The coaching staff said the familiarity among the foes ensures that there are really no surprises once the ball is tipped.
In its first three SEC games, Tennessee plays the Tigers, South Carolina and Kentucky. Former Lady Vol players Daedra Charles and Michelle Marciniak are assistants at Auburn and South Carolina, respectively. Matthew Mitchell, the head coach at Kentucky, was a graduate assistant at Tennessee, and one of his assistants, Niya Butts, was a Lady Vol player.
"There are no secrets, because I've got so many former assistants, players and graduate assistants in the game now," Pat Summitt said. "They are all very familiar with Tennessee. It is special to have so many former Tennessee people, not only being a part of the women's game, but also contributing to various programs around the country and right here in the SEC. It makes me very proud of all of them and what they bring to these respective programs."
"I thought those were the two best back-to-back games we've played all year," said Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood, who prior to the Midwest road trip said he wanted this team to show him 40 minutes of solid basketball. "Going into conference play now it opens up a whole new avenue.
"I remember Coach (Don) DeVoe used to always say this when I was on the men's side, you've got your non-conference schedule and then you've got your conference. We all know each other better, we've seen it each more, we've all seen each other on tape, so you just get very familiar with teams. When you're able to do it with people who know you and know your tendencies and you're still able to deliver the goods, then that's impressive."
The players and staff are happy to be getting ready to play in front of people who know them. Prior to the Christmas break, Tennessee played two games in California. The last home game was Dec. 16 against Gonzaga.
"We've been on the road forever," senior guard Alexis Hornbuckle said. "It's nice to come back and play and not have to travel and pack. I know we charter, but the traveling within itself it just wears on you."
Hornbuckle and the other upperclassmen will talk to the freshman about the rigors of the SEC, but the rookies also have to just be tossed in the fray.
"I think it's a mixture of both," Hornbuckle said. "The games beforehand, the non-conference games, kind of prepared them for SEC play but like Candace said you never really know until you're thrown into the fire. You can simulate all you want but until you're out there and you've got teams playing with so much passion and they don't really like Tennessee, and they want to get their SEC win, it's hard to mimic that."
Summitt said the coaches would try to impart to the newcomers that the SEC season is nothing like non-conference play.
"Lex is more involved with helping the guards while Nicky and Candace inside have paid a lot of attention and tried to help Vicki," Summitt said. "To me that speaks volumes. They want this group to help them because if we're going to win we're going to have to have some help.
"Vicki Baugh is going to have to help us. Angie is helping now, but she's going to be thrown into the fire in postseason. I want Sydney to be able to go in and knock down some shots and be a solid defender. I like the fact the upperclassmen are bringing them along and encouraging them. They've just been very open and helpful."
Last year's team made its mark by winning the program's seventh national title and the first since 1998. The players had the ability to call each other out without taking it personally, and it was not uncommon to see – and hear – them talking to each other on the court, sometimes nicely and other times quite forcefully.
Bjorklund acknowledged that took some getting used to for a freshman.
"I think that's how they get each other going," Bjorklund said. "They get into each other, and they will call each other out. They are all so competitive and intense, and they want to win. If that means calling you out then we all have that understanding.
"At first I was like, ‘Oh, I am not used to this,' but I've adjusted."
After the Notre Dame game, in which Bjorklund hit seven 3-pointers – a performance that earned her the SEC freshman of the week for the third time – she listened to Parker talk about the team's offensive weapons in the post-game press conference. Parker was getting double and triple-teamed, and Bjorklund benefited by being left unattended at times behind the arc.
"I think I just reiterate what Candace was saying. It helps to have five people out there who can score, and people have stepped up in different games," said Bjorklund, who cited Shannon Bobbitt and Alex Fuller, who started against DePaul and scored a career-high 19 points. "When one player is not shooting well the next player is going to step up and hit shots. I think that's an advantage with this team."
With her team's offense clicking, Summitt has turned her attention to defense – practice this past week was tipped to that side of the ball – and cutting back on turnovers.
