Tipoff is set for Thursday at 7:06 p.m. (TV: SportSouth, Lady Vol Radio Network) at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The 2007-08 season officially started Nov. 11, but the seven-day break is built into the schedule during exams so that the players can study without game obligations or media interviews.
"Honestly once you start games you have a statute of limitations on your practice time, and we're getting pretty darn close to that," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "Your kids just need to play games, and I think we need a game right now. Exams have helped because they've been otherwise preoccupied mentally. That's a good thing that Tennessee does is stay away from games during this time.
"Just from a basketball standpoint, you can only go against practice guys, you can only go through your sets, you can only do so much shooting and then we need to play. So we're really at that point. This game can't come soon enough for all of us, players and coaches."
No. 1 Tennessee, 7-0, will put its perfect record and 10-game home winning streak on the line against Middle Tennessee, 3-4.
"Our coaching staff and our team feel this way: They are a much better team than their 3-4 record indicates," Lockwood said. "But for a few little stretches where they didn't play good basketball they could be 5-2. This is a team that right now is very formidable."
Summitt noted that the Blue Raiders nearly upset No. 4 Maryland on the Terrapins' home floor.
"They're a team that played Maryland to a five-point game at Maryland," Summitt said. "We know with Amber Holt they've got a great go-to player. She puts up about as many shots as Candace Parker puts up for us. They can spread you out. They shoot the three ball, and they're pretty committed to it. That's going to be a good test."
The coaches used the past week of practice sessions to address Tennessee's deficiencies, specifically rebounding and sprinting the floor.
Summitt watched the tape from the Old Dominion win last week and noticed too many players taking breaks during the course of the game. The coach then had an entire week to drill the team on what she expected.
"We had a lot of players taking possessions off, and we can't do that," Summitt said. "The rebounding and the sprinting were probably the two biggest concerns. As I told them if you're not sprinting then you must be tired, and you need to come out and you will come out.
"I'd prefer that they manage that and if they are fatigued then for the good of the team, they can sub out and then we'll send them back in."
Players want to play. They could be worried they won't get back in quickly and thus try to fight through the fatigue. But Summitt said she would reinsert them when they gave the word.
"I think you've got some players playing a lot of minutes, and they start to try and pace themselves," Summitt said. "I think from that standpoint we have to be mindful we've got a pretty strong bench over here, and we want to keep fresh bodies and fresh minds on the floor."
The rebounding woes have been particularly disappointing for Summitt, since board play is a linchpin of the Lady Vol program, now in its 34th year under her stewardship.
The big frontline of Tennessee is physically capable of rebounding – Parker has been doing her part by averaging 9.3 per game and has a stated goal of getting in double figures – so its shortcomings on the boards have been surprising. The second-leading rebounder on the team is 5'11 guard Alexis Hornbuckle, who is pulling down a plump 6.4 rebounds per game.
"That's been a little bit disheartening at times that they wouldn't just come out and understand," Summitt said. "It's like I told them if you know the identity of our program from the time I was coaching in Alumni Gym to now, for 34 years the identity has been defense and board play. It was interesting because when I asked them about it they really didn't know. I guess I have to be a better teacher."
Summitt has a natural rebounder in freshman Vicki Baugh, a 6'4 post player who comes off the bench. Lockwood said Nicky Anosike, a 6'4 starter, and Alex Fuller, a 6'3 post player who is considered the sixth woman, need to increase their production.
"Nicky can give us more," Lockwood said. "Alex can give us more."
Anosike had 16 rebounds in the Final Four win over North Carolina after she heard Summitt's mantra that offense sells tickets, defense win games and rebounds win championships. It is Summitt's signature slogan and has appeared on basketballs and other paraphernalia.
"The lights came on at the right time," Summitt said. "I was like, ‘Why did you wait?' She said, ‘You said in the locker room that rebounding wins championships, and I just took it to heart.' I said, ‘Well, let's don't take a long drought. Let's try to do it every game.' "
Summitt said Middle Tennessee Coach Rick Insell has likely already noted Tennessee's rebounding numbers. Insell, who coached Fuller when she played at Shelbyville Central High School, is in his third year with the Blue Raiders. Insell and Summitt have known each other for years because he was a legendary high school coach in the state before moving into the college ranks.
