No. 7/11 Tennessee, 11-2, takes on Kentucky, 10-5, at 7 p.m. Eastern tonight (Lady Vol Radio Network) at Thompson-Boling Arena. A free video webcast is available at the Lady Vols site: Tennessee All Access.
For the past nine years either Tennessee or LSU has won the SEC regular season with Georgia slipping in in 2000 to share the honors with the Lady Vols. Tennessee went undefeated in league play in 2007 to claim the crown and LSU did the same in 2008.
But neither Tennessee nor LSU was picked to win the SEC in 2009. The preseason honor went to Vanderbilt with Tennessee picked No. 2 and LSU dropping to No. 5. Auburn was picked No. 3 and Georgia No. 4.
"It is a little different because it's been Tennessee and LSU for the last couple of years and neither one of us is being picked to win the conference," Summitt said. "To my knowledge no one picked us to win the conference, or them. I think it's pretty open. I don't think it's a one or two-horse race by any means. I think it's pretty open."
Summitt spent this week absorbed in game film of Kentucky – her approach is to watch teams one at a time – but she has kept up with how the other conference teams are doing.
"It appears that going into it Vanderbilt, they've have some losses, but come SEC time I think they'll have to be a team that's going to be in the mix; Auburn seems to be right now playing really, really well," Summitt said. "Mississippi State, with what she brought in, the word is they're going to be good."
Mississippi State Coach Sharon Fanning welcomed three transfers from Southeast Illinois College by way of Kinshasa, Congo – 5'9 guard Armelie Lumanu, 6'3 forward/center Rima Kalonda and 6'5 forward Chanel Mokango.
"At SEC Media Days (in late October) I was asked constantly, ‘Are we as deep?' " Summitt said. "I think we are. I do. I may be wrong. I think it's going to take some people a little bit longer. Even LSU watching them when they played Connecticut I thought they hung pretty tough. Obviously Auburn. They've been playing very well. Again, Mississippi State. Florida has been playing really well. They appear to be a lot better. I think we are building a little more ground as far as being a more competitive league."
Summitt expects the usual teams to be in the mix, including Georgia, and she's not ready to concede that Tennessee, despite having to replace every starter as LSU did, is going to be looking up in the standings.
"I'm not willing to take us out of the mix," Summitt said.
Angie Bjorklund, who will be making her second tour of duty in the SEC, speaks like a seasoned veteran despite the fact she is only a sophomore. The fact the Lady Vols weren't picked to win is met with a shrug and a smile.
"That's a compliment to our conference and that challenges us but at the same time we don't look at the rankings," Bjorklund said. "We know who we are as a team and where we are right now."
For the freshmen the start of SEC play is just another part of the first-year adventure.
"I think it's going to be a lot of fun," freshman forward Alyssia Brewer said. "It's another part of our season and we've just got to carry on what we've been doing these past couple of games into this game. I think we'll be able to have a lot of good things to come out of this.
"I think we've gotten better at preparing for big games, but I think that we have a lot more to think about and prepare for as we go into SEC, and March is coming up. We still have a long way to go."
The returning players have already told the freshmen that this part of the season really matters – for bragging rights and, more importantly, for postseason positioning. The fact Brewer brought up March without any prompting indicates the message got through to the youngsters.
"I think the freshmen need to realize that it's a whole new season and every single game from here on out is going to count in our seeding and whether we win conference or not," Bjorklund said. "It's time to step up."
Bjorklund was the one who stepped up last season. She started on a senior-laden team for 30 games and was the SEC's freshman of the year. This season Bjorklund is back in the starting lineup after recovering from a preseason back injury and missing the first five games. Three true freshmen, Briana Bass, Shekinna Stricklen and Glory Johnson, share the floor with her when the game begins.
Summitt feels like she provided her young team with enough challenges in November and December – not to mention the first game of 2009 when the Lady Vols wiped out a 20-point deficit on Rutgers home floor – to have them ready for SEC play.
