The seven losses is the most since the 1996-97 team, and the regular season winds up with Kentucky, a team that led the Lady Vols late in Knoxville; Mississippi State, a team that led early and late in Starkville; LSU, a tough team at home coming on strong late in SEC play; and Vanderbilt, a team that beat Tennessee in Nashville.
Still, Bass has confidence that the young team can regroup, especially in the postseason.
"I think that we're going to be OK," Bass said. "Honestly, I think we're going to be OK. I think we're going to make it pretty far in the tournament, and I think we have the chance and the opportunity to go all the way."
Bass said it without bravado. The tone was one of wanting to believe in the team, but that level of can-do confidence is partly why Bass is back in the starting lineup. As the team's only true point guard she wants the ball in her hand and relaxes against a pressing team.
"I like doing that, weaving around the press," Bass said. "It doesn't really bother me when teams try to press. I look down the court, see how the defense is set up and get my teammates involved."
Bass also can generally be relied on to take care of the basketball.
"I think since I've played point so much, I just try not to put too much pressure on myself and not to make the hard pass, try to go for the easy pass," Bass said. "So I think that's something that I've kind of learned over the years about being a point guard."
The coaches had fretted over Bass' 5'2 size in some matchups as teams took advantage of her defensively, but two things have occurred: Bass' defense has gotten better, and she's the one player who truly wants to play point guard.
Fellow freshmen Shekinna Stricklen and Alicia Manning were thrusts into the roles by necessity when Cait McMahan was lost for the season because of a balky knee. But they have both struggled and surrendered points to the other team with turnovers at spots on the floor that usually end with easy baskets.
However, Bass can't play a full game. She had ACL surgery on her left knee last March and ACL surgery on her right knee during her sophomore year of high school in Indianapolis. That knee has a knot on it that comes and goes and causes some pain. The left knee is feeling the effects of a long season.
"My knees are killing me," Bass said. "I have this big knot from my surgery. It gets bigger, and it goes down. All inside is hurting on this one (left knee), and then my knot is hurting here, so I'm banged up."
Needless to say Bass will need some relief in games.
"She's not going to go 40 minutes so we've got to have backup," Pat Summitt said. "I think they're more comfortable when she's on the floor but at the same time they've got to get comfortable when she's not on the floor.
"As I told Shekinna and Alicia they're making a big deal out of moving to the point because they played on the perimeter. I said all you've got do is make an entry pass, and now we're all players. In their minds it's bigger than life."
Bass doesn't make the position bigger than it is, no pun intended about her size. It's her natural spot on the floor and she is comfortable with the ball in her hand. It was when the ball was in her opponent's hand that she has struggled. So she had a film session with Summitt in which they watched clips of the 5'2 Shannon Bobbitt on defense. It was of tremendous help to Bass.
"Yeah, because I didn't really understand," Bass said. "She would tell me that I needed to do this, that and the other, but I really wasn't understanding until she actually showed me what she was talking about, because I'm more of a visual learner than hearing."
Bass wants the film session to be regular ones with Summitt or one of the assistant coaches – she wants to see her opponent and get refreshed on concepts.
"I think it's a little bit of both," Bass said. "I think it would help out."
Summitt indicated in her media teleconference Wednesday that the process was beneficial for Bass.
"I see a difference," Summitt said. "I can see the light has come on in her head that ‘I've got to do a better job of running the point position and also being a better defender, and not taking possessions off on defense.' She of all people needs to know how important it is for her to box out."
Summitt is trying to limit comparing this team to past ones because she knows the same message can get stale. The team has viewed clips of how last year's team played, although it should be noted Summitt stayed on that group all season to play for 40 minutes and they finally did – in the postseason.
"We showed our team last year's team, just how they played the game," Summitt said. "How they played on the defensive end, their aggressiveness, their commitment to denying the middle of the floor and just their toughness. I think short-term that helped them.
"Certainly, it would not hurt to continue to show that, but sometimes, some teams or some players I'm sure are thinking, ‘We're tired of hearing about teams of the past. We want to focus on the present,' which I think we could perhaps do a combination of both."
Summitt has been frustrated with her young team. The seven losses have weighed on her, and she has been pushing motivational buttons and challenging them in practice and games.