Tennessee is averaging 19 turnovers a game, though the 14 against Notre Dame last Saturday were a season low. Bobbitt has the most at 38, but she also plays the most minutes at 31.5 per game. Alberta Auguste has 27 turnovers and plays 17.9 minutes a game. Summitt wants to find more minutes for Auguste – she can score in transition and hit jumpers and is an excellent perimeter defender – but she has to hold onto the ball to stay on the floor.
"Alberta has got to be more efficient taking care of the ball," Summitt said. "To me she exposes the ball a lot, and she's got to be better because we need her. She can knock down shots for us. She can change our defensive intensity and look with her athleticism. She's a good rebounding guard. She's strong off the dribble and making shots."
Summitt also wants Baugh to get a better handle on the ball.
"If you look at minutes played (27 turnovers, 12.8 minutes per game), she's got to be more efficient in taking care of the basketball," Summitt said. "But I can excuse a freshman. Bird is a senior and second year in this program."
Hornbuckle said players could cut back on giveaways by making physical and mental adjustments.
"Be more short with the ball and you've got to have more intensity when you do have the ball," Hornbuckle said. "Sometimes you get more lackadaisical. You see Nicky or Candace posting up, you realize they're so strong, you just throw it in there and hope they get it or hope they hold off their defender. You've got to play with 100 percent every minute every possession, and I think we're slowly learning that."
The offensive side of the ball has been considerably less worrisome for Summitt. As a team Tennessee is hitting 47.9 percent of its shots. Three starters are in double figures, and two others are close at 9.5 and 9.2 points per game. The four bench players are averaging a combined nearly 20 points a game led by 7.9 ppg from Fuller.
"I think we've executed better offensively than I would have expected early on," Summitt said. "I think the thing that has allowed them to be even more efficient of late is just their unselfishness. The ball is not getting stuck in anyone's hands. They're moving. They're screening better. I think it's a combination of our passing and our screening."
In the first half of the 87-63 win over Notre Dame, there were 13 assists on 15 baskets. Tennessee finished with 23 assists on 33 field goals. Bobbitt had six assists in that game and leads the team with 57 on the season. Hornbuckle is right behind her with 52.
"Everybody is a scorer," Hornbuckle said. "Bringing in Angie and Syd as shooters, it's going to increase your shooting percentage as a whole as a team. When Shannon does shoot she's shoots a pretty-good percentage. You've got Candace and Nicky inside being efficient, Alex is playing well this year, being very effective and efficient."
In one possession against the Irish, the Lady Vols whipped the ball around a zone defense without it touching the floor from Hornbuckle to Bjorklund to Parker to Auguste, who hit the shot. The Lady Vols were shooting 61 percent at that point in the game and finished at 50 percent.
"Ball movement definitely plays a part in that because if you can get that one extra pass for that wide-open layup or that wide-open corner shot, or whatever shot it might be, obviously you'll have a better chance of making that shot," Hornbuckle said.
The home fans will get their first look at how well the road lessons took for the Lady Vols on Thursday. Summitt wants a good turnout for the conference opener.
"I hope to have a great crowd here," Summitt said. "It's been a long time since we played in Thompson-Boling. It seems like forever. I know our team feels like all they've done is practice here. I'm sure that they're going to be ready to play and anxious to get started in the SEC race.
"I'm excited twofold – start the conference and to be able to start the conference here at home and get back in Thompson-Boling with our fans. Obviously we had a lot of orange on the road with us, especially in Chicago and South Bend, but I think the team is anxious to play at home."
The Tennessee players don't want to backslide after making progress on the road.
"It's very important to stay on the same track," Hornbuckle said. "In 2008 we're trying to have a 40-minute game every game, no matter the opponent. It's big for us. We're starting our SEC play so it's very important that we come out here, and we make a statement on Thursday."
PROBABLE STARTERS: Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 senior guard, No. 00 (9.5 points per game, 3.1 rebounds per game, 4.4 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 senior guard, No. 14 (12.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 4.0 apg, 2.3 steals per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 freshman guard/forward, No. 5 (10.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 junior forward, No. 3 (21.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 2.5 spg, 2.2 blocks per game); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 senior center, No. 55 (9.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg).
