Candace Parker, who has played on some of basketball's biggest stages, both collegiate and internationally, would seemingly not be one to lose focus.
"I'm really excited," Parker said. "This will be my first trip home to DePaul. We've played at Notre Dame before. I'm excited about the chance to play in front of family and friends, but I know, especially with us coming off a loss, it is very important that we as a team play well. We know we need to focus and bounce back."
No. 3 Tennessee, 10-1, takes on No. 12/13 DePaul, 11-1, at tiny McGrath Arena – 3,000 capacity and tickets sold out as soon as they were offered – on Wednesday with tipoff set for 9 p.m. Eastern (TV: ESPNU; Lady Vol Radio Network).
Tennessee went into the Christmas break after losing to Stanford in overtime in California on Dec. 22. Coach Pat Summitt expects losses during the season – she has said she does not schedule to go undefeated but to prepare her team for postseason – but what was particularly upsetting to her about that loss was that the Lady Vols didn't correct earlier issues such as defensive lulls, rebounding effort and ball security.
"I want to see a team play hard and be passionate on every possession," Summitt said. "Every possession. Not one out of three. I want to see it all the time. Unfortunately we haven't seen that."
Summitt and her staff used four days of practice after Christmas to work on correcting those deficiencies. Summitt liked what she got in practice for the most part, but she's not at all sold that this team has bought into her system.
"Our coaches, we'll do everything we can to influence it in that direction, but ultimately they have to dive in to the system and say, ‘This is how we're going to play,' and hold each other accountable," Summitt said. "That's where we are."
It is not where the coaching staff wants the team to be heading into 2008, but it also is not all that surprising considering the personnel is nearly the same as last season. Freshman Angie Bjorklund stepped into the departed Sidney Spencer's slot in the starting lineup. Two more freshmen, Sydney Smallbone and Vicki Baugh, are on the bench. Otherwise, the team is essentially the same as last year. And that team won a national title by deciding when it was ready to commit on both ends of the floor.
"I think it's a hangover from the championship," Summitt said. "It's a personality within this team. It wasn't until they lost to LSU that they all pulled together and made a pact about postseason run, and they were powerful in postseason."
Last October, just as practice officially got under way, Summitt talked about the difficulty of repeating as champions. The 1997-98 team went 39-0 and won a third consecutive national title. The 1998-99 team lost in the regional final in 1999 and never got the chance to defend its championship.
Summitt doesn't want that to happen to this team, and it is causing her considerable angst at this juncture in the season.
"If you look at the quality of teams in the top six in the country, you're talking teams that if there are no upsets, then there will be no easy postseason games," Summitt said. "They will all be challenging and difficult.
"Do we think we can wait until that point and all of a sudden be one of the best in the country? Won't happen. It will not happen. Been there, done that, saw that with the '99 team. I'm worried for the team. I am very concerned for this team. Do I like what I've seen? No. Does it need to change? Yes. Will it change? It's up to the players."
Summitt spent two days in Knoxville before practice meeting with her players as a group. The sessions lasted nearly an hour each. She will also meet one-on-one with players on occasion, but after the break she wanted the entire team together so she could listen to where they thought they were and what they thought they needed to do.
"It's been the team because what we're lacking is five people committing to the team," Summitt said. "That has to take place."
The coaching staff will be watching closely Wednesday, but not just in the usual way of Xs and Os and schemes and adjustments. They will be looking for effort.
"What we're looking for is not a lot numbers wise – I would be shocked if this game wasn't high 70s or more – but it's our level of energy," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said.
"How hard we're getting up and down that floor. How aggressively we defend three-point shooters. How frenetically we pursue offensive and defensive rebounds. How smart we are in taking care of the ball. So we're looking for effort, we're looking for energy, and we're looking for focus."
STARTING LINEUPS: Coach Pat Summitt and her staff discussed tinkering with the lineup – in search of that energy, effort and focus – but they opted to stick with the same starters for tonight's game.