"This has been a challenge, biggest challenge I've had in my coaching career, this team," Summitt said. "I know the team that lost the 10, I should put them together. They had more competitors than this team. … You never knew what you were going to get. You didn't know who was going to show up."
During those remarks on Tuesday at Pratt Pavilion, Summitt made reference to Shelley Sexton as one of the competitors on the 10-loss team but that was in 1984-85. She clarified Wednesday in her teleconference that she meant the 1996-97 squad, the team most fans and writers associate with a 10-loss team because it went on to win a national title.
"Actually, I thought about this after I left," Summitt said. "I was talking about the 1996-97 team. Now you know how frustrated I was, I didn't even know what year it was. Doesn't that tell you something? I did, I thought about it last night when I was sitting there talking with (1976 Olympic coach) Coach (Billie) Moore. We were talking about this year and how challenging it has been with seven freshmen. Of course, Kelley Cain is a redshirt freshman, but the progress she made during last year even though she wasn't playing, she learned a lot about how we do things around here and how important it is to step up and be a player in the program.
I told Billie, I'm so frustrated I got my teams mixed up."
Summitt laughed when told that at least this year's team was her most frustrating in some 10 years, not some 20 years, so at least she has maintained a sense of humor. And she laughed as she related talking to Moore about the mix-up.
But Summitt is not laughing about her team's uneven performances – likely attributable to its extreme youth, but coaches will always maintain that freshmen must grow up by season's end.
Summitt has not lost back-to-back games since January 2006 when Tennessee lost at Duke and then went on the road and lost to Kentucky. The 2009 loss to Duke was in Knoxville, but the team is back on the road for Kentucky. Is that motivation to not repeat?
"I don't think it would matter," Summitt said. "If I thought it would help me I would say it. I don't know. I really don't know."
As Bass laced up her shoes to get ready for what would turn out to be a 3.5-hour practice on Tuesday she acknowledged that being a freshman in Summitt's system is demanding.
"Sometime it is kind of a challenge for us being freshmen and all, but we can't use our age as an excuse, but sometimes it can be a overwhelming trying to go out there and perform to the highest capability," Bass said. "I think basically we just have to learn how to go out there and do what we're asked to do and try to perform at the best of our capabilities."
Bass had really never been yelled at by a coach before arriving at Tennessee, so her adjustment to Summitt has been substantial.
"My teammates just encourage me and tell me to keep my head up, and I listen to them," Bass said. "They have my back."
Bass also has seen the clip from last season in which an infuriated Summitt screamed at Bobbitt after a technical foul that "this is not about you." Bass smiled when reminded and agreed that it's part of being a point guard at Tennessee, one of the biggest stages in college basketball.
The freshmen also are learning how teams attack Tennessee, especially those who have lost to the Lady Vols over the years and believe this year is the best chance to get a win – before all the first-year players mature into the system. It has been eye opening for the newcomers.
"We just have to deal with it and just try to go out there and give it our all, just stay together as a team and work through adversity," Bass said. "That's all we can do. We can't really get down on ourselves right now. We've just got to get refocused and just go out there and give it our all."
Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said the best thing for a team coming off a loss is to get back on the court.
"No doubt," Lockwood said. "Unlike football where we have to wait a week we've got a game here and another in three days. Definitely that is what will be the best thing for us is to go play another game and we're back in conference where we're still fighting and battling to not play on that first day. I think it will be the best thing for us.
"It's like anything else. You'll find out what you hopefully learned from the things that sting or hurt. Duke looked more like Tennessee than Tennessee did, and we're all hoping that our kids took that and said, ‘Man, we can't let that happen again. We've got to come out and have a little bit more pow in our punch.' "
The punch needs to come early – as opposed to getting punched and starting in a 12-3 hole as happened against Duke – and thus the coaching staff has opted to return Bass to the starting lineup because she puts the team in the best position for a strong start.
"We know and this is not a revelation Bree is the only pure point guard on our team," Lockwood said. "That's what she is. That's her identity. I think that makes such a difference. Kinna can play and she is probably going to have to play it in stretches. We're going to try to minimize the time that she's playing it, but there may be some moments where it works that way if Bree gets in foul trouble or, heaven forbid, she gets hurt.
