Louisiana Tech, 2-1, arrives first with a 7 p.m. tipoff tonight (Lady Vol Radio Network; TV: SportSouth) against No. 1 Tennessee, 4-0, at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"They're formidable teams that are going to come in here and scratch and claw," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "We are hoping that we get good playing minutes for (the freshmen). Whether it's a two-point game or a 22-point game, I think we're going to play them because that's part of the long-term plan."
North Carolina casts a considerable shadow among the five – Tennessee defeated the Tar Heels in the semifinal game at the 2007 Final Four after overcoming a 12-point deficit with eight minutes to play – but the Lady Vols aren't thinking about a rematch yet.
"Just the coaches," Assistant Coach Nikki Caldwell said of the concept of looking ahead. "We scout ahead two or three opponents. But our focal point needs to be on LaTech because LaTech is a team that can come in here and make this game fairly ugly because they can get out and defend. They're not big as far as height-wise, but they're athletic.
"We've got to make sure we stick to what we do best in our game plan against them and not look ahead past this LaTech team. That's the worst thing you could have happen is to be looking ahead to playing Carolina."
Nicky Anosike, a senior center who is the personification of practical, saw an athletic Lady Techsters team in Sunday's film session after practice.
"We saw them on tape," Anosike said. "They look pretty good. I think they'll be good preparation for North Carolina, but I think we have to come in here and be focused on them first before we think about anything else."
Anosike had her best game of the season in Wednesday's 67-49 win over West Virginia with 10 points, eight rebounds, six steals, five assists and two blocks. The game was played in Charleston as a homecoming for senior guard Alexis Hornbuckle.
"It's always nice to go back to somebody's hometown," Anosike said. "We went back to mine my freshman year (to play Rutgers), and we got killed and that wasn't too fun. It's always nice to win for one of our teammates when they go home."
The scoring production was precisely what the team needed from Anosike, who is averaging 7.0 points per game. Tennessee would like to see Anosike hit double digits every game to help take some pressure off Candace Parker and to open up the perimeter.
"There are people right now they are thinking about ways they're going to stop Candace Parker," Lockwood said. "We're going to see doubles. I'd be shocked if we didn't see a gimmick defense or two or three or five along the way. One of our emphasis is we've got to have other people ready to step up. Look at Oklahoma. We had two players who scored more than one field goal in a game. If at any given point you've got five players that are a threat, they couldn't have guarded us nearly as well as they guarded us we felt. We do want to spread the wealth.
"Nicky has had two better games since then. Alex (Fuller) came off the bench and has played well. We feel like we need contributions from everybody. That takes pressure off of Candace as well. People that don't follow the game might say, ‘Oh, Candace only got 21 tonight.' Candace Parker would be the first one to tell you she loves it when other people get it going because that means less pressure and less attention is on her so she's able to be in one-on-one situations more. If we can get that, if we can scoring on any given night – it's wonderful to say five – but on any given night if three or four players are producing for you, then that helps all of us so much more. Everybody feels better."
That means Tennessee needs consistent scoring from starting perimeter players Hornbuckle and Angie Bjorklund. The bench players also must produce – Alex Fuller is averaging a very healthy 7.5 ppg in 16.8 minutes of play – and that includes the freshmen, Sydney Smallbone and Vicki Baugh.
Smallbone and Alberta Auguste bring relief on the wings. Baugh and Fuller are the post players off the bench and with freshman center Kelley Cain out indefinitely with a knee injury their minutes are even more crucial.
"I'd like to see Bird for two weeks where nothing keeps her from being out of game or practice," Lockwood said of Auguste, referring to her by her nickname. "Bird is a real valuable piece of the puzzle. What you saw last year in Cleveland we're hoping she can give us on a regular basis. She came in and I thought she was absolutely pivotal in North Carolina and Rutgers. She came in and she defended. She hit midrange shots that were big shots.
"We look at Alex as a sixth starter. We'd like to have Bird being a seventh in terms of being the first perimeter playing going in."
Auguste has been hampered by some nagging injuries in the early going this season. She suffered a severe calf contusion in October and missed two weeks of practice. She injured a finger on her left hand against West Virginia that has been bothersome. On Saturday she jammed her right wrist, and the cumulative frustration boiled over and affected her approach to practice.
"She's been injured," said Coach Pat Summitt, who was still deciding Sunday about Auguste's playing status for Monday after the substandard practice performance. "She's had some setbacks, a little adversity. Just didn't handle it well. Hopefully she's going to learn from it."
Tennessee has nine healthy bodies for Monday's game and would have gone 10 deep if Cain were available. That was the game plan going into the season, but injuries have necessitated a shift.
"That's our hope that we could," Lockwood said. "I'm so foreign to that now because I'm so trained not to have them. With 10 healthy bodies we'd feel very good."
Two of those healthy players are Smallbone and Baugh, whom the staff hopes will get significant reps on this five-game home stand.
Baugh was limited to five minutes against West Virginia because of a left knee strain, but she is cleared to go for Monday and had three excellent days of practice leading up to LaTech. Lockwood wants to see Baugh make the conversion from pondering to playing.