"I think it should give them great confidence and a lot of knowledge," Summitt said. "I think they've become a much better team because I think they are clear on all the action we want to run. I mean we take some possessions off here and there but overall I think they understand how hard you have to compete to play against great opponents and that's exactly what we were up against when we played Stanford and were at Gonzaga.
"But we haven't played well in the first half. And we've got to change that. We've got to understand both halves, and we've got to play well in both halves."
The first two months of the season took Tennessee coast to coast and into sold-out venues with loud crowds. Bjorklund said the out-of-conference games in packed arenas and against top quality competition help the team get ready for SEC play.
"That's huge," Bjorklund said. "The SEC is coming up and the preseason games give us a chance, especially on the road and having crowds like that and playing in those environments especially for our freshmen, it's huge. With the SEC every team is great. We have one of the toughest leagues. I think that helped, especially our freshmen, a lot."
The freshmen also seem to understand that the sight of orange means the opponent's best effort of the season. Summitt has said she sometimes wonders if she should show film to her players because the opponents that take the floor won't look like what the Lady Vols just scouted. They will look much better.
"Every team is going to come with their ‘A' game against us," Brewer said. "It seems like every team we've played has played the best game of their season against us, and you've got to expect that out of everybody (and) the people you least expect it from."
Bjorklund nodded when asked if the returning players had drilled that into the heads of the freshmen.
"Absolutely," Bjorklund said. "At this point we have told them if a player is shooting 50 percent we expect that she's going to be 100 percent when she plays us. I think they've gotten a taste of that and they understand that, that everyone plays their best against us it seems."
Summitt has said there are no secrets in league play because the programs know each other so well. But with seven freshmen on the roster, including redshirt freshman Kelley Cain, the Lady Vols have a completely different look from last season.
They could be difficult to scout because different players have stepped up from game to game, though Bjorklund and Stricklen are certainly drawing a lot of attention of late. That should help open up the inside game, along with the return to form of the 6'6 Cain, who is bouncing back from a concussion in November and a knee injury in December.
"Well I hope we are a little less predictable," Summitt said. "I think what we're seeing is the potential to have the balance from our inside game as well as our perimeter game. With such a young team, it's like we are constantly working every day to try to get better.
"There's never a dull moment, and we probably are a little less predictable because sometimes we don't know what we are going to do anyways. We have to wait and see as coaches."
PROBABLE STARTERS: Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Briana Bass, 5'2 freshman guard, No. 1 (5.5 points per game, 2.0 rebounds per game, 2.3 assists per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 sophomore guard, No. 5 (13.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 freshman guard/forward, No. 40 (13.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 freshman forward, No. 25 (13.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg); and Alex Fuller, 6'3 redshirt senior forward/center, No. 44 (5.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg).
Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell is expected to start: Amber Smith, 5'5 sophomore guard, No. 24 (7.3 ppg, 2.6 apg), made the SEC All-Freshman Team last year, coming back from a torn ACL last season, media guide says craziest thing that happened to her last summer was being chased by a Chihuahua, alas no other details were forthcoming; Carly Morrow, 5'11 sophomore guard, No. 5 (6.8 ppg, 1.9 rpg), hails from Chattanooga, played in 23 games last season, listed the craziest thing she did last summer as jumping 30 feet from a pier into the Tennessee River; Amani Franklin, 5'11 junior guard, No. 25 (10.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg), started 16 games last season and had a career-high 21 points against South Carolina, nickname is Mani or Money; Victoria Dunlap, 6'1 sophomore forward, No. 34 (12.4 ppg, 8.4 rpg), hails from Nashville, was a two-time Miss Tennessee Basketball finalist, had 20 points, 15 boards in Kentucky's last game against Miami (Ohio), has two middle names – Essence and Rose, brother, King Dunlap, plays offensive tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles but is on injured reserve this year; and Eleia Roddy, 6'3 redshirt senior forward/center, No. 1 (11.5 ppg, 9.2 rpg), has endured four knee surgeries on her right knee, has played in 66 career games, graduated with a degree in psychology and is now working on a master's in family studies.