Summitt is expected to start: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 senior guard, No. 00 (9.8 points per game, 3.1 rebounds per game, 4.5 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 senior guard, No. 14 (12.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.8 apg, 2.4 steals per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 freshman guard/forward, No. 5 (10.0 ppg, 3.6 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 junior forward, No. 3 (22.1 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 2.3 spg, 2.4 blocks per game); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 senior center, No. 55 (8.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.0 spg).
DePaul Coach Doug Bruno is expected to start: Missy Mitidiero, 5'4 senior guard, No. 22 (7.3 ppg, 2.1 rpg), needs three 3-pointers to have 100 for her career; Deirdre Naughton, 5'10 sophomore guard, No. 32 (16.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.8 apg), sat out last season after transferring from Wake Forest; Allie Quigley, 5'11 senior guard, No. 14 (19.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 4.2 apg, 2.5 spg), is seven points shy of 1,700 for her career; Caprice Smith, 6'1 senior forward, No. 23 (6.9 ppg, 4.4 rpg), hit 4-5 from behind the arc in DePaul's last game; and Natasha Williams, 6'3 junior forward, No. 20 (12.6 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 2.4 bpg), sat out last season after transferring from Minnesota.
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-DePaul game. Here is his assessment.
When DePaul has the ball: The Blue Demons have attempted 280 three-point shots a game this season over 12 games. (By comparison, the Lady Vols have attempted nearly 100 less shots behind the arc at 183 with just one less game played at 11.)
"Almost 24 (attempts) a game," Lockwood said. "Make eight a game. It's not like they have two players that can do it. They have multiple players that can do it. In addition to that they're averaging 18 offensive rebounds a game. Sometimes that gets overlooked. That makes them a pretty formidable opponent offensively. That's shooting it pretty well."
Lockwood said DePaul shoots threes out of transition and in half-court sets. The Blue Demons want to find an open shot quickly and fire away.
"They're a dangerous team," Lockwood said. "They're like a Gonzaga in the men's world. They're one of those teams they've got name recognition – people say, ‘Oh, yeah, Gonzaga, good team,' or ‘DePaul, good team' – but somehow in people's minds they don't think they're quite good enough to beat the upper echelon, but every year they'll put a few scalps on their belt, especially in that little bandbox.
"They're going to be sky high for a game of this nature. They're a very tough opponent and one of our nemeses this year has been the three-point shot. We have got to do a better job of defending the arc."
Lockwood said Tennessee needs to force DePaul to put the ball on the floor.
"You have to make it more of a dribble drive game," he said. "You can't allow them to play catch. If you let DePaul play catch they'll be very good."
But he knows Tennessee won't stop DePaul from lofting threes. The key is to make sure they are contested shots and the shooter has to work to get to the ball.
"I think what we have to do we have to get out on wings and deny," he said. "We have to pressure dribblers. I'm going to get into you 20 feet out on the floor and just make you prove to me once or twice that you can shoot a layup on me. Initially we just want to get into their shooters. Of their starting lineup, four of the five (will shoot 3s) and then they'll bring another three kids off the bench who will shoot it."
Deirdre Naughton leads the Blue Devils at 45.9 percent behind the arc. She has hit 28 of 61 attempts. Allie Quigley is 20-53; Missy Mitidiero is 22-59; and Caprice Smith is 11-31. The three off the bench are China Threatt (7-22); Taylor Pikes (4-18); and Erin Cattell (5-19).
As a team DePaul is 101-280 (36.1 percent) behind the arc.
Nobody on Tennessee's team has attempted 60 or more three-pointers, though Angie Bjorklund (22-55/40.0 percent) and Shannon Bobbitt (21-51/41.2 percent) are inching that way. Tennessee's most accurate three-point shooter has been Alexis Hornbuckle at 13-27 (48.1 percent).
As a team the Lady Vols are 70-183 (38.3 percent) behind the arc. Tennessee can loft threes, but its initial game plan is to score inside.
