"We get what we get," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said after practice on Sunday, the eve of the announcements. "We're anxious to see where we're going just so we can start scouting and prepare. That's the biggest thing for us. We'll know what we're getting ready to get into and what we're going to get ready for. I just want to know who we're playing so we can prepare."
Getting a bracket means the assistant coaches start scurrying to track down film and begin scouting report preparations. There also is a practical concern.
"We've got to know what to pack, too," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said with a smile.
Tennessee has been projected by the pundits to be headed to East Lansing, Michigan, or Pittsburgh for the sub-regional and Dallas or Dayton, Ohio, for the regional. Of course, the reality is that nobody really knows until the brackets are unveiled.
"You can't control something so I don't spend a lot of my time thinking about something I can't control," Lockwood said. "I just say, ‘OK, it's already laid out,' like right now it's probably pretty close to laid out if it isn't already and me worrying about it, thinking about it is not going to change anything. I'm just anxious to see who, which route."
Summitt has seen enough selection shows to know that what she expects to happen often doesn't, but she still ventured a guess at what could be revealed.
"I guess over the years I've learned it's a guessing game," Summitt said. "I would expect us to be a number one seed, either the number two or number three. Don't know which one. I think Duke will be the number one. I think probably Connecticut is the number four number one. And then North Carolina could be the number two number one because head to head they beat us.
"If that happens I think you're going to see geographic seeding as opposed to looking specifically at the strongest teams and the S curve factor because I just think that's what the NCAA is doing right now. Is that fair? Well, that's what it is. But I think for the women's game eventually we have to be able to move teams so we reward people for the type of season they had and the RPI and strength of schedule."
The team gathered at Summitt's house a year ago and left shocked at the brackets. They were placed with the overall number one seed in North Carolina as a number two seed in a bracket dubbed by pundits as the region of doom because of the strength of the teams sent there compared to the balance in the other brackets.
What can feel like Christmas Eve – the anticipation of the postseason – turned into the trick part of Halloween. Summitt delivered a speech to her team about how they were disrespected by the selection committee. Tennessee made it to the regional final against North Carolina in Cleveland but lost that game and fell short of the Final Four. This year the Lady Vols come in as the undefeated regular season SEC champions with a record of 28-3. The losses were to ACC foes North Carolina and Duke in the regular season and to LSU in the SEC tourney.
"I'm still thinking it's going to feel more like Christmas Eve," junior guard Alexis Hornbuckle said. "Last year we definitely had some big-time losses to teams that we shouldn't have lost to I felt like. This year we lost three games, but we lost to Duke, who's only lost one game, they're number one. We lost to UNC, who's a very good team and obviously LSU. So I think our chances are a lot better this year than they were last year of getting a number one seed."
Fellow junior Nicky Anosike remembers the letdown and initial anger the players felt when their bracket was flashed on the television screen. It was the first region announced so they sat through the rest of the show and watched as other regions paled in comparison to theirs in terms of overall strength.
"We had just won the SEC (tourney) championship and we all went in there expecting to get a number one seed, and it was just a big disappointment," Anosike said. "I guess I was pretty angry, but I knew that there wasn't really too much time to be angry. We just had to start preparing."
Preparation was the buzzword this week. The Lady Vols lost to LSU in the semifinals of the SEC tourney – after beating the Lady Tigers less than two weeks earlier in Baton Rouge – and returned to Knoxville a week ago with some underscored areas to get better in, especially offensive execution and shooting percentage.
"We're building off of it," Hornbuckle said. "I don't think we're where we need to be to win a national championship as of yet. But we still have time to work."
Hornbuckle also noted that if a team keeps winning in March, it allows more time to keep at it.
"In the first few rounds that's also time to work," she said earlier this week. "It's time to fine tune little things. You still have time to practice as long as you're surviving and advancing. I think we can get to where we need to be to compete for a national championship, but I don't think we're there yet. I think we have time. There has to be a sense of urgency and at practice lately there's been a sense of urgency, and you have to love that. I love it so I know the coaches have to love it."
The coaches do indeed. The team survived four lengthy practice sessions this week and not only kept their focus, they also kept their enthusiasm.
"I think we're playing extremely hard," Warlick said. "They're doing everything we asked them. We've had some pretty tough practices up and down. It's physical. Everybody's positive. I think we've had some very productive practices."
The team will take the day off from practice Monday – and with school out the players can sleep in and spend the day free from academic work – and then meet at Summitt's house to see what happens next.