"It's not like we're never going to have to go to Plan B again, but one thing about Bree is she is a pure, pure point guard, somebody to start our game and get us going, somebody who pushes the ball and does not have to be the primary scorer, and Kinna can concentrate on attacking and looking for shots."
It's a lot to put on the shoulders of a freshman point guard, and Bass has handled the in and out of the starting lineup with aplomb. She even gave a shout-out to Stricklen.
"She handles the point pretty well, but I think sometimes I relieve some pressure from her," Stricklen said.
And the smallest player on Tennessee's roster has the biggest belief in her team.
"Don't ever count us out," Bass said. "Stay behind us because we're going to impress you."
PROBABLE STARTERS: Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Briana Bass, 5'2 freshman guard, No. 1 (4.5 points per game, 1.6 rebounds per game, 2.2 assists per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 sophomore guard, No. 5 (11.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.8 apg); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 freshman forward, No. 40 (12.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 2.9 apg); Alex Fuller, 6'3 senior forward, No. 2 (7.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg); and Kelley Cain, 6'6 redshirt freshmen center, No. 52 (6.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg)
Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell is expected to start: Carly Ormerod, 5'8 senior guard, No. 00 (5.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg), back in starting lineup after being treated for reoccurring sesamoiditis in her left foot, missed seven games this season, has 98 career three-pointers; Amber Smith, 5'5 sophomore guard, No. 24 (7.7 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 3.7 apg), leads Wildcats with 92 assists, had six against Auburn, shifts to point guard in Ormerod's absence; Amani Franklin, 5'11 junior guard, No. 25 (10.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg), has scored in double figures in four of last five games and hit 35 three-pointers this season; Victoria Dunlap, 6'1 sophomore forward, No. 34 (12.4 ppg, 8.7 rpg), leads SEC in overall rebounding and offensive boards; and Eleia Roddy, 6'3 redshirt senior forward/center, No. 1 (12.0 ppg, 8.5 rpg), recorded her 11th double-double of the season against Auburn with 21 points and 10 rebounds.
Sophomore Carly Morrow, who is from Chattanooga, had a career-high 16 points and hit 4-5 from behind the arc in the first game against Tennessee this season but has struggled to score of late and has been coming off the bench with Ormerod back in the lineup. Ormerod played less than a minute in the January game in Knoxville, which Tennessee won, 69-64.
"It is really difficult," Mitchell said. "You enter the season with very high expectations for your team and when you don't perform up to that level it is disappointing. My job as the leader of the program and the coach is to keep the facts squarely in front of them and that is what we try to deal in is the facts. There are certain reasons why we are losing games and we are identifying those and we go to work on them in practice."
Thursday will be Kentucky's first game in a week so the Wildcats have had some time in practice to work on offense. The Wildcats' defense has been quite stiff this season in SEC play.
"We need to show our players that we have a lot to play for and a win over Tennessee would be tremendous for us," Mitchell said. "We had a chance down in Knoxville to beat them and there were certain things that we did in that game that kept us from winning. So we just need to correct those things. We have to really believe in what we are doing and stay the course and stay focused on what our principles are and stay honest with our players. We have to work really hard in practice and try to get a higher level of discipline. That is one thing that I am disappointed in our team right now is that I don't think that we are as disciplined as we should be at this point in the season."
By discipline, Mitchell explained that he meant "carrying out assignments, staying with the game plan, not having mental breakdowns and it seems like there is a three- to four-minute period in every game where we just mentally break down and don't do the things that we need to do."
"In the Auburn game we obviously got down to a big margin and it happened in the Florida game as well," Mitchell added. "Against two ranked teams on the road we had mental lapses that put us in a spot where it was very difficult to come back. In both games we cut the lead to five or six points but those mental errors are what I would like to correct and I think that we can correct them with a little more discipline in our team."
Kentucky is expecting a packed house for the game. It's the designated WBCA Pink Zone game, and general admission tickets were being offered for $1 while they lasted. Memorial Coliseum holds 8,500.