Mitchell was a graduate assistant for Summitt in the 1999-2000 season. One of his assistants is Kyra Elzy, who played at Tennessee from 1996 to 2001.
Although Tennessee is less predictable this year because of all the new faces, one thing that is apparent is that Summitt goes deep into her bench, and she will do it early in a game. Of course that keeps the surprise factor on Tennessee's side.
"I think that we are going to have to be real conscious of our matchups because they are constantly shuffling people in and out," Mitchell said. "We have to be sharp on figuring out the personnel coming in and out of the game and make sure we are getting the right matchups."
Mitchell noted that while the names are new Tennessee's style of play remains the same – up-tempo and physical.
"They still have a lot of athleticism on the floor and a lot of height and speed as well," Mitchell said. "They are a tremendous rebounding team and are leading the league in offensive rebounds and that plays a huge part of their offense. They put a lot of pressure on you defensively and try to cause a lot of turnovers.
"Coach Summit has always had a good blueprint for success and they are following that again this year. It is a good blueprint. You get really good players that play really hard, and you get good results."
Kentucky enters Thursday's contest with a five-game winning streak so the Wildcats are going in the right direction.
"I feel good about where are team is heading into conference play," Mitchell said. "We still need to get better, and we will have the opportunity to get better from here. To win the five games we won going into conference play was big for us. The wins were all against teams that if we didn't play well could have beaten us.
"It says a lot about our team to come out and win five in a row and get better offensively and execute better. All of those things point to optimism as a coach going into conference play."
McMahan, who has a chronically sore right knee, remains day to day. She must periodically miss practice and has played sparingly of late. An MRI last month showed no structural damage to her knee, which has undergone four surgeries, so pain management becomes the primary issue.
Baugh is bouncing back from ACL surgery last May and had turned the proverbial corner on that injury when she got hurt in practice Jan. 1 and sprained the lateral collateral ligament in her left knee. She is out for the Kentucky game.
Angie Bjorklund missed the first five games of the season because of a bulging disc in her lower back. Shekinna Stricklen missed a start because of stomach illness. Kelley Cain missed four games because of a concussion. Alicia Manning missed one game because of a concussion. Baugh missed the first three games of the season because of her knee and will now miss a fourth because of a new injury to the same knee.
The coaches have had all 12 players available for only four games – DePaul, George Washington, Texas and Gonzaga – out of 13 this season, and McMahan was pulled at halftime against Texas.
"We've been challenged," Pat Summitt said. "There's no doubt we've been challenged. As you look at it now it's probably been a good thing because someone had to step up when Vicki Baugh went down (before the Rutgers game). And Kelley Cain stepped up. Lyssi Brewer stepped up. Glory Johnson stepped up. That's when you know that this team wants to win. I think that's not been all bad for us. Hopefully because of that they gained some better experience."
Johnson is the only one to have started all 13 games this season. Her last game against Rutgers was her best because of how under control she played on both ends of the floor.
"Yes. Composure, composure. Favorite word for Glory," Summitt said.
"Glory, I thought she played big for us on both ends of the floor and with more composure," Summitt added in her weekly teleconference on Wednesday. "That's been the one word I've just stuck on in trying to get her to slow down. Typically you have to get players to speed up. I thought she stepped up for us in a huge way and she had a lot more composure. There's still great upside to what Glory can do for us, but certainly she was big in the Rutgers game."
Brewer also has come of age in the last two games – she played well at Gonzaga and at Rutgers and even started the second half against the Scarlet Knights – and is figuring out her role on the team, a key part of the process for a first-year player.
"I think it's a couple of things," Brewer said. "Some games I might be sitting on the bench but I have to cheer my team on. I'm going to be there for them every second of the way. And other times I'll be out there on the floor and I have to think of how somebody else would play if they were out there in my shoes. I take the two things and put them together, and it's all for the team."