"You're sitting there wondering where you're going to go, what seed you have," Hornbuckle said. "You kind of want to go close or do you want to go somewhere where family might be able to go. You want to be placed in a bracket where your chances are a little bit higher of getting to that Final Four. I think this year it feels a little more like Christmas Eve than Halloween."
Summitt is ready to see some new teams outside of the SEC, at least in the early going. The committee does try to separate teams within the same conference for as long as possible.
"Always. Because it's family," Summitt said. "We know all the teams; they know us. Makes it a little harder."
For the first time in two years Tennessee will watch the selection show with a healthy squad. Two years ago four players were out with knee injuries, including Alex Fuller and Candace Parker, who are now redshirt sophomores, and Sidney Spencer, a senior who is about to play in her last NCAA Tournament. Last year, Hornbuckle watched the show with her right arm in a cast because of a broken wrist.
"We're actually very healthy," said Jenny Moshak, the assistant athletics director for sports medicine. "We've got some little things going on, tendonitis is always a challenge for us, but for the most part we're going in very healthy. With 10 people you need that. If we lose anybody, we lose our depth. Having the numbers that we have it's absolutely crucial to keep everybody on the floor, not only for competition, but for practice. We're doing very well."
The only recent scare for Tennessee was when the team practiced in Duluth the day before the SEC tourney, and Alberta Auguste aggravated a case of patellar tendonitis in her knee.
"We had to work real hard to calm it down," Moshak said, and Auguste didn't miss any games or practice time.
Practice this week was critical for the team. Not only were the sessions long but it was the last time to really get in conditioning-type work because the next three weeks – if Tennessee gets to Cleveland – will be spent in and out of buses, airplanes, hotels and arenas. Floor time for practice gets squeezed in with travel, press conferences, games and the resumption of classes in a week.
Summitt welcomed the break between the SEC and NCAA tournaments.
"Actually this is the time of year that I really enjoy, because I think that you have a chance to rest your players and also get them back and think about defensive schemes, offensive schemes, how you can get better," Summitt said.
"This is a time that you can get better. I think that our basketball team has had really good intensity. The anticipation (of the brackets) is always something special. I try to stay busy. I've been out recruiting to give them off, as well as be able to just clear my mind and think about what we wanted to work on here in practice."
The last time Parker took the floor in a game she was enduring a loss to LSU in a game in which she struggled on both ends of the floor.
Parker, the SEC player of the year who had racked up points inside the paint during the month of February and who lit up LSU with 27 points and 13 rebounds on Feb. 19 to clinch the regular season title, was 2-11 from the field in the SEC tourney.
"She just really didn't want the contact inside," Summitt said after she watched the game tape. "She just shied away from contact, didn't have the same paint points and positioning and toughness for whatever reason. I've never seen her play as poorly as she played. She seemed to really be low energy for Candace. … Just a bad game. Glad we got it out of the system maybe."
If this past week's practice performance is any indication that game is expunged from Parker's system.
"It's a huge relief to be able to come back and not have it be over," Parker said of the 2006-07 season. "That's important. I'm just excited that we have these weeks to work. We can't make excuses. We get placed where we're placed and go to business after that."
With a week of perspective in place Lockwood said the March 3 loss to LSU, while certainly not a good thing, didn't have to be a source of agony either.
"Not to sound trite or over-clichéish but a loss sometimes – and especially as timed as that one was, where it was – I think a loss can give you a healthy dose of reality," Lockwood said. "I don't think our team was overconfident. I don't think any of that. But I think sometimes you need your vulnerability to be exposed.
"We hadn't lost since January 22 (to Duke). I think that was very important for our kids to realize we are vulnerable, and we have to do things right, and we need a joint effort because we're not going to get by like we did at LSU. We shot 31 percent and three starters were 3-27, and we still won that game (in Baton Rouge). Well sometimes you won't win that game. So I think it was good. I think it was healthy for us, and our kids, like Holly said, have responded great."
Tennessee certainly has a shot at a national title. There has not been an overwhelmingly dominant team this season, and each of the top teams has some area of vulnerability.
"I think right now we're probably one of the top five teams that people would say might have a shot at it or should have a shot at it," Summitt said. "There may be six, seven, eight out there, but I think that the teams that have been in the number one seed position are the ones that people will say they've got a legitimate shot.
"It's going to be tough. It's going to be a hard-fought battle, but I like where we are right now. I'm excited about the tournament regardless of where we go and who we play. I think this team is really anxious to take the road and show what they're made of."