No. 2 Tennessee (19-1, 6-0) takes on Kentucky (11-10, 5-2) at 3 p.m. Eastern (TV: myvlt2 in Knoxville, WUXP in Nashville, CWKYT, Insight cable channel 5, in Lexington; Lady Vols Radio Network) in a matinee game on Super Bowl Sunday.
Coach Pat Summitt, who sometimes isn't sure which teams are even playing in the NFL's showcase event, knew this time and declared her allegiance to the Manning family.
"You know I've got to go for Eli," Summitt said, referring to former Vol Peyton Manning's younger brother, the quarterback for the New York Giants, who will face the New England Patriots for the championship.
Summitt has her own team to coach several hours before the Super Bowl kicks off so that is mainly on her mind this weekend. She heeded her players' concerns that fatigue played a role in their somnambulistic showing in Lexington on Jan. 17 and adjusted the timetable this past week.
"After the game they just didn't feel they had their legs," Summitt said. "Looking back we may have worked them a little bit too hard before that game. I want to make sure this time we play Kentucky we've got our legs."
"I know we play Kentucky on Sunday," Summitt said. "Someone (Thursday) night was talking about the Rutgers game and ‘Think Pink,' and I was like, ‘When is the Rutgers game?'
"No disrespect to any team but I think if you as a coaching staff don't have your players focused on the team you're getting ready to play then you'll have some slipups. That's always been our philosophy. That's not going to change."
Summitt has been concerned about slipups since the season started. The last time she coached a defending national champion – three straight titles for that matter – the team fell short in 1998-99 and lost in a regional final.
"Looking back I think I was pretty tough on that team," Summitt said. "I was very frustrated because I saw it coming."
The 2007-08 team has also given her cause for pause at times, but she has varied her approach in how to handle it from a silent practice to a Come to Jesus team meeting to an abundance of encouragement.
"It is tough," Summitt said of pushing the right buttons with not only a team defending a title but a veteran-laden one. "Good news, bad news. Good news we win. Bad news we think we're just going to walk out and win again. You don't do that."
The off-season – where championships are won, Summitt always says – produced mixed results.
"I think on the front end I was really anxious to see how we came back and how hard we worked in the summer," Summitt said. "I don't know because I'm not allowed to be in the gym. They didn't work as hard this past summer as they did the summer before just from the feedback I got."
But after practice started Summitt's mind was eased by how well the newcomers were meshing with the vets.
"Some people worked more than others, but when we started practice it was clear to me that the upperclassmen had done a really good job of bringing our young players along," Summitt said. "The good thing is you've got players in that class that are hard-working players, and they're committed to getting better.
"Did that hurt us early on that maybe we didn't invest as much in the off-season? You've got to believe that it might have affected us in some ways."
In a separate but somewhat related matter, five players, Candace Parker, Nicky Anosike, Alexis Hornbuckle, Angie Bjorklund and Vicki Baugh spent time on various USA teams over the summer and, in Parker's case, into the fall. Although the international experience is valuable to a player's overall development, the commitment to those teams takes time away from individual drills and workouts.
Summitt didn't get in anyone's grill over off-season workouts because she was ready to start teaching. She knew the freshmen would be needed if the team is to repeat, so her focus turned to them.
"In the beginning you're in more of a teaching mode, and I don't know how you fast-forward that," Summitt said. "You're teaching and you're trying to blend in all these players so there's so much time and attention devoted to getting them up to speed with everyone else. I really felt like I was teaching more than I was coaching."
The Lady Vols got off to an undefeated start and then stumbled at Stanford after playing poorly, but winning, against UCLA. The free throw disparity against the Cardinal notwithstanding, the Lady Vols also self-destructed by not putting Stanford away to close the first half, not defending the high-low action in the second half, not protecting the ball and not getting on the glass. Tennessee lost, 73-69, in overtime.
"I think what probably sent me over the edge was our lack of commitment to our scouting report defense, our high-low defense, not being committed to board play," Summitt said. "Defense and rebounding, if you look at our program and the history of our program, we're known for our defense and our board play. I know it's been a great formula for success here at Tennessee. This team for whatever reason, maybe because they've had a lot of success offensively, across the board we are not committed."
Summitt had a break over the holidays to stew and watch the Stanford game tape. She went through it three times and also watched the UCLA game tape.
"Coming away from that game and having time over the holidays to think about it, to watch tape, to really break things down, you just have to hold them to a different standard," Summitt said of her conclusions. "I blame myself. Looking back I was trying to be patient in that UCLA game. I was very frustrated, but I didn't necessarily share my frustrations with them.
"I was thinking, ‘Well, we just flew cross country and we didn't play with as much energy until we had to.' I felt like this team was just kind of turning on the light switch and then when everything was real bright and good then they turned it back off, and we're in the dark again. With that in mind I was like, ‘We can't win this way.' I always say that bad habits are as hard to break as good habits. And we were getting into a lot of bad habits."
