville are Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU and Ole Miss. In a staggering statistic, Georgia was the only team to beat Tennessee at home in the 1990s. LSU and Florida are the only teams to have done it this century. … More eye-popping SEC stats: Tennessee seized seven consecutive SEC regular season crowns from 1998 to 2004 and put together a record of 109-4. The four league losses during that stretch were once each to Georgia and Vandy and twice to LSU. … The Lady Vol fans are coming out this season with home attendance eclipsing 100,000 through eight games, the earliest in program history. It is the 13th consecutive season that Tennessee has drawn at least 100,000 fans. So far, UT has tallied a total attendance of 105,372 for a nation-leading average of 13,172. … The fans are definitely getting their satisfaction. During those eight games the Lady Vols have trailed their opponent just seven times for a total of 7:02. Tennessee has been tied or ahead 97.8 percent of the time (3:12:58 of 320 minutes), including every second of play in the second half of each game. The largest deficit was six points (13-7) against Middle Tennessee on Nov. 26. Tennessee fell behind against UCLA (:10), Stanford (2:10), Middle Tennessee (4:18) and West Virginia (:24), but never trailed against Chattanooga, Tennessee-Martin, George Washington or Notre Dame. … Pat Summitt has 925 career victories, which ties her for the all-time college basketball record with still-active Harry Statham of McKendree, an NAIA school in Lebanon, Illinois. Summitt holds the NCAA record for men and women. Texas Tech's Bobby Knight has now passed Dean Smith and holds the all-time men's record (880). Texas women's coach Jody Conradt has 892 wins. McKendree's next game is Jan. 9 so Summitt can claim the all-time lead with a win Wednesday…More stats: The Crimson Tide is trying to halt a seven-game road losing streak that dates to last season. Tennessee is last among league teams in three-point shooting defense (35.7 percent success rate for opponents). Alabama is fifth in the league and 16th in the NCAA in three-point shooting (34.8), led by Kate Mastin's 41.7 percent. Alabama averages 12.1 steals a game, up 4.6 a game over last season. Tennessee averages 13.5 a game. The Crimson Tide averages 20.7 turnovers a game; Tennessee gives it away 17.2 times a game. … Graduation came early for Alabama's Leah Drury and Navonda Moore, who completed their bachelor's degrees in December. Teammate Kate Mastin graduated last summer and is taking graduate classes. Alabama was on the road to play Louisiana Tech when December commencement was held so prior to the team meal at a Ruston steakhouse, the three were given graduation caps and walked through a procession line set up by their teammates as they got off the bus. Drury earned a fitness management degree; Moore earned a telecommunications and film degree.