When Tennessee has the ball: The Lady Vols will run in transition "for an early good look," Lockwood said. "We don't necessarily want to shoot with 20 seconds or less on the shot clock every time. If it's a great shot, a great look early, we'll take it. If not, what you can put as a staple on our report: paint points, inside game, get inside touches, play inside-out.
"We want to make them have to guard our inside game even if they double, which I think you're going to see some, and stunting. Even if they do do that, make them do it. Make them have to move and react and respond as opposed to just being able to guard one or two passes and a quick shot. If we don't get a good look like a layup or a wide-open shot early, then we want to pound it inside."
ON THE ROAD AGAIN: Before Tennessee left on its West Coast road trip, Dean Lockwood said the team had to address three areas: defense, turnovers and rebounds. The team is on the road this week in the Midwest, and those three phases of the game are still issues.
Tennessee is averaging 19.5 turnovers a game. The Lady Vols did better at Stanford – 17 total and only six in the second half plus overtime – but the number and the nature of the giveaways is galling to the coaches.
"Our numbers are too many in the turnover department," Lockwood said. "Some of them are aggressive. But forcing a pass and we don't see a help defender or traveling with the ball or turning away and somebody pokes the ball away from behind – that's what we're trying to clean up. We're trying to address those areas and make our team understand it's very correctable, but you have to have a concentration level."
Lockwood also wants the team to put its feline instincts away – toying with prey instead of eliminating the threat quickly – and develop a destroyer attitude.
"I've got an eight-point lead on you, I've got to realize if we can get one more stop and block out and get that ball, we've got a chance to take it to 10," Lockwood said. "And then we do it one more time, we can extend it to 12. There's that mentality of playing one possession at a time, playing it well and then you extend your lead."
Tennessee's play on the boards is sporadic with a good effort one game and a quiet one the next.
"More than anything rebounding is effort," Lockwood said. "We have to get that sense of urgency of getting the ball and blocking out a little harder and tougher. We've got to show a heightened sense of urgency to rebound the ball. We've had stretches where we've been better, but we're not yet consistent.
"More than anything you make your team aware of it and see how they respond. If it's important they're going to do it."
That was the theme of practice last week after Christmas. The team got a lot of instruction and drill work from the coaches – Pat Summitt spent one session in silence to just watch the team – and now the players have to put it into practice in a game.
"We're more or less trying to get a pulse of our team and trying to get our team to respond," Lockwood said. "We're trying to see how important is this to us collectively as a program. Sometimes you want to see how players react when – a normal routine for us, Pat comes out and leads practice – all of a sudden let's see what happens. Who's going to step up? We're trying to see how the team responds."
Lockwood is readily described as a player's coach. The assistants already are buffers between the head coach and the players, and Lockwood's energy and enthusiasm resonates with them, especially the post players. But even Lockwood is ready for the words to end and the results to appear.
"We had a couple of good meetings, but I'm one of those people – I get this from my dad's side, and I can talk a little bit, too, that's my mom's side – there's a point where I'm done talking," Lockwood said.
"I'm done. Show me. It's time to show. It stems from effort. It's not anything X and O. It's not anything tactical or technique. What the last two days (the weekend practices) were about were the level of effort and the level of energy and specifically the output. What we're giving out, not what we have."
Lockwood and the other coaches know what they have – the defending national champions with the best player in the country and four returning starters.
"We firmly believe our team has it," Lockwood said. "But what we're now looking for is an enormous, almost overwhelming, output of energy to try to put together that ever-elusive 40-minute game."
FAMILIAR SIGHTS: Chicago isn't just an ideal destination for Candace Parker – despite the fact it's January in the Windy City – it's a place that has fond memories for freshman Sydney Smallbone, who grew up just over the state border near South Bend, Indiana.
"Chicago was like a second home to me," Smallbone said. "I used to go up there all the time on the weekend with some friends. We'd go to White Sox games, Cubs game. I'm familiar with the area so it's going to be cool to go downtown and see everything that I'm used to seeing."