The practices after Christmas were lengthy and intense. Summitt didn't speak throughout one. The next day she held another team meeting and the players came out of the locker looking as if they had heard an earful.
"We were making excuses," Summitt said. "In my assessment we were a team that had an excuse for things going wrong instead of trying to come up with a solution. I think from that meeting they realized they needed to come together, stick together and get better."
Summitt's time over Christmas was also spent analyzing herself.
"I'm always tough on myself because I always think what I'm watching is not what I'm expecting to see at times and then I immediately think, ‘How can I help them get better?' " Summitt said.
"I think that's what coaches do in all sports. How can we help this player get better? How can we help our team get better? What did I not do? What's caused us not to be committed to our scouting report defense? Are we being lazy? Are we unaware? Did we not have clarity in how we wanted to defend certain action?
"There's a lot that goes into it. It always comes back to me as a head coach. I'm pretty tough on myself and when we're not playing at the level that I think we should be at then I've got to ask myself why and at times I've got to ask the players."
Tennessee has won every game since the lone loss to Stanford and has made progress in Summitt's pursuit of 40 minutes of intense basketball.
"They can't take a possession off," Summitt said. "I want to go in some time before a game and say, ‘OK, how many possessions are you going to take off? I'll sub you out right before you're about to take off your three.' "
One exception has been Hornbuckle. Although she acknowledged the need to pace herself last season the senior guard has not done so this season.
"Lex has been terrific," Summitt said. "I think the thing now is just reminding this team and encouraging this team to play hard on every possession and be committed at both ends of the floor regardless of the scoreboard. Stay on top of the game by demanding a certain intensity and taking care of the basketball."
Summitt has had to shift her team's thinking from anticipating postseason – Chamique Holdsclaw looked well ahead before the 1998-99 season in a seminal moment seared in Summitt's memory when the senior All-American gazed at a basket in Stokely Athletics Center and said she couldn't wait for March – to living, and practicing, in the moment.
"Our seniors perhaps started out this year thinking, ‘We can't wait for postseason. Fast-forward the process,' " Summitt said. "You can't do it."
Summitt's admonishments have been leveled at seniors, freshmen and those in between. A stellar performance in a game could just as well result in a scathing critique of another aspect of a player's performance the next day at practice. Bjorklund welcomes the approach.
"I like those high expectations because it makes me a better player," Bjorklund said. "That's one of the reasons I came here because I know she's going to get the most out of me."
Parker, a redshirt junior forward likely playing her final season in orange, indicates that the message has penetrated the team.
"I think our team has really buckled down and we realize what's going to get us to a national championship is defense and rebounding," Parker said. "I think what's so special about this team is we take it one game at a time. I don't even know what our game after Kentucky is."
The players' goal is to sweep the SEC again and avoid another stumble.
"It's going to be a key month, but every game is a key game for us because we're trying to get that number one seed, and we can't suffer any real obstacle," Parker said.
Summitt will spend this month getting her team ready to repeat as national champions. That doesn't mean looking ahead. It means getting more out of her players than they think they have to offer.
"I think it's my job to see more in them than they see in themselves," Summitt said. "And I think it's my job to raise the bar every day. Every day. I have the energy and I have the staff that has the energy and the teaching to make it happen.
"And that's what we're going to do. There are no shortcuts to success, and we all that know that and we still have people who take shortcuts. We've got to erase that."
Summitt gave the team the day off Saturday to make sure their legs were fresh for Sunday. If there are any shortcuts taken today there won't be any reasons that will pass muster with the coach.
Parker is hoping for a better tempo from Tennessee in the home rematch with Kentucky. A packed arena can have a positive affect on the team.
"Definitely," Parker said. "We realize that our crowd is going to be behind us, and it's going to give us energy I hope."
PROBABLE STARTERS: Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 senior point guard, No. 00 (10.0 points per game, 2.9 rebounds per game, 3.7 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 senior guard, No. 14 (10.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.7 apg, 2.5 steals per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 freshman guard/forward, No. 5 (10.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.6 apg); Candace Parker, 6'5 junior forward, No. 3 (20.5 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 2.4 apg, 2.5 spg, 2.1 blocks per game); Nicky Anosike, 6'4 senior center, No. 55 (9.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.3 bpg).
The Lady Vols will have Alberta Auguste available off the bench. The 5'11 senior wing player suffered what turned out to be a strained left bicep muscle in practice Friday. She has undergone rehab this weekend and is cleared to play.
Auguste is a key player for Tennessee and made her first career start against Arkansas last month when Hornbuckle was out for medical reasons.
"I had so much confidence in Bird and what she can do," Anosike said. "You can always depend on Bird's defense. It's going to be there every night. I knew that going into the game. I felt 100 percent comfortable with her in that role."