Auburn Coach Nell Fortner is expected to start: Alli Smalley, 5'9 freshman guard, No. 5 (11.0 ppg, 2.7 rpg), scored 17 points in Auburn's last game against George Washington on Jan. 3 in the second start of her career, she will make her third start against the Lady Vols; Tamela McCorvey, 5'9 senior guard, No. 4 (8.5 ppg, 2.8 rpg), had 103 assists last season, her first with Auburn after playing at Okaloosa-Walton Community College, considered Tennessee but wanted to be closer to her Pensacola home; Sherell Hobbs, 5'11 junior guard, No. 12 (11.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg), leads the team with 2.6 steals a game; DeWanna Bonner, 6'4 junior guard/forward, No. 24 (17.3 ppg, 10.4 rpg), had 14 points, 12 boards against George Washington, her seventh double-double of the season; and Jordan Greenleaf, 6'1 sophomore forward, No. 21 (6.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg), was on the SEC All-Freshman Team last season, blocked five shots against Mississippi State and scored 16 points against Florida.
Fortner is missing her experienced point guard in Whitney Boddie, who has been suspended for the team for academic reasons. Fortner could opt to allow Boddie to return later this season, but she said on her teleconference that the junior guard is definitely out for the Tennessee game.
Boddie last played Dec. 17 against Stephen F. Austin. She missed the next four games against Sam Houston State, Davidson, Saint Joseph's and George Washington. Auburn went 2-2 in those games – losing the last two – and lost to George Washington on a last-second shot.
"I would be concerned if I had Whitney at the point," Fortner said when asked about opening league play on the road at Tennessee. "We're preparing Alli as best we can for that kind of pressure and that kind of setting."
Fortner described the effect of changing point guards midway through the season as trying to "put a new head on" the team. Auburn has shifted from an up-tempo style to a more deliberate pace, she said.
She compared the situation to losing a player to injury, but said she had never lost a player midway through the season under these circumstances.
"I've never had this happen," Fortner said. "You hope players grab the moment and run with it."
Fortner was none too pleased with how the league scheduled her Tigers to open the season. Auburn gets Tennessee, Georgia and LSU – the league's top three teams in preseason voting – in three of its first four games.
"I was really disappointed when the schedule came out," Fortner said. "I don't think it's right. I don't think it's fair. I'm not happy with it."
Still, Fortner said, her team is ready to tip off league play.
"The morale is good," Fortner said. "We're excited about starting the SEC season."
When Fortner was asked how she would slow down Candace Parker, she joked, "I'm going to ask Pat if we can play six people instead of five."
"She doesn't need that," Summitt said with a smile, though she does expect to see extra attention paid to Parker.
"Most people now they double down on Candace," Summitt said. "We worked on that a lot. Candace is really quite efficient passing out of double teams so you just hope if they do that, you make them pay."
Summitt knows what it's like to lose a point guard during the season – Loree Moore tore an ACL in the month of January and Alexis Hornbuckle broke her wrist in the month of February – so she can sympathize with Fortner's situation.
"I would think that would be a big challenge," Summitt said. "There were times when I felt like we needed point guard by committee by having more than just one ball-handler. I think it's a lot harder (what Auburn is trying to do by changing style of play)."
Auburn missed the NCAA tourney last season, but the Tigers are ranked this season – No. 20 in the AP poll and No. 22 in the coaches' poll.
"I think Nell has really done a great job of identifying players and getting players to commit to come to Auburn that can make a difference," Summitt said. "That certainly has elevated their program; it's elevated their play. I'm not surprised by any means. They certainly are a team that has proven they can win. They can win on the road. We have to be ready to match their intensity.
"I'm really happy for Nell and for Auburn. From talking to Nell in the summer she was very optimistic about this group. She thought that they had had a great off-season. Sounded like they really came together and committed to the summer workouts. That makes a huge difference."
Teams that have started off well want to keep on the right track. Teams that have struggled early can use the SEC as a second season to get on track.
