"They confront if they need to confront," Coach Pat Summitt said. "They've matured a lot. I'm not convinced any of them liked each other early on."
Alexis Hornbuckle and Candace Parker have said as much – a situation they laugh about now – and said it took two years to get them all on the same page. The three were joined last season by Alberta Auguste and Shannon Bobbitt, who both got on board quickly.
All five will be on the court this weekend in Oklahoma City, where No. 1 seed Tennessee, 32-2, takes on No. 5 seed Notre Dame, 25-8, in a Sweet 16 matchup at the Ford Center at 9:30 p.m. Eastern on Sunday. No. 2 seed Texas A&M (28-7) and No. 3 seed Duke (25-9) play at 7 p.m. The winners meet Tuesday evening for the right to go the Final Four in Tampa.
During practice and games it's apparent the group has rapport on the floor. They don't hesitate to point out mistakes and applaud good plays. It's all the more remarkable because one of those players is a consensus Player of the Year, who has gotten the lion's share of attention from the national media and the All-American awards.
But Candace Parker is as likely to call out a teammate as she is to be on the receiving end.
"I think the fact that Candace, first of all, can handle success," Summitt said. "Also, I think she's a great teammate. They're the type of team they're very open, they're very honest."
"It helps us a great deal," Parker said. "Nicky and I are very straightforward. We don't sugarcoat things. She tells me something to do and I'm going to do it, because I know she has my best interests at heart. She knows what I'm capable of and the same thing with Coach Summitt.
"With Nicky I try to stay positive with her and I stay in her ear. I tell her what I think. We have that kind of communication. She knows what I need, and we're just great teammates."
Alexis Hornbuckle, a wing player who backs up Bobbitt at the point, welcomes the abundance of leadership on the floor. That means the task is not just falling to the guards.
"That works wonders to be honest because when you know that your teammates are communicating with you, and it's not how they're saying it but what they're saying and you can take it like that instead of saying, ‘Why are you screaming at me?' and getting defensive now you're getting productivity out of it," Hornbuckle said.
"Like, ‘Why didn't you get on the boards?' I'm thinking, ‘OK, I need to rebound because they're seeing a weakness in my game.' It's when you take it personal or you're being petty about the situation nothing gets solved and nothing gets corrected."
Summitt does monitor how the players interact to make sure they don't get too honest. This group doesn't mince words so sometimes Summitt is the one choosing her words carefully.
"I think it's good, but I think there have been a couple of times I have had to address it," Summitt said. "I think it's fine unless you've got a real edge to your tone and your approach, but I think they know each other and they know which buttons to push, which is good. That brings accountability within your team."
Summitt and her staff welcome having a team that holds itself accountable. Summitt said the concept is the same as letting Holly Warlick, Nikki Caldwell and Dean Lockwood run practices during the season. A different voice can penetrate better sometimes.
"There are a lot of times in practice I want my assistants to do the bulk of the talking because they (the players) can tune you out after awhile," Summitt said.
The coaches are full of cheer and goodwill right now. The regular season is a learning process. Postseason means making sure the players are confident and believe in the system and each other.
"It's a feel-good time," Summitt said. "Everybody needs to feel good about who they are, what they bring to our team. That doesn't mean that expectations aren't going to be high. And if we're not happy we're going to point it out. They want it, and we just have to help them at times. It may be just to encourage them, inspire, whatever we have to do.
"You're always when you get to this point – there's a chance that some players might put pressure on themselves – you've just got to keep them loose in terms of just playing the game and not focusing on the score, playing four-minute segments."
That approach has resonated with Hornbuckle, who has opened the NCAA postseason with back-to-back stellar games on defense and offense. Her shots didn't fall at this time a year ago. They have in 2008.
"I think confidence is key and very important," Hornbuckle said. "I even find myself in practice hunting for shots more so than looking to pass more. I think I passed the ball and missed the target and Coach Summitt said, ‘Look to score.' When she has that confidence in me and I have that confidence in myself it's a major factor. It's a big difference in my game."
Summitt also won't leave anything to chance in the postseason. Before the NCAA tourney started she had her players take updated personality tests. What does she hope to glean at this point?
"Just knowing the personality and knowing the best way to approach individuals," Summitt said. "Granted I don't always stop and think, ‘OK, what should I say right here to Lex.' Or, ‘What should I say right here to Candace.' But more times than not you do. You think about it. Sometimes we'll just talk about it as a staff."
When Summitt was told that Anosike told Parker to take over in Nashville against LSU, the coach replied, "That doesn't surprise me."
She also cited Anosike's tangible and intangible benefits.
"Her presence defensively was so huge for us in that tournament, her attitude, her leadership," Summitt said.
Anosike is often cited as the one who won't hesitate to tell a teammate what she needs to correct. She was even told by Summitt to go easy early on with the freshmen until they got used to the approach used by the veterans. But Anosike also welcomes the feedback.
"Everyone gets in my face if I'm not doing what I need to do, and I'm the first to get in someone else's face, but I think that's just holding each other accountable and that's just everyone wanting to win," Anosike said.
