"I don't think it will be weird playing against them," Parker said. "I had a great time playing with them. I feel like they taught me a lot, but one thing I want to stress is we can't go in scared at all. Because there's a reason why we're on the court with them.
"I think it's a great measuring stick, and obviously they're the best in the world. We've grown up watching these players. I've never played with Lisa Leslie or against her. I've seen her on the court. It's going to be an amazing experience for everybody on the team."
All four Lady Vol freshmen are 18 years old. One of them, Angie Bjorklund, will be in the starting lineup.
"My first college game is going to be against people who I watched when I was like 5 on TV," Bjorklund said with a wry mixture of wonder and excitement.
The 6'0 shooting guard from Spokane Valley, Wash., knows she needs to treat Sunday's game like any other, but it won't be easy.
"I know it's overwhelming," senior guard Alexis Hornbuckle said. "It's your first collegiate game. It's the U.S. national team. And you're filling in that starting spot. Angie is a great player. She's a smart player. I think she'll handle it really well and just realize once the ball goes up and the whistle blows, it's a basketball game."
The Lady Vols return four starters from last season in point guard Shannon Bobbitt, Hornbuckle, Parker and center Nicky Anosike, and all four will open up today's game. The small forward spot on the perimeter was vacated by Sidney Spencer, now a member of the Los Angeles Sparks. Bjorklund earned the nod from Pat Summitt with both her offensive and defensive performances in practice.
Leslie has returned to the national team after giving birth to her first child, Lauren, on June 25. She had been away from the game for more than a year before resuming training late this past summer. Other members of the team are former Lady Vols Kara Lawson and Loree Moore, Seimone Augustus, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Swin Cash, Kara Braxton, Katie Feenstra and Taj McWilliams-Franklin. Moore, who plays for the New York Liberty, has returned to the city for treatment of her ailing left knee and won't make the trip to Knoxville.
That's a lot of star power from the WNBA and international play. Parker has played with most of them. Her teammates, minus the four freshmen, won a national title last season. Summitt doesn't expect the big stage – the game atmosphere is enhanced by the $20 million renovation of the arena – to affect those players.
"I'm not concerned about our returning players," Summitt said. "We'll talk to our young players about we're playing a basketball game and it doesn't matter who you're playing, you've got to be competitive. I don't know how they'll react. I can't predict it.
"I'll remind them not to try to get autographs in the pre-game or anything. At least wait until after the game."
The veterans have made the game sound like a home-improvement project with references to units of measurement.
"I think taking on the USA team as the first exhibition game is going to be a real measuring stick for where we're at," Parker said. "Obviously they're the best in the world. We have to go out there and play intense. We can't play scared. We're really excited to be being playing in our new renovated arena."
Exhibition games are generally intended to be warmups for the home team. The opponent might be a collection of former college players playing back-to-back-to-back games or a regional team from a lower NCAA division. The USA team will give college teams a good indication of how good they could be.
"It lets you know early where you're at," Hornbuckle said. "You don't have to wait until you come across a North Carolina or a Duke or a team like that. It's early recognition of what your team can do, what we're lacking, areas that we can get better at. If we're able to do the things that we need to do – like run our offense efficiently, take care of the basketball, be able to press or whatever coach asks us to do – if we're capable of doing that that's more of a confidence booster for our team, especially our newcomers."
The freshmen are generating a lot of pre-game attention from the coaching staff and the upperclassmen. Bjorklund, Vicki Baugh, Kelley Cain and Sydney Smallbone were rated the No. 1 recruiting class last fall. Bjorklund got the starting nod, but the other three will play Sunday – Summitt is particularly interested to see how Cain and Baugh perform against Leslie and the other post players – and all four are expected to contribute this season. Smallbone, like Bjorklund, is a long-range threat from outside.
The loss of Spencer meant Tennessee needed someone who could force the defense to extend to the perimeter. Bjorklund was given considerable consideration because of her shooting touch, but it was her ability to defend that ultimately swayed Summitt.
"She's a solid defender," Summitt said. "I think that's the biggest surprise is her ability to defend in the one-on-one game. She's got good court sense. I think the returning players are excited about what she brings. You've got to guard her. If you're going to guard her then you're going to stretch the defense because our inside game is going to benefit by people having to extend on Angie.