That was a rather esoteric answer, and Summitt just smiled and shook her head when it was relayed to her for clarification.
"Maybe I can simplify it for you," Summitt said. "Lyssi, whether she starts or comes off the bench, she needs to commit to being a scorer for us in the paint and running to the rim and rebound the ball and continue to work on defending high post, low post, being a better defender."
Summitt seemed to be contemplating starting Brewer on Thursday but she was leaning towards sticking with experience by having the steady Alex Fuller in the lineup. But Brewer, as she found out at Rutgers, needs to be ready.
Brewer's position coach, Dean Lockwood, noted that the forward has to continue making progress in practice, where the groundwork for game performance is molded.
"She's made headway," Lockwood said. "Before I say she's turned a corner I want to see more evidence. I want to see more consistency. But there is no question that kid has made as much improvement as any of our post players. She has made as much or more improvement than anybody in the post group from day one from October 17 to this day right now. That kid has made as much headway as anybody."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Kentucky game. Here is his assessment.
When Kentucky has the ball: Expect to see a lot of high-low action, so much so that Pat Summitt compared the Wildcats to Stanford in her teleconference.
"That's what they do really well," Lockwood said. "They are very good at creating off the dribble. They get to the free throw line over 20 times a game. They get 17.5 offensive boards a game so that means they're very effective. They're kind of what an athletic team or a team with good athletes will do a lot – they'll try to take you off the dribble, get into the paint, play the midrange game very well, they offensive rebound, try to draw fouls through their penetration and offensive rebounding.
"So we really have to do a good job controlling the paint and in their set action they really do a lot of high-low so we have to do a great job defending that."
Defensively, Lockwood expects Kentucky to open in a man defense and convert to zone looks, if necessary.
"They're a man team who will mix some zone in," he said. "They've played some 2-3 zone through the year. I think they try to go on a game-to-game basis and see what's effective. If you look at them their overall philosophy would be man, but if they think zone works, they'll play a full half of zone if they need to. With us it's probably going to be an experimental thing for them as far as what they feel is more effective."
When Tennessee has the ball: "Especially at home we want the tempo to be fast," Lockwood said. "We want to push the ball. If we can get some early looks and some paint touches in transition we want to do that. But then I think so much hinges on our ability to get the ball inside and establish an inside game and a presence. That doesn't mean there will always be shots from there, but what we want to do is we want to get the ball inside. We want to play the game from the inside-out.
"That's going to be that way against most opponents but certainly on Thursday night we feel like if we're playing our game and doing what we should be doing we should have a chance to do that."
Defensively, Tennessee went to a zone defense in the second half against Rutgers and stayed in it.
"We had seen enough tape (on Rutgers) that we felt like they might struggle against zone and become tentative," Lockwood said. "We didn't want to do too much in the first half – we debated going back and forth in it – part of it we were probably all a little stubborn and saying we wanted to stick with (man), but at the same time we didn't want to show too much and thought that we could hang in there. At that point the bombardment is happening. We just felt like our zone could help us in the second half."
On Thursday, look for the Lady Vols to revert to their man principles.
"I think with this game I think we're looking at playing man to start with," Lockwood said. "We want to let our man defense dictate a lot of things for us. I think we can best take away high-low action doing that."
Tennessee's practice sessions Monday and Tuesday devoted a lot of time to defending the middle of the floor – the launching point for the high-low game.
"They run high-low action all the time," Summitt said. "If we don't take away the middle of the floor then it'll be a long night for us. They've got players who can beat you off the dribble. Defense is a high priority."
Another benefit of Tennessee's man defense is the Lady Vols board better out of it.
"From a rebounding sense you have a personal responsibility," Lockwood said. "In a zone sometimes one of the negatives is it exonerates people from personal responsibility. I think that man gives us a little more of a comfort level for all of us, players and staff, that you've got personal responsibility. If someone (on the opposing team) gets an offensive rebound we know who the matchup is."