"It is our turn to participate in a weeklong initiative set up by the WBCA," Mitchell said. "We have already seen a lot of activity this week about it and if we could encourage our fans to come out and participate and help us raise funds for breast cancer and breast cancer research that would be tremendous. They can also come out and help us beat a very good Tennessee team and a big crowd would make a big difference for us."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Kentucky game for the second time this season. Here is his updated assessment.
When Kentucky has the ball: The high-low game was a central part of Kentucky's action in the game in Knoxville.
"They're still doing some of that," Lockwood said. "They're ball screening more. They're setting quite a few back screens and so we have to be ready to defend that action. They're a very good team in the paint. They can make threes – (Carly) Morrow is probably their greatest threat and (Amani) Franklin can get hot and make them and (Carly) Ormerod is playing now – but they really score in the paint and that's where we have to do a good job of taking over that part of their game.
"They're a very good rebounding team – especially (Victoria) Dunlap and (Eleia) Roddy. They're first and fourth in the league, respectively, and the two leading offensive rebounders, so that's going to be pretty important. They're averaging about five made threes a game, but their strength is still in the paint."
Defensively, the Wildcats varied their looks in the first game, so Lockwood explains a similar game plan.
"They zoned us a little bit and then played man," Lockwood said. "They mixed it up a little bit. I do expect to see some zone in stretches, too, but I really believe they'll start man. They play a mix."
"It's been good for us," Lockwood said. "Definitely we want to incorporate it and make it a part of what we're doing."
Offensive stagnation was an issue in Monday's 62-54 loss to Duke so that aspect of the game received quite a bit of work in Tuesday's practice.
"We were just running around with no real purpose and not using screens," Pat Summitt said.
Tennessee has three-point shooters, but Angie Bjorklund was bottled up and then misfiring, and Shekinna Stricklen was also off of her game. The Lady Vols had screening action plays called, but the execution has been spotty at best and abysmal at worst this season.
"The absolute worst I've had to deal with," Summitt said. "Why? The youngest team I've ever coached. Most of the time when we are in our screening series they are not even waiting on the posts. The post player is coming up, and they're gone. They're passing each other in the possession. So either the guard is not waiting or the post isn't waiting.
"There are times the guard will take off before the post gets there and that's not going to work. So we're going to have a moving screen on that. It's getting them to know when to be deliberate and when to be aggressive. There are times that you have to be very deliberate and you have to wait and there are times that you want to be aggressive and go."
Summitt is relying on Fuller and Cain in the paint to open the game because of their offensive efficiency. Brewer also can score inside but her 0-5 stat line at the free throw line landed her on the bench in the final minutes of the Duke game. Johnson has struggled shooting the ball but can explode and get to the rim at will.
"I thought Alex and Kelley were our two most efficient, aside from Lyssi and then she's 0-5 from the free throw line," Summitt said. "It's hard to count on her in that situation. It's usually a wait and see for (Glory). Have to wait and see what she's bringing."
Tennessee wants to score inside, but Summitt does not want to limit that to post touches.
"I think we've got a lot of guards that just settle," Summitt said. "I think (Shekinna) Stricklen has settled for the three ball and she needs to get to the paint and get to the free throw line. Same thing for Syd (Smallbone). I think our guards have got to be more aggressive off the dribble and get to free throw line more. I definitely thought we missed opportunities to get paint points but not just by feeding the post – getting to the paint."
Briana Bass got to the rim twice against Duke and was fouled both times, making all four free throws. She had been getting blocked earlier in the season but is picking her spots better now.
"I think I've kind of learned throughout the season when I can go in there and when I can't go in there," Bass said. "If I see an opening, then I should take it, and if not, if I don't think I can there, then just bring it back out."
Summitt also wants the guards to find the bigs inside. Cain can seal her defender in the post, but the ball must arrive when she gets open and the timing has been off, so Cain needs to be spotted and fed sooner.
"Yeah, we need to," Bass said. "Coach always talks about us getting the ball inside to the post, so we really need to work on that."
Tennessee has not shot the ball well all season and the woes have extended to the free throw line of late. The Lady Vols know what they need to do – it has been drilled in practice – so now it's a matter of execution.