"He always has a team that understands how to play on both ends," Summitt said. "They've got toughness on defense. They obviously are aggressive offensively. They're going to get after us on the boards. They're probably looking and saying, ‘Tennessee is only out-rebounding their opponent by one.' They're going to feel like they can have an advantage there. While they're not size-wise as big as we are, they play with tremendous heart."
Tennessee is not even quite at a full rebound ahead of its opponents. The Lady Vols average 42.0 per game with opponents getting 41.3 for a slim +0.7 margin on the boards. Getting the average into the 40s is an improvement. Now, Summitt wants her team to keep the opponent off its offensive glass better.
The week without games did allow the Lady Vols the luxury of extra practice time to work on several aspects of their game, including a matchup zone, transition defense and multiple shooting repetitions. Hornbuckle has had a solid offensive start to the season and has become a threat both from long range and via drives to the basket. Her balanced offensive play continued this past week at practice. Alberta Auguste also has shot the ball well of late.
Parker has still taken the most shots on the team – 100 attempts compared to 65 for Shannon Bobbitt; 63 for Angie Bjorklund; 59 for Hornbuckle; and 46 for Anosike – but Tennessee now has four starters averaging double figures in points despite facing five ranked opponents in the first seven games.
"We've demonstrated through our play that other people can step up," Summitt said. "I think Alexis Hornbuckle is probably having without question the best year of her career here with her efficiency and obviously creates a lot of havoc defensively for the opposing team.
"At the same time I think Shannon Bobbitt has really helped us in terms of our inside-outside action, along with Sydney (Smallbone) and with Angie. Having the three-point threat from more than just one or two people has made us a better basketball team in the half-court game."
Hornbuckle's offensive output – she had a season-high 25 points against North Carolina – has been particularly welcome.
"It's another worry defensively," Lockwood said. "You have to worry about it as an opponent. Our ideal situation is we have three kids who can all pop threes and a fourth who can hit mid-range and maybe hit an open three. Your court gets bigger now.
"Let's say Lex, if she's hitting that, I've got a choice to make. Do I let this kid hit one or two more threes on me or do I go out and now open up driving lanes and post feeds? It just makes our game that much easier offensively. Our life gets easier on offense."
One thing is certain: The staff and team is ready to play a real game.
"I think having the upcoming games at home is going to be good for us, especially coming off of exams," Summitt said. "You never know how they will respond right after exams. Sometimes that's kind of a sluggish time for us so I'm hoping that we'll take the floor and have a lot of energy."
STARTING LINEUPS: Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 senior guard, No. 00 (10.6 points per game, 3.3 rebounds per game, 3.6 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 senior guard, No. 14 (10.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 4.3 apg); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 freshman forward, No. 5 (10.1 ppg, 4.0 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 junior forward, No. 3 (21.3 ppg, 9.3 rpg); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 senior center, No. 55 (8.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg).
Middle Tennessee Coach Rick Insell is expected to start: Starr Orr, 5'8 senior guard, No. 12 (5.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.6 apg); Anne Marie Lanning, 5'11 freshman guard, No. 30 (7.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 1.7 apg); Brandi Brown, 6'3 sophomore forward, No. 21 (8.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg); Amber Holt, 6'0 senior forward, No. 1 (21.9 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 3.9 apg); and Emily Queen, 6'1 freshman forward, No. 3 (3.3 ppg, 2.9 rpg).
Middle Tennessee also is coming off an extensive break and last played Dec. 5 at Maryland. The Blue Raiders were leading late in that game but Maryland went on an 11-0 run and prevailed, 74-69, in College Park, Md. This will be Middle Tennessee's sixth game on the road this season. It will be Tennessee's sixth game at home.
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Middle Tennessee game. Here is his assessment.
When Middle Tennessee has the ball: "In Amber Holt, they have the single-best scorer that we've faced all year to date and I'm including Courtney Paris in that because I think Courtney Paris is a load in the low post, but this kid can do it to you from all over the floor. She's not the most-prolific three-point shooter – she's made four this year – but from anywhere inside that arc this kid can whip you. She can make pull-up jumpers. She can drive it. She can post it. She can make pull-up Js. She can go baseline. She has a beautiful up-and-under move. She goes middle like nobody's business. This kid can score points. She's a legit first round WNBA draft pick."
Lockwood said it is imperative that Tennessee not lose track of Holt on the floor.
