Pat Summitt had given her players the day off Wednesday to help them get caught up on class because of the quick-turnaround from the early rounds to regional play. The players have to balance staying on course in the classroom with getting ready for the next road trip.
"It's extremely hard," Alexis Hornbuckle. "I had a test at eight o'clock this morning. You get in late, you want to sleep, but you've got to study. I have a paper due next week. You never stop being a student."
Hornbuckle, a senior psychology major, said the biggest challenge is finding time for group academic projects.
"They expect you to be there," Hornbuckle said. "I'm like, ‘I'm not even in Knoxville. I'm not even in the state of Tennessee right now. We can do it over the Internet, email or it's not going to get done.' It's hard."
Senior guard Shannon Bobbitt, who also is a psychology major, applied some of that academic knowledge to address balancing coursework and court preparation.
"It's all mental," Bobbitt said. "You have to really want it, and this team wants it bad so we're on a mission to win."
Alberta Auguste had academic commitments after practice Thursday and then had to take a test Friday before the team leaves. For that reason Summitt will watch film with the senior wing player after they arrive in Oklahoma City on Friday.
She had pondered changing the lineup by reinserting Angie Bjorklund into the lineup – Auguste has started for the past three postseason games, one in the SEC tourney and the first two in the NCAA tourney – but opted to stay with Auguste. Summitt was concerned about turnovers, and Auguste had five in the 78-52 win over Purdue.
"I'll probably stick with Bird," Summitt said. "I told her I've been impatient with her. After watching tape and pulling up her minutes from the last two games, I just got impatient with her. I told her we're going to watch tape when we get there.
"In postseason one thing that sends me over the edge is turnovers. She's got to cut down on her turnovers. I think part of that might be feeling like she's got to make something happen. And she doesn't. She's got to get into the flow of the game."
Bjorklund arrived early for Thursday's session to get in extra shots. Summitt spent a few minutes before practice watching the freshman guard and reinforcing what they had seen on film.
"I watched film with her before," Summitt said. "I was just watching her and watching her footwork and her follow-through."
Candace Parker missed practice Thursday to attend the funeral of her great-grandmother – the grandmother of her father, Larry Parker. She left with her family from West Lafayette, Indiana, on Tuesday and was to return to Knoxville on Thursday night. Summitt said she had talked to Parker, and the junior forward was doing OK.
The Lady Vols installed some new looks on offense Thursday, and Parker will get up to speed at Friday's session.
"She's got a pretty high basketball IQ so what we'll do come (Friday), we'll just say, ‘OK, Can, we're going to run (these looks) against their zone.' And we'll just walk her through it," Summitt said.
Tennessee and Notre Dame played in South Bend on Jan. 5 and the Lady Vols won 87-63 with Bjorklund connecting on seven 3-pointers.
"Well, they can really shoot the ball," Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw said to laughter after the Irish defeated Oklahoma in West Lafayette in overtime to reach the Sweet 16. "I think we learned that pretty early in the (last) game. We gave up way too many threes. They shot a really good percentage.
"I think we were worried so much about Candace Parker we didn't pay enough attention to the perimeter. And I think that they have so many weapons that you really can't just go at one person and try to shut one person down. Because they are a very good team and they have a lot of people that can score. So we've got to look at that and try a defense that can guard a lot of people."
Notre Dame has a veteran backcourt in seniors Charel Allen and Tulyah Gaines. McGraw will count on their steady leadership to run the offense and provide stiff defensive pressure. The Irish do not want a track meet with the Lady Vols.
"No, absolutely not," McGraw said. "We can't run with them. I think they're just too high-powered an offense for us. You know, we really have to be selective with how we play. And I think we have to do a really good job of taking care of the ball, making sure we get shots.
"But our game is – we do like to run. We like to press. And so somewhere in between there we've got to figure out a way that we can play the tempo that we want."
Both teams were in West Lafayette in different pods so they were able to scout each other in person.
"I thought it was interesting that we were able to watch their games and of course, they got to see ours as well," McGraw said. "We got to see a lot of different things, a lot of different ways they played. They looked really good against Purdue. I thought their pressure was excellent. It gave us a chance to really watch them and see some things."
Having a previous matchup can be both advantageous and a disadvantage.
"It's a little bit of both," Hornbuckle said. "It's an advantage because you got a little taste of what they like to do, but at the same time that was January. It's March now, and everything changes, new plays, new concepts, so we have to be ready to contend with it."
"We know some of their strategies and their techniques from watching film and the scouting report," Bobbitt said. "We're going to come out and compete and hope to get this victory."
"It's been awhile since we played," Summitt noted. "They're a much better team. Their transition is better and I think defensively they're solid. But I think we're better, too."
The Lady Vols' practice session on Friday will focus on the recent scouting report.
"We'll do our complete scouting on the floor," Summitt said. "That way Candace will be back with us. We will leave (after practice), get there (Friday) night, eat dinner."
The short turnaround plus the need for a day off leaves just two days of practice time at home. The Lady Vols went less than two hours Thursday.
"All we wanted to do was work some against Notre Dame's zone defense and put in a couple of different looks, keep our defense sharp with our drill work," Summitt said. "I didn't want to go up and down at all. Save our legs. If we've got our legs, that's huge."
NIKKI CALDWELL UPDATE: Assistant Coach Nikki Caldwell, whose name has been mentioned with the openings at Memphis and UCLA, said she will wait until after the season to explore becoming a head coach.
Caldwell had said earlier that it would take a special place committed to women's basketball to pull her out of Tennessee.
"I tell people all the time I have been very blessed," Caldwell said. "I played for the best. Now I work with the best. I'm not just talking about Pat. I get Holly's knowledge of the game. I get to pull from Dean's knowledge of the game. I've been around a lot of basketball and a lot of basketball knowledge."
Caldwell worked as an assistant under Virginia Coach Debbie Ryan before coming to Tennessee.
"I feel fortunate that I'm being groomed by the best in the business, and I'm able to pull some of their knowledge to help sculpt the type of coach that I hope to be one day," Caldwell said. "That's been a good way of prepping myself to move into that type of role when the time presents itself. When you're with Pat, the thing about being here, is that she gives us so much leeway. She basically prepares us and gives us opportunities to be in those situations where you're able to call a play during a critical time of the game or call a certain defense or implement offenses or tweak whatever we're doing. She allows you to grow as a coach, and she allows you to have leeway and say-so in a lot of the stuff that we do here. She doesn't micromanage us.
"That's why this is a very, very special place. It will take a very special institution to pull one of us out of here. That is why Mickie (DeMoss) was here for so long, Holly for a long, long time, and she's still here."
Caldwell is a native of Oak Ridge and her family is a fixture at Lady Vol games. Caldwell is close to her family but noted air travel can close distance if she takes a job elsewhere.
"If need be they just have to get on a plane to come see me," Caldwell said. "They're still going to come to Lady Vol games. They're fans of the program no matter where I'm at."