When the top four seeds were revealed, Tennessee was the last one to be placed on the board. Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick clapped her hands a few times but otherwise there was no reaction. When the Dayton Region teams popped onto the screen – No. 2 seed Maryland, No. 3 seed Oklahoma and No. 4 seed Ohio State – the players and coaches seemed initially surprised but were otherwise nonplussed.
"Laughed," sophomore Candace Parker said of her initial reaction. "Honestly it doesn't matter. I feel like with this team's mindset I feel a lot different going into this tournament than last year. I feel like we have a lot of pieces to the puzzle that understand what it takes to win. This year we've showed that in our regular season. We played the toughest regular season, and we're about to play the toughest postseason."
Last year Tennessee got a No. 2 seed and was placed in the super-stacked Cleveland Region that pundits called the bracket of doom. This year the Dayton Region is clearly the toughest, but the Lady Vols feel they're more capable of handling it than a year ago.
Last year point guard Alexis Hornbuckle watched the selection show with her right wrist in a cast. She managed to play in the tournament but was hindered to say the least. This year a healthy Hornbuckle sat on the couch in Summitt's pool house with two point guards in the room with her in Shannon Bobbitt and Cait McMahan.
No. 1 seed Tennessee, 28-3, will open NCAA tourney play this Sunday against No. 16 seed Drake, 14-18, at 7 p.m. Eastern (ESPN2) at the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh. The Bulldogs got the automatic bid after winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. If the Lady Vols prevail they get the winner of Pitt-James Madison, on Tuesday, March 20. A Panthers win means the Lady Vols would face Pitt on its home floor.
"We have great respect and admiration for the Tennessee program," said Drake Coach Amy Stephens. "It is a huge challenge for us and a special opportunity.
"The irony of this matchup is that Holly Warlick recruited me at Nebraska when she was an assistant coach there," said Stephens, who set Nebraska's school record for three-point baskets (129) during her career from 1985 to 1989.
As soon as the selection show ended Summitt was asked about the toughness of the Dayton region.
"It is, but I think you have to start out thinking about going to Pittsburgh and playing against Drake," Summitt said. "Find out what you can about Drake."
As far as a possible matchup with Pitt on the No. 8 seed's home floor, Summitt said, "I think we're trying to get away from that, but I think right now there are still situations where you may have to play someone on their home floor. If it happens we've had the advantage so many times before because of our fan support and the amount of times that we've hosted so certainly I can't complain about having to play on someone's home floor."
The Lady Vols were at peace with their bracket – a stark contrast to a year ago when Summitt told her team that the committee had just slapped them in the face – and ready to get started. That is a reflection of this team's confidence and the fact it enters the postseason with a healthy squad.
"We feel so much better about our team in the sense that we're all healthy, we're all intact," Assistant Head Coach Dean Lockwood said. "Our point guard position obviously is a lot stronger. That was a concern because it was makeshift last year. We had one or two people playing it who normally didn't, and we also had somebody playing it who we preferred to play more off the ball so this year we feel a lot better about it."
For the assistant coaches, Warlick, Lockwood and Nikki Caldwell, the end of the selection show meant their work was just beginning. Angel Elderkin, the team's video coordinator, and manager Charlie Harless, had stacks of game tapes ready to check out.
"We're going to be inundated with tape because we have to get very familiar very quickly with Drake first, then with Pittsburgh and James Madison and then (the teams at the other end of Tennessee's bracket)," Lockwood said. "That's the task that the three of us have right now. We're going to learn tendencies and personnel and really try to break these teams down. We've got tape on everybody right now. Angel has all the conferences broken down.
"There're mounds of tapes and DVDs by conference. I'll be watching Drake within 45 minutes. She (Elderkin) is definitely the MVP of the week. No question. Her and Charlie, our manager, who helps her. They are the co-MVPs."
The last week of practice was demanding as the team focused on what needed to be improved immediately. The sessions, sprinkled with days off, were lengthy. Now the focus shifts to the next opponent.
"Absolutely," Summitt said. "Finding out as much as you can about your opponent and get the scouting report going tonight (Monday). I'll get a tape tonight, too, and then we'll meet tomorrow (Tuesday) before practice."