"It's exciting," Pat Summitt said of the start of league play. "Georgia has had a great start. They've been playing really well but obviously Xavier's inside game, they had the two bigs inside, and that was costly for them. LSU, they're another team that can be competitive, not just within our league. They can fight for a championship from a national standpoint. Once they get Sylvia Fowles healthy they're going to be right back at the top as well.
"I know Vanderbilt is young, but you never count out the Commodores. I think they're a team that's starting to improve, and they'll definitely be a competitive team within our league. Arkansas must be much better. We'll know a lot more about Arkansas when they start league play. I think we make each other better, particularly when you are going against the top teams in the league. We're better because we play Vanderbilt twice. We're better because we play Georgia."
Tennessee gets a sweet SEC opener by being at home – Summitt said it's important for a team to be in its comfort zone – but a wicked ending by closing the regular season in Athens against Georgia.
Summitt wants to see the SEC teams both perform well and separate themselves as the conference season plays out.
"The better our league can be the more bragging rights we have and so it's important for us to get off to a great start," Summitt said.
Alexis Hornbuckle intends to tell the freshmen to get ready to battle every game.
"The intensity just goes up, and it's night in and night out, whereas in a non-conference game some opponents might fizzle out towards the end, it's a loss, we'll learn from it, it doesn't affect our conference standings and this and that, but in the SEC everybody's fighting for bragging rights, everybody's fighting for that regular season championship and that better seed in the SEC Tournament," Hornbuckle said.
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Auburn game. Here is his assessment.
The change at point guard meant Lockwood saw two different styles of play on game tapes. Auburn was using all 94 feet of court, Lockwood said, but has slowed down its transition game.
When Auburn has the ball: "I think they're selective now. Before they would just barrage you with fast break and transition. Now they are more opportunistic. Turnovers, yes they'll go. A quick rebound, long rebound, they'll go."
In terms of scouting the team Lockwood said he still looked for what the Tigers like to run and who they like to run plays to.
"Scouting-wise, especially personnel, you're focusing on the things they can do. Offensively they're still doing some of their same stuff set-wise. Now you're seeing some more of it and some more variation of it because they have to do it more. It hasn't impacted us tremendously except that personnel-wise that was one kid (Whitney Boddie) you were really zeroed in on that is not in the equation.
"The other kid (Alli Smalley) is not as quick or as much of a penetrator, but she can shoot the living lights out. Smalley can really shoot it. She can shoot it deep. For a freshman she shows a lot of savvy."
The go-to player is DeWanna Bonner, who has size at 6'4 and can play inside and out.
"I told our team outside of our team she's as good a one-on-one player as anyone in this league," Lockwood said. "I don't know of anybody who is better one on one. She can attack off the dribble. She can pull up. She'll post up. She's good enough from the arc you've got to guard her, but she's more streaky from there. But everything else she does wonderfully.
"A lot of stuff goes through her. They set a lot of what we call Philly screens – they're screens at the top of the floor. They'll ball screen on the wing some. You're going to see them do some one-four high look where they try to spread you out and they'll get their posts involved by ball screening for the posts. It's a combination of things that plays to the strengths of their players.
"They do a lot of dribble weave, a lot of dribble penetration – she either is getting the ball off the weave or sometimes she's setting a screen and popping or rolling. Her versatility makes you have to defend a lot of stuff that she's involved with."
When Joe Ciampi was at Auburn, opponents knew to expect a matchup zone and even then they had trouble scoring against it. Ciampi retired to consult and Nell Fortner is in her fourth year at Auburn. Lockwood said the defensive looks are more diverse now.
"Multiple defenses, man, 3-2 (zone)," he said. "I've seen a little bit of 2-3 on tape. They press you. I haven't seen a ton of full-court stuff, but they press in the half court. They use what we call a twelve, a 1-2-2 look. They'll use that at half court quite a bit. A little bit of man-to-man denial full court, but I haven't seen as much of that. It's multiple defenses."
When Tennessee has the ball: "Pull out your staples (play inside-out and transition points). It doesn't mean we always have to score it there, but we've got to get early post touches. I equate it to the line thing in football. We've got to show that we can run and get five and six yards a carry early. Once we do that I think all other avenues of our offense are going to open up. But if we can't do that early then I think their defense gets tougher.
