Pat Summitt impressed with arena renovation

Pat Summitt took a seat last weekend in Thompson-Boling Arena, looked around and came away with one word: Impressive. From the black ceiling to the black seats, the coach concluded the venue was the best college basketball facility in the country.

"You talk about impressive," Summitt said Wednesday. "I can't imagine that there's a more impressive arena or a better arena in college basketball anywhere. Looking at the luxury suites, the scoreboard – you talk about a centerpiece. That's going to be one of the most impressive things in the building if you talk about watching replays and following the action. It's a lot like the scoreboard we had in Cleveland (site of last year's Final Four). There are a lot of bells and whistles."

The arena will host its first game for a UT men's exhibition match on Friday, Nov. 2. An open house for fans will be held Saturday, Nov. 3, during the football homecoming weekend from 1 to 3 p.m. The Lady Vols will host the USA national team on Sunday, Nov. 4.

The black ceiling has had the effect of compressing the size of the massive arena and steering the attention downward, just as the architects promised.

"The black ceiling I like a lot," Pat Summitt said. "It used to you'd just see all the white up there and now to me everything is going to be focused on the court."

The luxury suites and loge seating were constructed across the old 200 and 300 level sections on the north side of the arena. All the seats throughout the arena are cushioned and have chair backs, and the bleachers in the 300 level have been removed.

Summitt was initially opposed to the removal of the signature orange seats, but she now likes the overall effect.

"When the decision was made, I moved on," Summitt said. "It seems like the seats are closer. I think it's really going to have a good feel."

The funds for the renovation – the first for the arena since it opened in 1987 – and construction of Pratt Pavilion are coming from donors to the Campaign for Tennessee Basketball and revenue from the new premium seating areas. The projected cost for the arena renovation is estimated at $20 million with Pratt coming in at $16 million.

"This is such an exciting time for Tennessee basketball," said Joan Cronan, women's athletic director. "We have two great coaches in Bruce Pearl and Pat Summitt, we are building a multimillion dollar practice facility, and now we are improving Thompson-Boling Arena so that it will maintain its status as one of the finest arenas in the country."

Summitt, the staff and players were back on the court at Pratt after taking off Tuesday. The two practice courts are available to the women's and men's teams, but parts of Pratt remains under construction with completion expected some time next month.

"I think it's a great facility," Summitt said. "We're not in the final stages, but we're getting there. The court has got a really good feel. I really like the courts. At times we can use both courts. Bruce can use both courts. We've got a lot of baskets. We're getting a lot of shots in because of it. It's a place for us to be able to work with our players before or after practice and for them to be able to get in and work on their own to just go shoot."

Summitt likened the practice pavilion to a basketball lab.

"It seems like our little workplace, our shop," she said. "It's a good feeling, a real good feeling."

The four freshmen had to learn to get back to work after getting a day's respite from practice.

"The freshmen were a little slow coming off of the day off," Summitt said. "There are a lot of firsts for them. We had to dial them up a little bit."

Summitt said she is continuing to get repetitions for Candace Parker at the small forward spot. That could allow Alex Fuller to earn more minutes at the power forward position, where she is most effective.

"I think right now just looking at Parker and Fuller and thinking about who's going to play four and who's going to play three, probably Parker is going to play three and Fuller is going to play four if they were on the floor together with another post," Summitt said. "Fuller definitely can play at the three (if needed there). Her challenge is defending at the three. She's gradually improved every year."

Fuller was considered by the coaches to be the sixth woman on the squad last season. Fuller's consistency and maturity should allow her to see more playing time this season.

"She just plays like a veteran player," Summitt said. "She understands the game. She has a feel for it. What I am seeing from her is more consistency offensively, better decisions. You can just tell she's been here; she's done that. She's comfortable."

Fuller and Parker are the first redshirts to ever play at Tennessee for Summitt. Both needed knee surgery when they arrived on campus in 2004 and missed the 2004-05 season. They are listed as redshirt juniors for the 2007-08 season, but both are seniors academically and could opt to leave with their class next spring. It has been generally presumed that Fuller would likely stay and Parker, who could have been the top pick in the WNBA last spring, would likely go.

"Alex is planning to stay," Summitt said. "She's made that pretty clear. With Candace, I would expect Candace to finish up (her college career) this year with the WNBA and the Olympics - those two obviously will probably influence her decision. We've talked. It's not like she said, ‘I'm definitely leaving.' But all indications would be, with where she is and the timing of everything, there's obviously a good chance that we'll see (just) one more year from Candace."

For Lady Vol fans, that's just one more reason to see the team play in person this season. With the arena as the showpiece, Parker as one of the showcases in the women's game and the Lady Vols being the defending champions, the new season is tipping off with considerable buzz, anticipation and excitement.

Of course, that means the team enters this season with considerable expectations. At Tennessee that means competing for championships on both the conference and national levels. To that end, Summitt and her staff continue to lay the groundwork.

"We're continuing to build our defense and just breaking it down and putting it all together," Summitt said. "Same thing (on) offense. Every day, we're adding a new wrinkle and then we'll go back and repeat all the things we've taught."

Early indications from Summitt are that the Lady Vols intend to use all 94 feet of the court on offense and defense. But Summitt doesn't think a one-dimensional approach will work with the parity in the women's game now.

"I definitely think we can play baseline to baseline and we can press and we can play up-tempo," Summitt said. "But I also have the confidence for this group to be a good half-court team, and I think you have to have both to win a championship.

"When you get into postseason, just like we faced athleticism last year, you're going to have to score in the half-court. We're really trying to keep our emphasis on both."

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