The team will practice Tuesday afternoon at Stokely Athletics Center. The pace of practice will be scaled back as the week goes on, and the team will leave Friday for Pittsburgh.
"We've had great practices and without a doubt the players have an awful lot to do with what kind of practices you have in the postseason and day to day," Summitt said. "They've responded. I think there's potential for greatness right here in our play and what we have to do. We've challenged them. I've enjoyed them (the practices). I hope they have and I hope understand when they take the court and play their first NCAA Tournament game that they're ready."
The Tennessee players readily accepted their bracket – and they especially like that there are new teams in it that they haven't played this season outside of Middle Tennessee and Ole Miss – and that is comforting for the coaches.
"I think it's a hard bracket, but we had no control over it," Warlick said. "Our kids they have no problems playing anybody. I think they're pretty fired up about the bracket. As long as they're ready to play I'm good with it."
Earlier this week Hornbuckle said a team watching the brackets be unveiled wouldn't mind a clear path to the Final Four. She laughed when reminded of that comment.
"I don't think any year Tennessee's going to have a cakewalk to the Final Four," Hornbuckle said. "It's going to be a tough bracket, it's going to be a challenge, but it's what we want, it's what we need, because once you get to the Final Four you're well-prepared. So we just have to have a mindset every night, every time we play."
Senior Sidney Spencer is about to embark on her last NCAA Tournament.
"I think every NCAA Tournament is really special and to be able to play is a blessing because my sophomore year I had to sit out due to ACL injury," Spencer said. "I'm just excited and ready to get going. I think this team has really practiced hard the last few days and deserves to move on."
Sophomore Alex Fuller also noted the team's practice performance of late. The loss to LSU in the semifinal of the SEC tourney didn't seem to hurt the team's confidence or approach to preparation. There was no pouting. Instead the coaches had the players' full attention.
"Practice, it's been kind of rough," Fuller said. "She worked us hard. Of course we wanted to work hard because we knew we had to get better in the places that we were kind of lacking in. We knew as a team we had to get better so we were willing to practice hard and give it all we had each practice."
Four people – McMahan, Bobbitt, Alberta Auguste and Elizabeth Curry – were watching their first selection show as players. McMahan, a Tennessee native, has watched the shows in the past to see where her favorite team was going. This year it was special to be in the room for it.
"It really is exciting," McMahan said. "I didn't know about all this, coming to Pat's and watching the selection show. It's exciting to see who's in the bracket, where we're going and everything."
Summitt and her support staff prepared a sumptuous meal for the team and area media that was served poolside before the show aired.
McMahan and senior Dominique Redding shot a game of pool inside the pool house before settling in before the large screen television to watch the show. The players reacted more to Hornbuckle's interview on ESPN – causing the junior guard to put a pillow over her head – and Summitt's State Farm commercial than to the actual brackets. The sight of the game's figures on mockup album covers – the Final Four is in Cleveland, home of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – also drew loads of laughs. Parker channeled Jimi Hendrix, Geno Auriemma got the Ray Charles cover, and Summitt had a Bob Dylan look.
"She was cool," Bobbitt said of her coach. "That looked nice."
"That was pretty cool," Auguste added.
Auguste and Bobbitt also had watched shows in the past and enjoyed being a part of one this time.
"I've seen selections before," Auguste said. "We know where we're going to be now so it's time to get prepared. It means more (to be on a team that is part of the bracket). It means a whole lot now. I'm here so it's time to play. Focus and be prepared. Go into practice knowing that we have six games to win so we've got to take one day at a time."
"I came to watch the selection and see where we fall, and I'm excited about what's happening," Bobbitt said. "I agree with Bird. Just take it one day at a time. First of all worry about the first round. You can't jump to worry about the Elite Eight or anything like that. Just come to play, and we've played hard games before. It won't be different for us."
For Curry, an Iowa native, the first round opponent is a very familiar one.
"It's a little special," Curry said. "Drake's in Des Moines, which is about a half-hour from home. I grew up watching them. They were the closest university to go watch play instead of Iowa State and Iowa. That's neat."