"We've got to make it tough for her to get the ball," he said. "We've got to get her out of her comfort operating area. We can't just let her catch it mid-post and face us. We can't let her catch it on the block at all. We've got to make it tough for her. We've got to force her out and make it tough for her to get her hands on it and then make it tough for her to get the shot she wants."
If Holt doesn't get the ball, Middle Tennessee will look for its shooters, and the Blue Raiders will fire away from behind the arc. They started this year making 31-of-77 (.403) in the first three games of the year. But over the next three contests, Middle Tennessee was just 15-for-73 (.205), including a 2-for-18 effort against Western Carolina on Dec. 2. Against Maryland the Blue Raiders poured in 12-39 from long range, a season-high for three-point attempts.
"We can't let the shooters shoot," Lockwood said. "They've got a couple of kids in Brandi Brown (who is playing more on the perimeter now), and Johnna Abney (who has started some games this season) that will flat out fill it. Those two will make shots. They've got kids if you allow them to get their comfort level and let them have the shots they're comfortable with they'll make them. We can't forget about everyone else, but obviously our real focal point is going to be Amber Holt."
When Tennessee has the ball: "If you look at their size, they're not going to sit back in half-court and let you pound the ball in. They're going to extend the game and make you have to make passes, have a chance to trap you. They really do a good job of running and trapping and scrambling. I think what we have to do is we have to handle with intelligence. We can't throw the ball all over the place. We have to take care of the ball. We've got to get the shot we want. We can't just settle.
"What they love, nothing better, is three or four passes in the backcourt, throw it up, you take a quick shot, they get the ball, and they're coming back at you. We don't want to do that. We want to handle their press, we want to attack it if it's there, and we want to dictate what we're going to do offensively."
It is paramount that Candace Parker be involved early and often, Lockwood said.
"No question," he said.
Middle Tennessee doesn't have a defender that can single-handedly handle Parker.
"Honestly, one on one they'll have a hard time so I anticipate a lot of double teaming and stunting," Lockwood said. "One on one they're going to have a hard time with her as a lot of people will. They're not alone."
DISCIPLINARY ACTION: Redshirt guard Cait McMahan will not be on the bench for the next two home games against Middle Tennessee and Gonzaga because of violations of team rules, according to Coach Pat Summitt. McMahan also will not make the two-game road trip to California next week.
Summitt met with the sophomore on Wednesday, and the meeting went well, the coach said.
"Cait is the first to take ownership," Summitt said.
The violations will not be released publicly, as per Tennessee policy.
Summitt will meet with McMahan again after the Christmas break. Summitt described McMahan's status as "indefinite" at this point, but she was certain of McMahan's reinstatement to the team bench and traveling party. The meeting after Christmas will determine the official date of return.
"Rules are rules; policies are policies," Summitt said. "There are consequences for actions."
McMahan underwent knee surgery last June and is projected to redshirt. She is undergoing rehab and has not played in a game this season.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Middle Tennessee, 15-0. The series began in 1971, and the last game was in 2006. The Lady Vols are 9-0 in Pat Summitt's tenure. … Tennessee is 4-4 when playing on December 13. The four losses were to Stephen F. Austin in 1980, Long Beach State in 1983, Louisiana Tech in 1984 and Southern Cal in 1985. The last win was in 1990 against Maine. The losses were all road games. Tennessee is 0-0 on this date at home. … Middle Tennessee has twice played against teams ranked No. 1 in the country – an 87-63 loss at top-ranked Tennessee on Dec. 5, 1978, and a 91-59 loss at Louisiana Tech in the NCAA Tournament on March 17, 1983. …. The Blue Raiders were ranked No. 27 and No. 28 in the first coaches and AP polls, respectively, of the season. ... Middle Tennessee Coach Rick Insell's success at Shelbyville Central High School can fill a resume and then some. He led the Golden Eaglettes to 10 Class AAA state championships and 23 district championships, and he produced six Tennessee Class AAA Miss Basketball Award recipients. Current Lady Vol Alex Fuller is among five Tennessee players who were coached by Insell. The other four are sisters Abby (2004-05) and Amanda Canon (1998-2002), Michelle Johnson (1993, 1995) and Tiffany Woosley (1991-95). … Tennessee plays Gonzaga on Sunday at 3 p.m. That is the last home game until Jan. 10, 2008, when the Lady Vols open SEC play with Auburn.