"Offensively we want to get the ball inside, and we want to get post touches. We want to rebound the ball very well. We want the tempo to be pretty good. We want to see if they want to keep a 40-minute up-tempo game going."
Playing inside-out has the added benefit of making the defense work harder if the intent is to collapse on Parker.
"That's a lot of work, leaving her and going back, leaving her and going back," Lockwood said. "You get tired and that puts a lot of pressure on you and one or two of your teammates. When you leave, you might not always recover. Now (a teammate) has to recover. After awhile, it's only a matter of time you're going to get somebody to make a mistake or break down defensively. That's a hard thing to do. We call that playing inside-outside. I had a coach one time that used to call it play catch with your posts. As guards, we play catch with our posts."
Pat Summitt and her assistants spent considerable time this week drilling the team on one-on-one defense and stopping dribble penetration. Auburn will be a good test to see if the teaching stuck.
"I think Auburn is obviously a balanced team," Summitt said. "They certainly have in DeWanna Bonner one of the best players in the league. I've been really impressed with their ability to break people down off the dribble. Their dribble drives have been very effective for them. They come in here certainly wanting to get a win in the conference, and that's the way we all feel when we open up.
"Nell Fortner has done a great job of preparing her team. I think they're playing very well together. That obviously is something that a coach wants every team to do is play together. The biggest concern I have is how we're going to defend the one-on-one game and their ability to get inside the paint."
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Auburn, 31-8, and has a 14-2 mark in Knoxville. The series began in 1980 at the SEC Tournament, and the last win for the Tigers came in 1997 at the SEC tourney. … Tennessee is 11-2 in games played on January 10. The two losses were to Edinboro, 70-68, in 1976 and Louisiana Tech, 72-64, in 1982. The last win on this day was against Auburn, 71-50, in 2002. … BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee is scoring 82.5 points per game and allowing 64.2. Auburn scores 73.9 and allows 56.0. Tennessee is shooting 47.9 percent overall and making 6.9 three-pointers per game. Auburn shoots 44.5 percent overall and hits 4.3 three-pointers. The Lady Vols average 40.9 rebounds with a +3.9 margin over opponents. The Tigers average 42.7 with a +9.3. Tennessee is at 18.2 assists per game with 19.0 turnovers. Auburn is nearly even with 16.3 assists and 16.4 turnovers. Tennessee steals the ball 12.0 times. Auburn is at 11. 2 thefts per game. Both teams can reject shots – 6.2 blocks for Tennessee and 5.4 for Auburn. … Seven Lady Vols made the Dean's List in the fall semester led by freshman Angie Bjorklund's 4.0 grade point average. The six other Lady Vol Scholars were seniors Nicky Anosike and Shannon Bobbitt, junior Candace Parker, sophomore Cait McMahan and freshmen Sydney Smallbone and Kelley Cain. … Tennessee is 23-5 in SEC openers with an 11-2 record at home. Two teams have twice defeated the Lady Vols in their SEC debut – Georgia (1984 and 1996) and Auburn (1988 and 1989) – while Vanderbilt dropped the Lady Vols in 1990. The Lady Vols have not lost a conference opener since Georgia won Dec. 8, 1996, in a 94-93 overtime thriller. … All three of Auburn's losses this seasonhave been by two points – 68-66 loss to No. 20 George Washington; 71-69 to Saint Joseph's; and 62-60 to Texas A&M. … Former Lady Vol player Daedra Charles, now Daedra Charles Furlow, is an assistant coach for the Tigers. Her No. 32 jersey is retired, and a banner hangs in Thompson-Boling Arena to commemorate her success. Known at Tennessee as "Night Train," she was inducted last summer into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. She played at Tennessee from 1988 to 1991 and was a mentor for freshman Nikki Caldwell, now an assistant at Tennessee. … Tennessee ran the table last season in the SEC regular season. Other perfect seasons were in 1993, 1994, 1995, 1998, 2001, 2003 and 2004. No SEC team has a winning record against Tennessee.