"I felt like early on in practice that she was very comfortable with her role. She had not been offensively as aggressive in high school and even in AAU as I thought she could be. She's a very unselfish player, not that I want that to change, but I think she understands her role here at Tennessee. She is a great offensive player – can score off the dribble, got good three-point range. I like her decision-making. She's not a player that is going to force shots."
Bjorklund isn't just a spot-up shooter. She can create space with a step-back move. As Summitt noted she can shoot off the dribble. She knows how to fill lanes on the fast break. She can pop open off an out-of-bounds play. But Bjorklund also got some sage shooting advice came from an assistant coach.
"Like Nikki Caldwell told me the best offensive play in basketball, the best move is just to catch and shoot (before the defense can close)," Bjorklund said. "I've been working on that. It's been an adjustment just with the intensity and with the pace of the game. At the beginning I was like, ‘I was open? Oh, I guess I was.'
"It's a lot different now that I'm in college because if I have breathing room I need to shoot the ball. Being open in college is a lot different than being open in high school. That's definitely been an adjustment in itself."
When asked if Bjorklund was a scorer and not just a shooter, Summitt said she was both. Then she revised her summation.
"You could call her a shooter and a scorer," Summitt said. "I think the best way to describe her is she's a player. She knows how to play the game. She's got a great feel for the game. She makes good decisions. She's a good passer. I think eventually she'll be a great passer because she's going to get a lot of attention. I have made it perfectly clear that your role is to be scorer on this team. You are a great shooter. You can score in a variety of ways."
The player Bjorklund replaces in the lineup was sometimes quirky. Spencer was hesitant to shoot at times and sometimes got a seat on the bench with Summitt for not shooting the ball enough. After some initial uncertainty, Bjorklund hasn't been reluctant to shoot in practice.
"She knows her role," Summitt said. "She's got the green light."
Bjorklund also got some encouragement from Parker.
"The first practice she was a little frazzled, a little unsure about when to shoot and I said, ‘Look, just shoot the ball. That's what you were brought here to do. You don't miss so shoot the ball,' " Parker said, repeating the matter of fact tone she used to convey the message. "After that she's been one of the best players on the floor."
Parker, who knows what it's like to start as a freshman, had some more advice for Bjorklund.
"I told her earlier, ‘Some freshmen have to grow up fast. It's not fair, but that's the way it is,' " Parker said. "This team needs her to grow up fast, and she did that."
Hornbuckle, who has a sense of history when it comes to the Lady Vols and basketball, shook her head when asked how heady this experience could be for Bjorklund.
"Your very first game on ‘The Summitt' is against the USA team," Hornbuckle said.
Bjorklund knows that she really can't know how she will react until the moment happens.
"You don't know until you step out there the first game," Bjorklund said. "I think whether you're coming off the bench or you're starting, either way you're helping your team win. If that's what it takes that I start then that's what it takes. I'll play when Coach wants me to, and I'll sit when Coach wants me to. If that's my role, then that's my role."
Bjorklund found out she was starting while sitting on the sofa in Summitt's office. The coach was sitting at her desk doing a phone interview last Tuesday and was asked about her starters.
"I just came in to say hi and talk to her a little bit," Bjorklund said. "She was on the phone. She said, ‘Come on in.'
"I was sitting down, you know, not listening but definitely listening," Bjorklund said with a smile. "She was saying if we had to start tomorrow Angie would be in the starting lineup. I was like, ‘Oh, wow. Alright.' After she said that she said, ‘Are you ready for it?' And I said, ‘Of course, Coach.' "
USA VS. TENNESSEE: The USA national team has two wins on its 2007 eight-team tour after defeating Maryland and Connecticut. The USA program's overall record against collegiate teams – there were two previous tours in 1995 and 1999 – is now 33-1.
The sole loss was to Tennessee on Nov. 7, 1999, when Kara Lawson hit the game-winner as a Lady Vol freshman to notch the 65-64 victory. The Lady Vols' record against the USA is 1-1 with an 82-58 loss coming on Nov. 22, 1995.