The steady junior Alex Fuller also comes off the bench. Fuller's grandmother will be in town from Shelbyville, Tenn., to see her play.
"That's going to be a special thing for me," Fuller said.
The other two players on Tennessee's nine-member roster are freshman guard Sydney Smallbone, who had four assists in her last outing against Ole Miss, and post player Vicki Baugh, who is third on the team in SEC games in rebounding with 29 boards.
The freshmen have been called on all season, and Bjorklund and Baugh were the difference in the first half in the win over Duke. Bjorklund was 1-7 against Ole Miss, and Baugh had four turnovers and four fouls.
"The two players that helped us beat Duke struggled at Ole Miss," said Summitt, who noted sporadic play from newcomers is to be expected but not accepted. "I talked to Vicki and Angie both. They have to be more consistent. With Vicki I'm constantly reminding her that she has to think score first, pass second. I told her you've got to have a scorer's mentality."
Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood worked with Baugh at practice Friday on her post play, and Baugh responded well in the session both in effort and attitude.
"Those are normal freshman bumps in the road and highs and lows," Lockwood said. "We expect that. Now obviously we're trying to minimize that so there's not a huge disparity. We want to see more Dukes, but we don't feel she played at all badly (against Ole Miss); she just wasn't as efficient. We're pleased when she gives us effort and energy.
"She was 0-2, but she got to the free throw line. She rebounded the ball well. She defended pretty well. She just didn't make the shots. We're very pleased when she brings a high level of intensity. When she's playing focused and attacking even when shots aren't going in, it's still good for us. I'm not at all concerned about the disparity between Monday and Thursday. I think she's going to give us great effort. We just want to keep her moving forward."
Summitt used the Ole Miss game to get some reps for the bench in the matchup zone. It was effective at times and porous at others. Tennessee wants the defense ready for postseason as a changeup when necessary.
"I think when our freshmen get better it will get better," Summitt said. "We didn't box out well out of our zone. We ball watch. When that shot goes up everyone is following the flight of the ball instead of thinking about securing position. That's a place we can get a lot better."
Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell is expected to start: Amber Smith, 5'11 freshman guard, No. 24 (7.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.8 apg), averaging 10.4 ppg in SEC play, one of four freshman point guards to start in the SEC; Samantha Mahoney, 5'11 senior guard, No. 11 (13.7 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.3 apg), leads team with 21 made three-pointers and 59 made free throws; Amani Franklin, 5'11 sophomore guard, No. 25 (7.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg), had five rebounds against Georgia and career-high 21 points against South Carolina; Victoria Dunlap, 6'1 freshman forward, No. 34 (7.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.5 spg), has been honored twice this season as SEC Freshman of the Week; and Sarah Elliott, 6'6 senior center, No. 4 (11.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.7 bpg), holds the Kentucky school record with 174 blocks.
Tennessee won in Lexington with a late second-half surge and put the game away, 65-40, after a slow start for both teams. The Lady Vols' 27 first-half points were the lowest of the season. A 17-3 run in the second half secured the victory.
"They made a few shots, and maybe we were hanging our heads a little at the end," Mitchell said. "I thought Tennessee finally kind of hit a rhythm there with some transition. We weren't able to get matched up there at the end. I would have liked to finish the game out better."
"They are a great team," Mahoney said. "That's what great teams do; they make runs. Ours weren't big enough. They had too many."
Kentucky will want to protect the ball better Sunday. The Wildcats had 25 turnovers in the first game. They did out-rebound Tennessee, 36-28, and played well on defense until the final seven minutes of the game.
The Wildcats have only two conference losses – Tennessee and LSU – and have knocked off Auburn and Georgia.
"The win at Georgia was an amazing night for our program," Mitchell said. "Unfortunately, we have to put that game behind us because we have another tough game on the road ahead of us at Tennessee. Obviously we are facing one of the best teams in the country with the best player in the country in Candace Parker.
"When we played them in Lexington earlier this year I thought we did a lot of great things, but we couldn't find a way to score. Our defense has to be there again Sunday, but we also have to get better offensively."
Mitchell has a confident point guard in Smith who can push tempo and hit some shots. She scored nine points on 4-5 shooting by going right at Tennessee.
"As a team we are just about where we want to be," Smith said after the Tennessee game. "I think that we will get there and do amazing things. We learned a lot from this game and that will contribute to the later success that we are going to have."
"When you play a team like Tennessee, you can't come in the game thinking that you are going to get beat, because you have lost before the game starts," Smith added. "I think we came in with a good mindset."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Kentucky game. Here is his assessment.
When Kentucky has the ball: "High-low. They do some one-four stuff that they do to try to set up some driving opportunities. Do some ball screening, some wing and some top ball screening. They run some action that we call Utah and Memphis (after the pro teams that run the plays). They've put in a few new things.