"Any new player there are still times when there is some adjusting going on, and you're thinking more than you're reacting," Lockwood said. "We want to get her to the point where she's in a game and it's all reacting. A lot of times you have to actually be in a game to do that. It's like a fighter. You can hit the speed bag and a heavy bag for so long but until somebody's hitting you back … you've got to have that. The game reps are really big for her now."
Baugh has the added benefit of having both Lockwood, the post coach, and Parker, an accomplished post player, in her ear. Parker shares tip on footwork and positioning and explains what Baugh did or could have done in her last practice rep. The next time up Baugh applies what she just heard.
"I'm working on the next kid and I hear Candace telling Vicki all the right things," Lockwood said. "I love it. I think a sign of any good group or organization is when you've got some of that going on. Other people know your system.
"Candace has heard it for three years so if she doesn't have it now I haven't done a good job with her. She's telling Vicki things and I think she sees in Vicki, like we all do, great possibilities, and she wants to take the initiative to share some of what she's learned, and I think that's wonderful."
Smallbone can hit shots for Tennessee this season. Her minutes have been limited to date while she learns the defensive schemes.
"She needs more practice reps to get the (defensive) habits down," Lockwood said. "Once you have habits, you're ready to go apply them in a game. Her practice habits are very important defensively, and they're coming. She's so much better than where she was two, three weeks ago.
"Defensive concepts are much newer – the terminology, angles. Perimeter kids have got a little bit more to digest defensively than post kids. Syd has such a warrior mentality. I feel good about where they (the freshmen) are, where their minds are confidence-wise and what they're doing and their understanding of their roles. I think all those kids are bright kids, and they understand where they fit into this puzzle."
The youngsters should get their chance to play. The coaching staff wants to keep the starters minutes manageable and keep them out of the 35 minutes per game range. Bobbitt is averaging 32.8 minutes with Parker at 31.0, but the other three are under 30 minutes.
"Pat's always been great about getting teams and people ready for down the line," Lockwood said. We can't have (the freshmen) not be on the floor for us. You don't want Alexis logging 35 minutes. Candace, Shannon. Those are people for down the stretch. We've got to have them fresh."
For Tennessee that means being in position to make the Final Four and have a shot at another national title next spring. With the 2007 banner up and this season nearly a month old, the focus has finally turned to 2007-08.
"Definitely," said Anosike, who has been ready for the shift and didn't want to talk about last season any longer. "I think people realize now that this is a whole new team. I know we have four returning starters from last year, but I think we're better than last year. People see that and people talk about winning this year's championship more than they do about last year's championship."
The effects of winning the national title do linger. There's a lightness to practice now – not in the physical aspect – but in how the players interact. Laughter is not uncommon. They are loose and relaxed. Parker often leads the pack and seems to be especially enjoying her teammates.
Parker's attitude is likely the result of a major release of pressure for a player who has stated she couldn't be mentioned among other Tennessee greats unless she put a banner in the rafters.
Lockwood described the proverbial weight that has been lifted from Parker's shoulders by referencing a classic Western television series.
"You're Marshal Dillon; Dodge City had better get cleaned up pretty soon," Lockwood said. "And if it doesn't they're not going to look at Festus. And they're not looking at Doc. They're looking at you. She's established it. She knows that that's in the books. You can't erase that.
"I also think there is a sense of urgency you go into it with when you're an upperclassman. She gets it now. There's nothing that we throw at her that she doesn't look at and say, ‘I know why this is happening and how this is happening.' There's a method to our madness and what we're doing. I think she's very comfortable in this whole environment."
PROBABLE STARTERS: Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 senior point guard, No. 00 (10.3 points per game, 4.0 rebounds per game, 4.0 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 senior guard, No 14 (9.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.3 steals per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 freshman guard, No. 5 (8.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 junior forward, No. 3 (25.3 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 2.8 blocks per game); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 senior center, No. 55 (7.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.8 apg, 3.0 spg).
Louisiana Tech Coach Chris Long is expected to start: Tiwanna Pringle, 5'7 sophomore guard, No. 22 (6.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg 3.0 apg), started the first two games of her collegiate career last season, 2006 Miss Basketball in state of Mississippi; Whitney Jones, 5'7 sophomore guard (11.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg), transferred from Baylor and is playing her first season for LaTech, joins Seimone Augustus as the only two-time Gatorade state Player of the Year in Louisiana; April Williams, 5'5 senior guard, No. 50 (3.3 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 4.0 apg), junior college transfer was a high school teammate of Whitney Jones; JoKeirra "Jo" Sneed, 6'2 senior forward, No. 23 (14.0 ppg, 8.7 rpg); played at Trinity Valley Community College, the same school as Shannon Bobbitt, named newcomer of the year last season by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association; and Shanavia Dowdell, 6'1 sophomore forward, No. 42 (11.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg), named to All-Freshman Team last season in Western Athletic Conference, 2006 Miss Basketball in the state of Alabama.