"We've got to make layups, we've got to make free throws, we've got to be more efficient in setting and using screens and getting open looks and not trying to do it by themselves," Summitt said. "We try one on one a lot as opposed to getting help – that's five people working together for a common goal to get the best shot every possession you can get. That doesn't always happen."
Tennessee also has to adjust to personnel on the floor. With the assortment of knee surgeries and playing styles, Bass and the other guards must be ready to push tempo on some occasions and settle into a half-court offense on others.
"It's been a difficult challenge," Summitt said. "I think because we have a variety of players. We have players that really look to get up and down, and push the tempo. We have other players who play better when the game is a little bit slower. I've even contemplated how much should we push tempo and how much should we set up and try to execute in the half-court. I know part of that depends on the game and the opponent, but it has been difficult.
"Glory Johnson's background is as a track runner. Everything she does, she wants to do at an all-out pace. To get her to know when to play more slow to fast or fast to slow, that has been a process and we're still learning. We've got players like Lyssi, she's had to learn to sprint the floor hard to get to the rim and my big challenge for her right now is to be able to create a scoring opportunity before she gets the ball. She'll go to the block instead of the rim. Kelley Cain has done a good job of getting to the rim for us. But Lyssi will go to the block and catch the ball, and then figure out how she is going to create a scoring opportunity instead of getting it in advance."
When Summitt was told that Bass believes the team can try to make a run to finish the regular season and prepare for postseason, she smiled and said, "Trying would be a good start if they all tried together."
Summitt also wants her team to develop the mindset of the two championship ones – when the shots aren't falling, stop the other team from scoring.
"Their offense affects their defense," Summitt said. "It affects their rebounding. Why? The only thing I can tell you is young players. Am I giving them an out? No. I just told them that's no excuse. Not when we are this deep into our season."
Defensively, the Lady Vols have typically been a man unit, but the matchup zone has been used this season, and Lockwood said both looks could be deployed against Kentucky.
"We will experiment with that a little bit based on how the game is going," Lockwood said. "Right now with this team we're all for what works. We're all for what's effective. But I think our identity is man and I don't think that's going to change anytime soon. That is what we would like to make our primary defense and that is what we would like to really get good at."
ON TAP: Eight other SEC teams are playing Thursday in the following matchups: Ole Miss at Alabama; Arkansas at Florida; Auburn at Vanderbilt; and LSU at Georgia. Mississippi State, which plays at Tennessee on Sunday, is idle, as is South Carolina.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Kentucky, 44-6. The Wildcats last won in Lexington on Jan. 26, 2006, in Rupp Arena. The last win for Kentucky at Memorial Coliseum was Jan. 24, 1986. The Lady Vols' overall record in Lexington is 18-4. … Tennessee is 10-2 in games played on Feb. 19. The last win on this date was against LSU, 56-51, in 2007. The two losses on this date were to North Carolina-Greensboro, 51-36, in 1972 (the same day also saw a win over Western Carolina, 48-44, in 1972 when it was common for teams to play twice a day in a tourney); and to Georgia, 84-65, in 1984. … In the what-if category from Tennessee's game notes compiled by media relations chief Debby Jennings: "Tennessee's Pat Head Summitt could very well have coached her 1,000th win at the University of Kentucky a couple of weeks ago. Then-UK basketball coach and administrator Sue Feamster was looking to hand over the reins to the women's team in 1975. Feamster contacted Head about the job. UK planned to offer Head a little more money than she was making in Knoxville. The sticking point? Head asked for moving expenses. UK said ‘no.' The rest, as they say, is history." …. BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee is averaging 71.2 points a game while allowing 63.0. Kentucky averages 63.4 points while allowing 61.0. The Lady Vols are shooting 40.8 percent from the field overall, 32.8 percent from behind the arc and 66.3 percent from the free throw line. The Wildcats are shooting 37.6 percent overall, 29.4 percent from long range and 69.8 percent from the line. Tennessee averages 44.0 rebounds per game for a +7.6 margin. Kentucky averages 41.7 boards for a +4.8 margin. The Lady Vols average 13.3 assists and 17.1 turnovers a game. The Wildcats average 9.7 assists and 17.8 turnovers. Tennessee averages 8.6 steals and 4.5 blocks a game. Kentucky averages 7.0 steals and 3.9 blocks per game.