Tennessee will look tonight to start better. In the past two games the Lady Vols have waited to get going offensively. They responded faster at Gonzaga, but the start at Rutgers should have been fatal. It took the biggest comeback in school history to secure the win.
Angie Bjorklund said the team is too overanxious in the very beginning of the game, so Summitt decided to borrow a page from football coaches and codify the opening minutes of the game on offense.
"The only thing that we've addressed – and I think this is something that I really need to devote attention to – is really script the first four minutes, and know exactly what we want to run offensively," Summitt said. "That's where sometimes we get a little overanxious and I think we quick-shoot the ball some. But just really scripting out what we want to in the four-minute segment to start the game."
ON TAP: All 12 SEC teams are in action tonight. The other matchups are: Vanderbilt at Alabama; LSU at Arkansas; Auburn at South Carolina; Mississippi State at Florida; and Georgia at Ole Miss.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series over Kentucky, 43-6. The Lady Vols are 19-2 at home against the Wildcats with the two losses in Knoxville coming in 1983 and 1985 before Tennessee played at Thompson-Boling Arena. The last win for Kentucky came in Lexington on Jan. 26, 2006, and it was after Tennessee had lost to Duke, sending the Lady Vols to rare back-to-back defeats. The last time before that was 10 years earlier in the 1996-97 season. The 2006 loss to Kentucky was also the last time Tennessee lost an SEC game on the road, a streak that is now at 17 games. … Tennessee is 8-2 in games played on January 8. The last win on this date was over Connecticut, 68-67, in 2005. The two losses were to Georgia, 77-71, in 1996, and to Connecticut, 74-67, in 2000. … Sunday's game against Vanderbilt has been added to the TV schedule and will be aired by CSS at 3 p.m. Eastern. Currently, 21 Lady Vol games are being televised this season. A school-record 36 games were on television last season. There is a good chance that Pat Summitt's 1,000th career win will be televised. She is six away from the milestone, and the earliest it could come would be against Auburn on Jan. 25 (CSS). The three games after that one also will be televised: Ole Miss on Jan. 29 (ESPNU); Oklahoma on Feb. 2 (ESPN2); and Georgia on Feb. 5 (FSN-South). … Tennessee is 24-5 in SEC openers – and 12-2 at home – dating back to the 1979-80 season. Georgia (1984, 1996), Auburn (1988, 1989) and Vanderbilt (1990) have spoiled the start for the Lady Vols. Tennessee has a winning record against every team in the conference and has never lost to Mississippi State. The streak against Alabama has reached 33 in a row. Tennessee's overall record against the 11 other SEC teams is 398-59. … This will be the 50th meeting between Tennessee and Kentucky. The Lady Vols have played two other programs more times – Vanderbilt at 58 and Georgia at 53. Kentucky is on the schedule twice this season, along with Mississippi State in the SEC rotation. Natural rival Vanderbilt is also a double foe. … By the numbers: Tennessee averages 75.7 points per game and allows 61.9. Kentucky averages 64.7 ppg and allows 58.7. The Lady Vols are shooting 41.3 percent from the field overall, 33.0 percent from behind the arc and 67.7 percent from the free throw line. Kentucky is shooting 37.4 percent from the field, 27.2 percent from behind the arc and 69.5 percent from the line. The Lady Vols are making 4.8 threes a game and allowing 4.9 from long range. Kentucky makes 4.4 threes a game and allows 4.6. Tennessee averages 46.7 rebounds per game and has a +8.2 margin on the glass. Kentucky averages 45.1 boards and has a +8.9 margin. The Lady Vols average 13.2 assists and 16.7 turnovers a game. The Wildcats average 9.3 assists and 18.3 turnovers. Tennessee gets 9.8 steals and 5.2 blocks a game. Kentucky gets 7.5 steals and 4.5 blocks.