For Parker, Chicago is her hometown. She grew up in Naperville, a suburb of the city, and is expected to have dozens of family and friends at Wednesday's game, despite the cozy environs and tiny supply of tickets at the 3,000-seat McGrath Arena on the campus of DePaul.
A large media contingent also will cover the game and interview demand was so high that Tennessee had to set up a teleconference for Parker last week to accommodate the requests.
"I remember my first big article," Parker said of a newspaper story written about her when she was in the eighth grade. "It was in the Chicago Tribune. I remember how excited I was to have the first article. I remembered this could be something different.
"That was the first time I realized I could use basketball for opportunities. Coach Summitt always says how we should use basketball and not let it use us. Basketball for many of us is a way to travel the world and get an education."
Parker was peppered with questions in the teleconference about her intentions next April – will she enter the WNBA draft? In all likelihood she will, but Parker said the decision would be made later this season.
"Everybody asks if I'm going to leave early," Parker said. "It's really whether I'm going to stay late. I've been here four years. I've played my college career and I've gotten my education. That's a bridge I'll cross when I come to it, but I'm just trying to live in the moment right now."
Parker will graduate in May of 2008. She would likely be the No.1 pick of the large market Los Angeles Sparks and could get mega-attention at the Beijing Olympics next summer.
"It is a difficult situation because of when the draft falls," Parker said. "We want to be at the Final Four, and the draft is soon after that. As we get closer, I will talk with my family and talk with coach and decide whether I'm going to stay or whether I'm going to go. With me getting my degree in May, it's leaning towards me probably not being at Tennessee next year, but we'll make that decision for sure when we come to it."
Parker also was asked questions about where she would like to travel – Spain and Israel; how she has handled all the hype – her brothers, Anthony, an NBA player, and Marcus, a doctor, keep her grounded; and repeating as champs.
"Once the season was over and things died down, we got back in the gym and we worked hard," Parker said. "Coach Summitt always says championships are won in the off-season. We really worked hard and pushed everybody this summer. Some teams can win one championship, but you can't deny two."
It is not, however, a topic of conversation among the team.
"It's left unsaid," she said. "We don't talk about it everyday, but everybody knows in the back of your mind that you want to win a championship."
Parker was asked a lot of questions about her place in the game, and she steered the conversation to the team or her coach or even the entire recruiting class of 2004.
"I feel like our class coming out of high school, the 2004 class, was a great class," Parker said. "I really feel like our class is one of the best classes of all time. There are a lot of players that will change the game, change the way the game is played. Just to be mentioned at the top of that class is an honor in and of itself. I feel very excited about what this class has done in the college level and at the next level."
When asked about all the attention she gets, she mentioned the Tennessee team and what Pat Summitt did to grow the game.
"Being part of the growth of women's basketball, I really understand that any attention is good attention," Parker said. "Whether it is the dunk or whatever my game brings, I think our Tennessee program brings a lot of attention to women's basketball as a whole. I just kind of take it in stride; it is a responsibility. Our team has a responsibility to act well in public and to represent Tennessee well."
Parker mentioned hearing stories about Summitt having to drive the team van to games and wash uniforms when she got back to campus in her early coaching days.
"She's been a part of the growth and I'm excited to play for her and to be at Tennessee," Parker said. "Pat Summitt is the coach that has accepted change and gone with change, and that's what has made her successful."
When asked if she has discussed leaving college for the WNBA with Summitt, Parker took the opportunity to laud her coach.
"Coach Summitt has been a great mentor in my college career, and she will be from here on out," Parker said. "She's always in my corner, and she's always got my back and she always has my best interests at heart. We have discussed the future, but it's nothing we dwell on because we have a season to play this year."
Despite her talent and the accolades and awards, Parker is used to being doubted. She also has grown accustomed to the speculation.
"Every year it has been something," she said. "My freshman year people asked was I going to come back from my knee injury; my sophomore year was I going to be able to sustain a certain level of play; junior year, was I going to leave; senior year, am I going to leave.
