Lady Vols put through March practice paces

As Pat Summitt's voice boomed across the floor Friday afternoon it was a reminder of last fall. Just like then the weather was seasonally warm, and the team was on the court inside the rather stuffy Stokely Athletics Center. She was taking the measure of her players in preseason. Now she's taking their measure in postseason.

When the calendar moves to March the coach's sense of urgency increases. Throughout a practice that lasted three hours Pat Summitt encouraged, implored and corrected. Does she feel a difference at this time of year?

"Sure," Summitt said. "It's that time of year, and we've got to get better. I think a lot of times team wait for the bid to come out, see who they're playing and then they get excited. But we've got to be excited now about the opportunity of us getting better."

Friday's session left the players soaked in sweat – they have had three days off this week – but with spring break beginning they don't have academic commitments so the focus can be solely basketball for the next week.

"It comes at a good time as far as not having anything else that they have to do or be concerned about the academic part of it," Summitt said.

The team will also hold practice Saturday and Sunday afternoons at Stokely because Thompson-Boling Arena is being vacated for renovation. The basketball offices have to be relocated, and the team loses access to the locker room after this weekend.

"Roll with it," said sophomore forward Candace Parker. "You've got to roll with it. I've got a little rolling suitcase."

Summitt is using that situation as just one more way to get ready for postseason.

"It's like I tell the team, ‘The game is chaos,' " Summitt said. "Postseason you're not in your own gym anyway. We're making a sacrifice for the future, and sometimes you have to do that. Fortunately my staff and my secretarial staff moved me. I haven't even seen my office yet. Hopefully they put everything in there I wanted. They let me pick and choose that much, but I've been out of town recruiting."

Summitt returned in time for practice Friday and then headed back out on the recruiting trail after practice ended.

On Friday afternoon the team took advantage of the availability of the male practice players – they won't be on campus over spring break – and worked primarily in the full court on offense and defense with the emphasis on execution and pressure on both sides of the ball.

Summitt's evaluation was mixed.

"Overall, yes," Summitt said when asked if she liked what she got from the team. "I thought we could have been a lot more efficient in our offense, but we had a lot of different combinations on the floor. In the game we obviously are not going to substitute as freely. We'd look at more specific combinations."

Tennessee does appear to have some players back on track, specifically Parker and Sidney Spencer, who struggled offensively in Duluth at the SEC Tournament. Spencer was recovering from a stomach illness, but Parker said she was not sick that weekend and didn't suffer any ill effects from a hard fall against LSU. She just had a bad game.

Parker said the semifinal game's net effect on her psyche is zero – it doesn't decrease or increase the pressure on her.

"I don't really try and focus on what it does," Parker said. "I'm just worried about our team and what we're doing to prepare to get ready for the NCAA Tournament.

"People love you when you're playing well and don't when you're not. I've got to worry about the people that matter the most, and that's my teammates and my coaches and my family. It's a new season. It's a new tournament. Obviously we're experiencing this, and we don't want to go home with another loss. Adversity builds character. It reveals it, and it builds it. I feel like we're revealing our character and building it during this time."

With the postseason beckoning Parker also decided to stop the speculation about whether or not she would leave early for the WNBA. The story was essentially a non-story in Knoxville – it was never thought that she would leave after this season despite some high profile lobbying from USA teammates Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird – but it had gotten steady airtime during nationally broadcast games the past two months.

"I was sitting in a gym last night on the West Coast and somebody said, ‘What's Candace going to do?' " Summitt said. "And I said, ‘What do you mean what she's going to do?' They said, ‘Is she leaving after this year?' And I said, ‘I haven't even asked her that question because I can't imagine why any college student-athlete would leave.'

"First of all I don't know why you'd leave to go to the pros early period. Why would you leave the college game? And I don't mean any disrespect to the pro game, but the college years are the best years of your life. Ultimately Candace will be the one to make the decision but I just said to them in practice today, ‘I liked what I saw in the paper.' And she just laughed.

"We hadn't discussed it period. I don't think it was a distraction for anyone here in this program. I hadn't even thought about that. Not until last night when someone said, ‘Well, she could.' And I said, ‘Well I know she could, but … .' "

Parker took care of the ‘but' part by telling USA Today that she would definitely return to college next season. On Friday before practice Parker explained why she decided to address the issue nationally.