Sunday will be a homecoming for Lawson. Her picture and bio as a "Torchbearer" – the university's most prestigious academic award conferred on an honor student – is on the concourse of the arena.
"I'm really excited," Lawson said. "It should be a fun atmosphere. They renovated the arena down there, and it's supposed to be really, really nice."
Lawson was asked in the post-game press conference following the UConn game on Friday about the lack of orange because the seats are now black.
"Well, it's highlighted orange," she said. "Of course there's going to be orange. Believe me, there'll be no shortage of orange. But getting to hear ‘Rocky Top' and seeing everybody will be a lot of fun. I wish Loree was able to come with us so I could have someone else with me. I'm excited. I'm excited for it. I already told these guys after this game was over that they have to come and play because we have to win!"
Pat Summitt has often cited Lawson's competitiveness so it's no surprise that she would want to take it to her former school.
Thompson-Boling Arena will also be a familiar scene for Seimone Augustus, who played at LSU and is now in the WNBA with the Minnesota Lynx.
"I'll be tired of hearing ‘Rocky Top.' I was tired of hearing it after four years of playing in the SEC," Augustus said laughing. "We're going to be playing one of the top players in the country in Candace Parker and her supporting cast, which is going to help her probably get another championship again this year. It's going to be another competitive team that's going to try to take it to us."
The USA team is capable of beating every team on its tour by double digits because of its prolific three-point shooters and presence in the post.
"I don't think (Summitt scheduled) it to try to kill anyone's confidence; more or less it's to build confidence and just put into perspective of where we're trying to get to," Alexis Hornbuckle said.
The USA squad also might want to avenge that sole program loss, but Hornbuckle realizes the players will be gunning for the Lady Vols regardless.
"It might come up, but those women are here to play basketball and obviously they don't like losing," Hornbuckle said. "They're the USA team. They're the top notch. They're at the level where every young woman wants to get to. They're going to come in here with a vengeance anyway just because they don't want to get beat by a collegiate squad. I'm sure it's probably in the back of their head. I'm sure Kara might bring it up as well."
Summitt said the current players are aware that the 1999 Lady Vol team made history. But that was also eight years ago. The freshmen were 10 years old. The seniors were a year away from high school.
"I think they've made mention of it," Summitt said. "Everyone is aware of it, but at the same time it's a different team, and Kara Lawson is on the other side now so I'm sure she'll try to hit us hard."
Summitt cited the pending exhibition game earlier this preseason as one way of ensuring that she had the players' attention as soon as practice started.
"I think it's a good start because we know in practice, even though it's the beginning, we have to start now," Angie Bjorklund said. "We have to get things done in practice now because it's not going to be an easy game. We need to work hard. I think it's good."
Bjorklund noted, though, that as a first-year player she doesn't have any frame of reference for comparison.
"I don't know what it's like to play any college games so we'll see," Bjorklund said. "I'm excited, definitely."
Bjorklund can't compare practice this season to last year, but Parker can. She said the sessions are the same. What's different is the anticipation of the first opponent.
"We've had real intense practices up to this point, no different from any other year," Parker said. "We're obviously preparing for the USA team. We realize that these are players that we watched ever since we were younger. We're going to have to come in with a lot of intensity."
The Lady Vols used part of Saturday's practice session to go over the scouting report for the game.
"We want to be familiar with their sets," Summitt said. "We want to guard their favorite offensive sets. But the first thing we have to be concerned about is transition. Watching them play and watching them in the practices in New York, their commitment to transition is very strong. They scored a lot in transition. I think that was maybe their best offense.
"In the half-court they set a lot of ball screens. They do as much screening action to get a Kara Lawson or a Diana Taurasi open. They try to get their shooters involved. And you've got Leslie coming down on the trail. That's definitely a great presence for them."
The players and staff are looking forward to today's game. They would relish a win, but they know the opportunity outweighs the outcome. The freshmen remember watching Lisa Leslie – a three-time Olympic Gold Medal winner and WNBA MVP – on television when they were in grade school. This afternoon they get to be on the floor with the 35-year-old mother and legend of the game.
"What player in college wouldn't want to play against one of the greatest players in women's basketball?" Summitt said.