The Lady Techsters are getting production off the bench in Nastassja Levingston, a 5'7 senior guard, (13.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg); and Adrienne Johnson, a 6'0 freshman guard/forward, (10.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg).
"Tennessee is so talented," Long said. "There is a reason they are ranked as the best team in the country right now. They've won all four of their games this year by an average margin of almost 20 points and that's against some great competition in Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia.
"It will be a huge challenge for our team. We've been able to score fairly well in all three of our games so far but Tennessee will pose a new challenge with their incredible height and athleticism. We need to take care of the ball and shoot it well."
Summitt enters this game seeking ball security – she didn't like how the West Virginia game started – and board play. The Lady Vols are averaging 39.0 rebounds per game with opponents pulling down 37.0 for a slim +2 margin. Louisiana Tech, despite its lack of size, averages 46.7 boards per game, +9.0 over the 37.7 averaged by its opponents.
"They really do a good job of pushing tempo and they're very committed to half-court sets as well," Summitt said. "We can't turn it over. We've got to handle their speed, their quickness, their athleticism and take care of the basketball. In the last game we started out a little sloppy. We have to defend them. We can't give them layups. And always against Louisiana Tech it's rebounding because whoever controls the board usually controls the game."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Nikki Caldwell handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Louisiana Tech game. Here is her assessment.
When Louisiana Tech has the ball: "Primarily they like to run a lot of the high-low action. They'll lob from the wing and clear out the whole weak side. They really like to get that post isolation in there. They run some action with ball screens on the wing, nothing that we haven't seen, but their main finisher will probably be one-on-one play. Their guards are fairly strong, even the ones that come off the bench, and that gives them offensive punch."
When Tennessee has the ball: "We definitely want to establish our transition game. When you think about the game being played in four-minute segments and when we're charting (results) we become a better half-court team, but we're even better when we've got some easy transition baskets in there, some easy layups. I think that gets us energized a little bit more. When we get transition baskets we know that they've got to come from deflections or steals or we're boarding well. So it's a positive when we see a lot of transition baskets on our side of the column.
"Obviously establishing our inside attack. It's kind of like football. You establish the running game to open up the passing game. We want to make sure that we take advantage of establishing that inside game. They do a good job of playing behind and not allowing you to get great position on the low block. They'll also allow their guards to dig in to cause some more havoc so we've got to be aware of not putting the ball down all the time in the post because the guards will dig (and try to swipe the ball)."
Defensive drills were emphasized at practice Friday and Saturday – Sunday was used for scouting and shooting reps – both to get ready to defend one on one and because Tennessee emphasizes defensive positioning for all games.
"The one thing that we've noticed in watching our tapes is when we don't have to rotate our defense as much, then we're not in the scramble and we're better," Caldwell said. "One-on-one defense is a big focal point for us this year. Against a team like LaTech you've got to be aware that they've got kids that can shoot the three and put it on the floor. Our closeouts drills are going to be key for us – closing out long that is – and being able to defend off the bounce."
The closeness of the Oklahoma game let Tennessee know it couldn't get away with poor decision-making, especially in the opening minutes.
"We can't be getting in foul trouble, and everybody has an important role to play here," Caldwell said. "It's a W; we'll take it. We didn't play our best basketball, either. We do realize that. I think it was more of an eye-opener for our first years. That was their first road game. They had been in a comfortable environment. That was a big game for them. I think they realized how they've got to step up their level of play. Ang and Syd have got to be ready to give us some type of offensive punch and be solid defensively."
That is where the senior leadership shows up. The coaching staff has no qualms about the upperclassmen's ability to get the freshmen on course. The Oklahoma game was followed by a 92-67 shellacking of Texas in Knoxville and a 67-49 win on the road against West Virginia.
"They're pretty seasoned," Caldwell said. "I think they have an attack mode going on right now, especially after the Oklahoma game. I think that was a good test for us in letting us know that we're not invincible. When you've got seasoned players like Shannon at the point, Lex, Candace, Nicky, the freshmen, they're following their lead."
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with LaTech, 22-17 and is 9-5 in Knoxville. …. Tennessee is 9-2 in games played on November 26. The two losses were to Southern Cal (78-64 in 1983) and Cincinnati (72-69 in 1984). The last win on this date was against Middle Tennessee (88-64 in 2006). … Tennessee won the last matchup with LaTech, 71-50, on Nov. 28, 2006, after jumping out to 42-15 halftime lead. Point guard Shannon Bobbitt didn't travel for that road game because of academic commitments. Cait McMahan, who is now recovering from knee surgery, made her first career start and had seven points, three assists and no turnovers against the Lady Techsters. … Louisiana Tech dominated the series in the 1970s (2-1 record vs. Tennessee) and 1980s (11-4 record), but the Lady Vols have controlled the 1990s (10-4) and are undefeated this century (7-0). … Until last March, Tennessee and Louisiana Tech were the only teams to play in every NCAA Tournament. LaTech did not make the field of 64 in 2007. … Tennessee's first national title came in 1987 against Louisiana Tech in Austin, Texas.