"I think the biggest difference is they would certainly seem to me to be a much more proven and accomplished team and a more confident team. They beat Georgia at Georgia, which is a banner win. This is a team coming in that has won six of their last eight games.
"Davenport has played better and better for them. She's so athletic. Does things off the dribble drive. Mahoney is Mahoney, scorer, one-on-one player. I think Amber Smith she is a good point guard. I don't care if she's a freshman, a senior or anything in between that kid is a good player. Her motor is always running. She's on go all the time."
Candace Parker didn't see a lot of double teams in Lexington and scored 23 points on 10-14 shooting. Lockwood expects to see more doubles Sunday.
"I think they will," Lockwood said. "They showed some times (Thursday) night where they did with Tasha (Humphrey). I anticipate seeing it. We've seen that before. We have to be prepared how we play out of it."
Lockwood expects Kentucky to open in a man-to-man defense.
They've been very successful playing a lot of man defense, so it wouldn't surprise me that they started man and played a lot of man, but I also think people have played a lot of zone just to get us off balance and not to let us run our man offense," Lockwood said.
When Tennessee has the ball: "Inside game for us is what greases the wheels. We want to get inside touches. Definitely we want to play up-tempo and push the ball. We want to get them on their heels. They're very good at protecting. They don't come out a whole lot. They're going to try and play a small area and protect the paint. What we want to do is we want them to have to move and be on the defensive. If we can get them to have to guard some ball movement and player movement, we like that.
"What we don't want to happen is what happened there. The ball got caught in people's hands. We just weren't sharp. It didn't look like we were in sync with each other. We want to get past that and make them have to play defensively where they don't feel like they can be sitting back and protecting the lane, but they've got to be moving and chasing a little bit."
SUPER SUNDAY: Dean Lockwood said he is torn on who to cheer for in the Super Bowl because he wants to witness something historic – the Patriots finishing a season undefeated as the Miami Dolphins did in 1972 – and pull for the underdog.
"I would like to see New England do something (historic) and now you'd have two teams," Lockwood said. "I have so much respect for them but then there's a part of me that's an underdog guy.
"Fans and media people have been on the Giants and early on they thought the ship was sinking and here they are in the Super Bowl. There's a part of me that would say what a great story of redemption and rebirth: Here's a team that people were saying this was wrong and that was wrong and the coach is too hard and the quarterback's not good enough, and here they are. To say I'm split is probably accurate."
What Lockwood really wants, too, is to be able to enjoy the final NFL game of the season.
"At that point I hope I'm pleased with what's gone on in the previous two or three hours and I can be a normal fan and watch the game," he said.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Kentucky, 42-6. Tennessee is 18-2 in Knoxville, 18-4 in Lexington and 6-0 at neutral sites. The Wildcats last won in Knoxville, 76-72, in overtime in 1985. Kentucky won at home, 66-63, in 2006. … Tennessee is 6-0 in games played on February 3 with three wins at home and three on the road. The last win on this date was against Florida, 91-82, in overtime in 2005. … Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell and his assistant, Niya Butts, will be in familiar territory in Tennessee. Mitchell was a graduate assistant (1999-2000) and Butts was a player (1996-2000) for the Lady Vols. … Duke shot 50 percent against the Lady Vols in the first half but finished at 44.1 percent for the game. So far this season no opponent has shot 50 percent or better against Tennessee. UCLA got the closest at 47.5 percent. Tennessee has shot 50 percent or better in eight games this season with the highest-marksmanship coming against DePaul at 60.3 percent. … Tennessee's next win will be No. 20 on the season and will be the 32nd consecutive time a Lady Vol team has reached at least 20 wins in a season under Coach Pat Summitt, who is in her 34th season. … The Lady Vols are protecting a 15-game winning streak at home. … Kentucky has scored 60 or more points in six of the last 10 games. The Wildcats went 6-0 when scoring 60 or more points in that span and 1-3 when scoring less than 60. … BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee averages 80.2 points per game with opponents getting 60.0. Kentucky scores 62.2 a game while opponents get 63.0. The Lady Vols are shooting 47.2 percent overall, 38.9 behind the arc and 72.2 percent from the free throw line. The Wildcats shoot 37.6 percent overall, 27.9 percent behind the arc and 64.7 percent from the stripe. Tennessee averages 40.9 rebounds a game while allowing 36.5 for a +4.4 margin. Kentucky averages 40.1 and allows 39.7 for a +0.4 margin. The Lady Vols average 16.9 assists and 18.1 turnovers with opponents losing the ball 21.6 times a game. The Wildcats average 10.6 assists and 17.0 turnovers a game with opponents surrendering the ball 17.2 times. Tennessee averages 12.5 swipes and 6.6 swats. Kentucky averages 6.8 steals and 4.0 blocks.