"I think that what's important is that it was put to rest that I'm coming back," said Parker, who added her targeted graduation date is next spring of 2008. "The most important thing right now – the reason why I did that – is we don't need that going into the NCAA Tournament.

"It's important for us to focus on this year and now, and that's what we're doing. We don't need distractions. I'm coming back. I'm excited about it."

Parker said the thought had entered her mind but "not enough for that speculation. … I hadn't really paid attention to it. I don't do (as in give credence to) all the articles that don't have sources in them. I don't do that."

Parker smiled and laughed as she talked about confirming what was essentially a non-story for anyone who is regularly around the program or follows it closely.

"Sometimes I'm as in shock as you guys are," Parker said of the rampant speculation.

She also laughed off Taurasi leading the pleas to come out early.

"Taurasi's on the team that's getting the first pick so … ," Parker said, referring to the Phoenix Mercury. "I'm not mad at anyone (for speculating). That's not what I'm saying. I'm just saying, ‘Just come to the source.' … I never said I wasn't coming back. … I never said I was doing that, and then I starting hearing a bunch (of rumors).

"I'm the type of person that I ignore rumors. I don't really pay attention to them. That was just a rumor that nobody really came out and asked me. It's always been speculation. Obviously I'm coming back here to Tennessee. I enjoy myself here at Tennessee. I'm excited to be playing. I'm playing for right now. I'm not even worried about the future."

Parker has been the focus of media attention for most of her basketball career, beginning in middle school. So how does she handle it and keep perspective?

"Come to practice every day," she said. "I love the game of basketball. That's how it doesn't get overwhelming. I love playing the game. I realize that as each game goes by, and season goes by, your days are numbered. You've just got to take advantage of the time that you have."

PARKER ACCOLADES: Candace Parker has been named one of 16 finalists for the John R. Wooden Award and is also a finalist for Kodak All-American honors.

The SEC Player of the Year and ESPN The Magazine Academic All-American leads the team in scoring, rebounding and shot blocking. She and Middle Tennessee's Chrissy Givens are the only two women on the Wooden list to boast Academic All-America and conference Player of the Year accolades. Parker has also been named to the 2007-08 USA Basketball Women's Senior National Team.

More than 200 voters, comprised of sports media members and women's college basketball experts nationwide, will vote for the five-member Wooden All-American team and Wooden Award, which honors the most outstanding female collegiate basketball player in the country.

For the first time in Wooden Award history, college basketball fans will be able to cast their vote. All fan votes will be tabulated and counted as one ballot toward the actual final tally. Fans can vote at WoodenAward.com.

On March 28, the Women's Wooden Award All-American Team will be announced. The 2007 award ceremony, which will include the presentation of the Men's and Women's Wooden Award, the Wooden Award All-American Teams, and the Legends of Coaching Award to recipient Gene Keady of Purdue University, will be held at The Los Angeles Athletic Club on April 7, 2007. The top five male and female finalists will be invited to Los Angeles for the awards ceremony and will receive a contribution from The Los Angeles Athletic Club for their university's general scholarship fund.

Parker is also among 52 finalists for the 10-member 2007 Kodak/WBCA All-America Basketball Team. Those honorees are voted upon by coaches in each of the eight WBCA geographical regions.

The SEC placed five other women on the Region 3 list: Dee Davis (Vanderbilt); Sylvia Fowles (LSU); Tasha Humphrey (Georgia); Armintie Price (Mississippi); and Carla Thomas (Vanderbilt).

The team will be announced at the Kodak/WBCA All-America Team Press Conference at the Cleveland Marriott Downtown at Key Center on March 31, 2007, in Cleveland, Ohio, before the Final Four.

Parker eschews individual awards but respects the company she is in, including former Lady Vol greats Tamika Catchings and Chamique Holdsclaw, who were Kodak All-Americans.

"I feel blessed to be mentioned amongst the greatest," Parker said. "I'm not finished here at Tennessee. I'm really enjoying my time here. It's been an honor just playing alongside my teammates and learning from them, as well as my coaches."

Said Pat Summitt, "I think she's earned the respect through her play of the coaches, of the media. You let your game do the talking, and that's what she's done."


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