For the first time in years the Lady Vols will get to work without the influx of media and fans who turn out to see the first practice of the new season. The practice facility, Pratt Pavilion, remains partially under construction so the public is not allowed inside for safety reasons, and Thompson-Boling Arena is getting the finishing touches on a major renovation project so the new basketball floor is not yet in place.
But the coaches, the players – 11 on scholarship with one recovering from knee surgery – and the support staff are ready to christen Pratt with the first practice of the season.
The players have gathered since the start of school in late August for workouts with the coaches on the court and conditioning sessions with Heather Mason. Pat Summitt started the workouts a week earlier than in past years because the team is incorporating four new freshmen into the mix in Vicki Baugh, Angie Bjorklund, Kelley Cain and Sydney Smallbone.
Summitt also gathered the team at her house in the preseason for a home-cooked meal and some conversation.
"Give them a chance to talk about their families and their childhood and make sure they all connect and get to know each other and have a little bit better understanding of how they arrived at where they are today and who they are today," Summitt said. "That is a neat experience for them."
Last year's team broke a nine-year championship drought and brought the Lady Vols their seventh title in program history. When Tennessee won the national title in 1998, nobody thought it would be 2007 before the next championship would be claimed.
"I didn't," Summitt said. "We got a little spoiled there in the '80s and '90s. I think that's what made this one even more special."
The 2006-07 team was also special because of its closeness and its chemistry. It's too soon to tell how this team will jell on and off the court.
"Too early," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "You'll see signs of it as the year goes along. I think there's great interaction and great communication, but it's too early to compare. It's unfair (to compare) because it was so special and it evolved over the year, and we tend to romanticize. Anytime we look back in retrospective we remember the good and wonderful. We sometimes forget we were there at center court for a closed-door meeting."
Lockwood was referring to a team meeting that occurred in March before a postseason practice in which the team sat in a circle at center court and talked the day after practice intensity had fizzled in a stifling hot Stokely Athletics Center. The comments from coaches and players cleared the air, and the team went on to win the national title in Cleveland.
"They embraced responsibility and rerouted themselves," Lockwood said. "It's unfair to compare last year to this year at this point because this team is brand new.
"We're right out of the egg. We're barely an embryo. But I do know the seeds of what happened last year are here."
Those seeds of success are the seven returning players, four of whom started last season in Candace Parker, Nicky Anosike, Alexis Hornbuckle and Shannon Bobbitt. Parker and Alex Fuller are redshirt juniors with four years at Tennessee. Anosike and Hornbuckle are seniors who have started games since they were freshmen.
Bobbitt is a senior who won the point guard spot and a national title in her first year at Tennessee after joining the Lady Vols last season. Fellow senior Alberta Auguste, who now also has a year of experience with Tennessee, was a vital player in the Final Four and has picked up where she left off in April.
Sophomore Cait McMahan had knee surgery in June and is expected to miss this season to recover. But she has been courtside in the preseason and is still vocal on the sidelines. McMahan played through considerable pain last season because her mother had terminal cancer, and McMahan knew the window of time for Teresa McMahan to see her daughter play in college could close too soon. Her mother died last May.
"Cait really is relentless in her rehab," Summitt said. "At this point she is doing as well as someone can do based on all the adversity she's faced."
The four freshmen, although joining a national title team that only lost one starter in Sidney Spencer and a reserve sharpshooter in Dominique Redding, still have to get ready if Tennessee wants to repeat.
The newcomers survived the September and October conditioning sessions and the shorter preseason court workouts. Last year's team developed excellent practice habits and absorbed a lot of information in short periods of time. Given the small roster – the same as this year with 10 players on the practice court – that was crucial in saving the players' legs and energy.
This year's team has started well with its preseason work ethic, but the true tests start Friday when practice officially begins. Can this team mesh on and off the court? Will it practice efficiently? Will they get complacent? Is the desire there to repeat?
"Their attitudes have been great," Lockwood said. "Until we get into longer practice periods and also face competition, we're not going to have a lot of the answers to those questions. It's all different when you react to competition. We want to see us go through a two-and-a-half-hour practice.
"I think again with this group we don't have to practice long all the time. There will probably be some practices that turn into that but last year I thought it was great the way our practices were really intense, but they were sharp. I think this group, if they can maintain their focus and intensity through a block of time like that and then carry that over to competition, you're going to see a coaching staff that's going to be even more enthused than they are now."
The coaches may have unanswered questions, but they also like the early returns. A talented group of veterans and newcomers has been assembled, and everyone held up in the workouts and conditioning sessions.
"Certainly we like the nucleus we have back," Lockwood said. "We're extremely confident in this group of players. But we also know last year was last year. And I don't think any of us need to go through the history books (about repeating) to know that nothing is a given.
"I think if our players can, as Pat said, not be complacent and even a step beyond, being ravenous, being hungry, being starving to do it again, I think that's what we want to get to: ‘Let's do this one more time.'
"Together, one more time. All those players saying, ‘One more time,' and doing it with a ravenous appetite. That is going to be our test."