One of the greatest players in college basketball will be in Tennessee's uniform after being in a USA jersey some six weeks ago. Parker won't, as had been suggested, play a half for each team.
"No," Parker said with a look that left no doubt. "I don't think my coach nor my teammates would allow that to happen."
SCOUTING REPORT: Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick handled the scouting report for the USA game. Here is her assessment.
When the USA team has the ball: "Their primary offense (is the) break. They're very, very quick, very skilled at passing, great shooters. We've got our hands full with just getting back and stopping their break. They look to run anytime they get the ball and rightfully so because they're very good at it.
"Our main concern is not giving up easy baskets. They do it off of made baskets. They get the ball in quickly. They do it off missed shots. They do it off steals. It's important for us to make sure we don't turn the ball over. They're outstanding at running the basketball. They're great three-point shooters. They're very physical inside the post. The posts get up and down the floor like guards. They're our national team. They should be as good as they are."
Warlick said the challenge for the collegiate players, especially the freshmen, will be the speed and quickness of the USA players at all five positions.
"Lisa Leslie is 6'5, but she gets up and down the floor like a guard," Warlick said. "I think those kids getting away from the basket and defending full court it's going to be a challenge."
Freshmen Vicki Baugh and Kelley Cain should get the opportunity to tangle inside with the Olympian.
"It was a big jump from high school to college," Warlick said. "Now (they're) going to jump to the next level, and it's even more physical. Those guys are going to have to toughen up a little bit."
When Tennessee has the ball: "We'd like to run on them as well. Our main concern is taking care of the basketball and getting second-chance points, and that's going to be difficult because of their size and how they play. Getting open looks that's going to be hard for us because they're physical on defense."
The coaches know they will come out of the game with a treasure trove of game film clips for teaching purposes.
"Absolutely," Warlick said. "You play against the (practice) guys, and they start to know your tendencies and your sets. Hopefully this is a good challenge for us. They're going to make us so much better. As coaches it's good for us to watch tape and evaluate where we are and where we need to be – have a measuring stick on our team and what we've done so far."
ODDS AND ENDS: The USA team has started the same five players in the first two exhibition games: Seimone Augustus, 6'1 forward, 15 ppg; Taj McWilliams-Franklin, 6'2 forward, 5 ppg; Lisa Leslie, 6'5 center, 13.5 ppg; Diana Taurasi, 6'0 guard, 14.5 ppg; and Sue Bird, 5'9 guard, 8 ppg. Kara Lawson, a 5'9 guard, is averaging a team-high 16 ppg off the bench. With the game in Knoxville, Lawson could start Sunday. … Both teams have nine players available for the game. Former Lady Vol Loree Moore is unable to play because of an ailing left knee and isn't with the team. Tennessee is without senior wing player Alberta Auguste, who suffered a severe calf contusion and has been out of practice for nearly two weeks. She was able to do some intensive rehab Saturday that included defensive slides and high stepping. Sophomore guard Cait McMahan had knee surgery last June and remains sidelined. Tennessee's bench consists of three freshmen and steady veteran forward Alex Fuller. … Tennessee will have one of the tallest players on the floor in the 6'6 Kelley Cain. She ties Vonda Ward (1991-95) as the tallest Lady Vol in program history. But the USA team has the tallest one Sunday in 6'8 Katie Feenstra, who played at Liberty. Kara Braxton, who played at Georgia, is 6'6. Both players are now with the Detroit Shock. … After the Tennessee game the USA team has five more teams remaining on the Oct. 31-Nov. 15 schedule: Baylor, Arizona State, Texas A&M, Southern California and Stanford. … Tennessee will start the season in the No. 1 position in the AP poll. The Lady Vols received all 50 first-place votes. It's the 12th time in program history that Tennessee was AP's preseason top team. Tennessee also is No. 1 in the coaches' poll, though that vote, unlike the writers' poll, was not unanimous. … The Lady Vols won't have much time between exhibition games. Carson-Newman will be at the arena for a 7 p.m. game on Tuesday. The 2007-08 season opener is Sunday, Nov. 11, in Knoxville against Tennessee-Chattanooga at 3 p.m.