"When you see that everyone wants to win you kind of have a feeling that you'll let the team down if you don't do what you're supposed to do. We all know our roles on the team, and we all know what we need to do and what it takes to win, obviously from last year, and we know that we need to bring it so we won't let the next person sitting next to us down."
Parker and Anosike, in particular, are on the same page. Anosike will often remind Parker, who Summitt has said is sometimes too unselfish with the ball, to take over and impose her will on the game.
"I tell her that every game," Anosike said. "Sometimes she gets a little out of it and stuff and she needs someone to refocus. I don't know what it is. I can always see it in her face when she starts to lose it, so I know just from playing with her for three years I know that I need to go up to her and get her refocused in order for us to win.
"We have that respect for each other. We're good friends on and off the court, which allows us to have that relationship on the court. She tells me stuff. She'll tell me if I need to get my butt on the boards or if I'm not doing what I need to do for the team, and I do the same to her."
That level of familiarity and comfort took awhile to develop. Anosike, Parker and Hornbuckle were part of an original class of six, but two players later transferred. The sixth member, Alex Fuller, sat out a year with Parker as both recovered from knee surgeries. Parker will leave with her class – she is expected to be the top pick of the Los Angeles Sparks in the WNBA draft next month – but Fuller will return for a fifth year. She has said she wants to savor this last postseason with her class.
"When we were freshmen there were six of us, so we were kind of learning, stepping back and let's try to do our things by example and not really being too vocal," Hornbuckle said. "Last year we all know each other, we've been around each other, and we know it's all out of love. It grew into it. It definitely wasn't like that in the beginning."
And it definitely is now. The bonds were even solidified by the appearance of two new players, in Bobbitt and Auguste, who replenished the roster after the transfers.
"We all have a great love for each other," Anosike said. "Bird and Shannon fit right in. I've been playing with Lex for four years, playing with Candace for three. So besides being teammates we're all great friends. It's definitely sad (for the class to graduate), but we know we have to give every single ounce of energy we have for Tennessee and for each other."
Bobbitt said the ability to call each other out speaks to the players' overall makeup.
"It shows how tough we are," Bobbitt said. "Pain is pleasure and whenever we are on to each other we're trying to help each other, not try to make each other look bad. As long as people don't try to take it personal and take what we say and not how we say it and learn from it we're going to be fine."
The coaching staff appreciates the help in holding the team accountable.
"They talk a different language to each other than we talk to them," Warlick said. "They respond to that. As long as they respond we're great with it. We're all about getting results and if they can produce results doing what they do and having the confidence in each other, then knock themselves out."
"If they have issues, they confront them, which I like, because I think you have accountability there," Summitt said. "I think they're holding everyone to a certain standard."
Hornbuckle, who wants to coach after her playing days are done, gets her cues from the staff.
"You watch the coaches," Hornbuckle said. "Everybody has their own coaching style. You learn how to deal with players and what tactic might work with one player is not going to necessarily work against another. I'm honestly just watching and learning a lot more."
The passage of time has aided the process, too. Parker has spent the season in a pretty delightful mood. Despite the crush of media and the expectations to repeat, she has maintained a cheery demeanor coupled with a tremendous work ethic.
"Just learn to appreciate basketball, the maturity," Parker said of the difference from being a first-year player to now. "Realizing that it's OK to mess up. I'm enjoying the season. I like this group of girls on the team. It's cool to be one of the older ones on the team now. You feel like you know more. And if I knew what I know now as a freshman I think it would have been a lot more fun."
Parker is feeling the same pressure to win this season that she felt a year ago – though the burden of restoring a banner to Thompson-Boling Arena after a nine-year drought was likely weighty at times – so her ease with this season isn't a reduction in expectations.
"I don't think it was I felt pressure to win a national championship," Parker said. "That wasn't how it was. Obviously it's cool the banner went up, but it's the same pressure this year. Everybody is like, ‘Well, you have to win two.' "
Parker and the rest of the players have other people in their ear besides teammates and coaches. There are also media, fans, family and classmates. At some point it's time to sort out what needs to be heard and what should be let go.
"You weed it out," Parker said. "As you get older the voice in your head starts sounding more like yourself instead of those around you. My freshman year I heard Pat: ‘Rebound. Play defense.' Now, it's my own voice."
Parker and the other departing players have left their footprint on Tennessee. How big will that imprint be?
"I think that remains to be seen," Summitt said. "I think this postseason is important to Candace and her teammates. Winning back-to-back championships would be a big statement."
If Tennessee were to repeat the players will cite their rapport on the court and their competitiveness. It also helps that the team's superstar doesn't act like one. She's the first on the floor and the last to leave at practice. In West Lafayette she suggested to a writer that freshman Vicki Baugh should be the focal point of the story and even helped with the headline.
"Pat, as large as a figure and as big as her stature is, there's nothing like your best player setting a tone that is positive, that's upbeat, that's relaxed," Lockwood said. "It's creating a warmth and it's creating a mindset, whether it's toughness when it's needed or how we do things.
"When players give you that, it helps and when your best overall player gives you that, it's huge."