SCHEDULE TESTS: Pat Summitt's schedule, as usual, will offer some early insight into the team. The exhibition season opens Nov. 4 with a visit by the U.S. Olympic team. Candace Parker will, of course, play for Tennessee in this matchup.
"We'll probably think we're pretty good and then here comes the nucleus of the Olympic team," Summitt said. "I think it's going to be great and exciting with the Olympic Games right around the corner (in 2008 in Beijing)."
The first official game is Nov. 11 against Chattanooga. Tennessee then heads to Tampa for a matchup against Oklahoma on Nov. 15.
"Obviously everybody is wanting to see Courtney Paris and Candace Parker play each other," Summitt said.
On Sunday, Nov. 18, Texas comes to town – now coached by Gail Goestenkors and assisted by Mickie DeMoss, a former assistant at Tennessee – for the 20th anniversary of the arena and the official raising of the national title banner before an ESPN2 audience.
Jody Conradt, the longtime coach at Texas retired after last season, but Summitt wants to keep the series, which began in 1978, going.
"I do not see us changing out with Texas," Summitt said. "That has been a long-standing rivalry."
Summitt also wants to keep the series with Duke, where Joanne P. McCallie replaces Goestenkors this season. Al Brown, a former Lady Vol assistant, is also on the Duke staff.
"I know Joanne and obviously Al," Summitt said. "I think that's a program that's going to be nationally competitive year in and year out. You look at the attendance at their place and our place when we play and national TV. Why turn that down?"
The schedule also includes visits from Louisiana Tech, North Carolina, Old Dominion, Middle Tennessee and Gonzaga and then trips to UCLA and Stanford before the year is out. There also will be homecoming games for Alexis Hornbuckle to West Virginia, where the Lady Vols will meet the Mountaineers at the Charleston Civic Center on Nov. 21, and for Parker to DePaul in Chicago on Jan. 2.
The series with Notre Dame continues with a Jan. 5 game in South Bend and then Tennessee starts SEC play. Conference games are broken up with a trip to Duke on Jan. 28 and a visit by Rutgers on Feb. 14.
This year's schedule includes matchups with the three other Final Four teams in North Carolina, LSU and Rutgers.
"It's going to be a treat for the fans," Summitt said. "I hope it's going to be a treat for us, too. I think it's a schedule that will be very appealing for our fans and for exposure and television. It will be a schedule that will challenge this team.
"Coming off this championship and only losing two (scholarship) players and gaining four I really want them to have a very challenging schedule. I thought it was important and we were able to put together what we did and add Oklahoma and Rutgers to our schedule. That is huge."
Tennessee will play four teams from the Big East in West Virginia, DePaul, Notre Dame and Rutgers.
"That wasn't by design, but I think our Notre Dame series has been a very good one," Summitt said. "With Sydney Smallbone she's gets to go back home as a freshman. Alexis and Candace, that's really exciting. And with Rutgers they're the Big East Tournament champs and a Final Four team, and certainly that was our matchup in the national championship, that's going to be very appealing to the basketball world and obviously to our fans. I expect them to be one of the top teams in the country."
Of course, the schedule received quite a bit of press attention over the summer because of the one team that was not on it: UConn. Summitt ended the series, which began in 1995, for reasons she has not publicly disclosed. She explained her decision to Coach Geno Auriemma in a phone conversation four months ago.
"We played phone tag for a little bit," she said. "We were both out of the office from time to time. I called him, and he called me back. I felt like we needed to talk first and foremost. Joan (Cronan) had talked to the administration. I've dropped a lot of teams; I've been dropped."
The decision unleashed a lot of reaction from rage to indifference. Fans weighed in, as did newspaper columnists and television commentators.
"I'm not really surprised by it," Summitt said. "I anticipated that it would not be a popular decision whatsoever. I think it's been a great series for women's basketball.
"At this point us adding Oklahoma and Rutgers that's something we're really excited about. Vivian (Stringer) and I have been great friends. She's wanted to get this game back on schedule, and I have, too. I'm not out to win a popularity contest. I'm just adding the people to our schedule to keep it nationally competitive.
"I think the fact that the series had been so popular over the years and so competitive I understand people voicing their opinion, but there's more to women's basketball right now than Connecticut and Tennessee. You look at the different teams we're going to play. That to me is going to be great for women's basketball."
The matchup with Rutgers will be a rematch of the national title game. It also will come late in the season, less than a month before the postseason starts with the SEC tourney. Summitt is not concerned about facing a top out-of-conference foe so close to March.
"I think playing Rutgers late to me it's a good thing," Summitt said. "We obviously will have had a lot of tough opponents within the conference as well as outside the conference. To have that type of game before we go into tournament play that should be a good gauge for us.
"I think one thing that is important is thinking about challenging this team and also giving us a chance to really measure our improvement and where we are going into tournament play. If you think about our loss last year to LSU (in the SEC tourney) I thought that was a very defining loss in terms of getting our focus and realizing that you never really arrive in this game. You've got to get ready to play every night."
Tennessee starts getting ready tonight at practice.
OPEN PRACTICE: Since Pratt is closed to the public until construction is completed, the Lady Vols will move to Stokely for one practice next week that will be open for fans and the media. That session is scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 18, from 2:45 to 4:30 p.m.