Those four players will get their first NCAA postseason experience. For Spencer and Redding, it's the last one.
"Hopefully the fourth time's the charm," Redding said of winning a national title. "My season is still going on. I know a lot of people's seasons ended today. That's unfortunate, but me and Sid are here, so we've got six games' worth."
Junior Nicky Anosike didn't seem to mind the bracket that Tennessee drew.
"That's why we come to Tennessee to have a challenge night in and night out," Anosike said. "And that's what the selection committee gave us so I guess we got what we asked for."
The selection committee's work always raises questions, and this year will be no different, as much for the placement of the seeds as to why certain teams got in and others got left out.
Texas and Southern California didn't make it as at-large bids. Louisiana-Lafayette did. Oklahoma and Ohio State may have arguments for being seeded too low.
"I thought Oklahoma was a No. 2 seed, I think Maryland's a No. 2 seed, I think Ohio State's a No. 3 seed," Summitt said. "That's my opinion, and it really doesn't matter. I can't imagine the other teams being very thrilled about it either. If I'm Ohio State, I'm like, a four-seed? Oklahoma, a three-seed? Both of those surprise me."
Judy Southard, the chair of the selection committee, held a post-show press conference in which she referenced the committee's guiding "principles and procedures." She used the expression in one version or another 16 times during the teleconference.
"Duke was the number one number one; Tennessee was the number two number one; North Carolina got the third number one slot, and Connecticut was number four," Southard said. "Once those teams go in, and we assign their site regionally by geographic proximity, and where they are, it begins the domino effect of making sure that we follow all of our principles in placing the rest of the teams in the bracket."
However the teams were placed Summitt was in the mood to be circumspect about the process.
"I think it's starting to resemble more of what the men have dealt with for years because they've had so much parity and depth in their game, and we're starting to see that and in particular I think in the top 15 teams in the country," Summitt said. "That's a good thing; that's great for our game. That's what people want to see. They want to see quality play at this time of the year, and I think you're going to see a lot of it."
The state of Tennessee got five teams into the tournament – Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Tennessee-Chattanooga, Middle Tennessee State University and Belmont.
"It's great," Summitt said of what that says about the state of basketball in the state of Tennessee. "And what Rick Insell (at Middle Tennessee) has done in a such a relatively short period of time it shouldn't surprise us. He's really been on the move and I know when they played us here they did not play well, but they are a dangerous team and a team that certainly can win in postseason.
"If you look at girls' basketball historically in this state there's been a lot of success and a lot of teams have won AAU national championships. I think Vanderbilt right now is maybe the hottest team in the state. They're playing really, really well and coming off of the SEC (tourney) championship. I like having those numbers, and I'd like to see the Tennessee teams do well."
Tennessee is now the only team in Division I women's college basketball history to make every NCAA tournament. Louisiana Tech was left out this year.
"When you think of women's basketball they do have their place in history," Summitt said of the Lady Techsters. "Seeing that tonight it took me back a little bit that they're not there because they're always there. Certainly we're proud to be able to be a team that has been there and now more than anyone in the history of women's basketball. It speaks volumes to the players that have worn the orange and also to our fans. They put us in a position to make us a little bit better."
Summitt, who was standing near the pool table as she spoke, was also able to see the loss to LSU as a positive development for her team.
"Actually if we hadn't lost and managed to play as poorly as we played and win that game, I would be very worried," Summitt said. "We might have a false impression of who we were at that time and who we needed to be. I thought that was one of the best things that happened to us.
"I hate losing; I don't care if we're playing pool. I don't even know how to play pool, but I hate losing. I guess that's why I don't play pool. I just think that was one of the best things that happened to us."
And although Tennessee's bracket was immediately picked by the pundits as the most difficult, Summitt just smiled.
"There's no such thing as an easy bracket," she said. "They're all challenging. Ours obviously looks like it may in fact be the most difficult when you look at the teams in it, but you just have to survive and advance. You can't be overly concerned about it. I wasn't at all happy last year, but I guess I expect it now. Bring 'em on."