"I've gotten used to it, all the questions. I've learned from my experiences to live in the moment and not look too far ahead."
When asked how she could improve her game, she stuck to the topic, probably because it allowed a critique, not plaudits.
"I really do feel like my freshman and sophomore years I finished better around the basket with contact," Parker said. "The first 10 or 11 games (this season) I missed a bunch of easy layups."
During the break in December between games, Parker asked for video clips of every shot that she has attempted this season. The film session showed her that she needed to be "getting it (the ball) higher on the glass and finishing more with contact. I worked really hard this summer on my face-up game and hitting the spot-up jump shot and being able to come off screens."
The best way to get results from Parker is to tell her she can't do something.
"I've grown up in a very competitive family, whether it is playing monopoly or playing basketball, but we have each other's best interests at heart and we have each other's backs no matter what," Parker said. "We have unconditional love.
"My brothers don't necessarily tell me what I want to hear, they tell me what I need to hear. I've had two great role models growing up. They keep me grounded, and they also keep me motivated and hungry and they challenge me. That is what I respond best to is when someone tells me I can't do something and that is what my two brothers do for me."
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with DePaul, 16-0. The Lady Vols have won eight games in Knoxville, seven in Chicago and one at a neutral site. … Tennessee is 15-0 in games played on January 2. The last game played on this date was an 83-67 win over Old Dominion in 2006. The first game played on January 2 was in 1978, a 70-65 win over N.C. State. … Pat Summitt's record in the month of January over 33 seasons is 259-48. … The matchup with DePaul continues the Big East portion of the Lady Vols schedule. Tennessee will play Notre Dame on Saturday. The Lady Vols defeated West Virginia in November. Rutgers comes to Knoxville in February. Tennessee next plays at home Jan. 10 to open SEC play against Auburn. The Lady Vols still step out of conference play Jan. 28 to play at Duke. … Lady Vols Angie Bjorklund and Vicki Baugh will see their summer coach on Wednesday. DePaul's Doug Bruno coached the pair in Slovakia when they were on the U19 USA World Championship squad. The team went 9-0 to capture gold. … BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee is averaging 80.3 points per game. DePaul averages 87.3. Both teams allow about the same amount of points – 64.0 for Tennessee and 62.8 for DePaul. The Blue Demons grab 47.4 boards a game. The Lady Vols are averaging 40.5. Both teams board better than their opponents, on average, at 37.5 for Tennessee and 38.8 for DePaul. Tennessee averages 17.6 assists while DePaul feeds a teammate 19.8 times a game. DePaul gives it away 15.0 times a game; Tennessee turns its over 19.5 times. They are nearly even in steals – 12.3 for the Lady Vols and 12.8 for the Blue Demons. Tennessee averages 6.7 blocks a game. DePaul rejects 4.3 a game. … DePaul begins Big East play after the Tennessee game with a Jan. 6 matchup with Pitt. … DePaul is averaging 11.3 made three-pointers per game in its last three games with Appalachian State, Texas and Northwestern. The Blue Demons hit a school-record 250 three-pointers in the 2006-07 season. … Since the DePaul Athletic Center was renamed McGrath Arena, the Blue Demons have gone 90-11. The women moved there seven years ago from Alumni Hall. … The Blue Demons have a 26-game winning streak against non-conference opponents. DePaul's last non-conference home loss was a 96-89 overtime decision to Tennessee on Dec. 17, 2003 … DePaul's 2007-08 uniform features a commemorative patch remembering Ray Meyer and Maggie Dixon. Meyer, known as "Coach," led the DePaul men's program to 724 victories over 42 seasons. Meyer passed away in March 2006. Dixon was an assistant coach at DePaul from 2001 to 2005. Dixon passed away at the age of 28 in April 2006. The patch features a red, white and blue basketball with "Coach" in the center between "Ray" and "Maggie" for Maggie Dixon. The 2006-07 uniforms also featured the patch.