No. 5 seed Tennessee (20-9) is the first game of the evening session and will tip off Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Eastern (TV: Fox Sports Net-South; Lady Vol Radio Network) against No.12 seed Alabama (13-16). Tennessee's record in first day openers is 1-0 with a 75-48 win over South Carolina in 1997, the last time the Lady Vols were in action on the first day of the conference tournament.
With a roster of 10 players – with six true freshmen and one redshirt one with a still-healing right knee – the coaching staff recognizes the formidable task ahead for a young team with just three players, Alex Fuller, Angie Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone, with postseason experience.
Pat Summitt said during her Wednesday morning teleconference that she still needed to talk with her staff, but she was leaning towards using the three-guard lineup that she used in the regular season finale against Vanderbilt.
Fuller, a 6'3 redshirt senior forward (8.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg); Cain, a 6'6 redshirt freshman center (8.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg); Bjorklund, a 6'0 sophomore guard (12.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg); Smallbone, a 5'10 sophomore guard (3.1 ppg, 1.0 rpg); and Stricklen, a 6'2 freshman guard/forward (13.1 ppg, 6.0 rpg) would open up for the Lady Vols with Glory Johnson, a 6'3 freshman forward, providing a sparkplug off the bench.
In the previous matchup with Alabama – an 80-61 Tennessee win – the Crimson Tide played a lot of zone defense and the Lady Vols shot their way to the win. Smallbone had 11 points and hit three 3-pointers in a relief role. Fuller led the Lady Vols with 18 points, and Bjorklund added 13 on the strength of three 3-pointers. Alicia Manning added 10 points off the bench and logged additional minutes, along with Smallbone, because Stricklen went out in the first half with a subluxation of her right kneecap.
Alabama Coach Wendell Hudson is expected to start: Dedrea Magee, a 5'7 junior guard (7.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 4.5 apg), played 40 minutes in the game against Tennessee; Ericka Russell, a 5'7 freshman guard (9.9 ppg, 2.4 rpg), named to the SEC All-Freshman Team; Varisia Raffington, a 5'11 sophomore guard (9.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg), averaging 13.7 points in SEC games, hit seven 3-pointers against Vandy; Katie Hancock, a 5'11 sophomore forward (4.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg), missed 19 games last season because of an ACL injury; and Courtney Strauthers, a 6'4 junior forward/center (5.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg), has hit 51.2 percent of her shots for her career.
Tierney Jenkins, a 6'0 sophomore forward (11.9 ppg, 7.5 rpg), started against Tennessee but picked up two fouls in the first half and did not return to the game. Jenkins has been coming off the bench since that game and had 25 points and 14 rebounds against Ole Miss.
Cain was still getting her court legs under her – it was her first career start – and she had nine points and eight boards. The health of Cain's surgically repaired knee will be key for the Lady Vols this week as they try to string together consecutive games.
In the last eight games, Cain has connected on 69 percent of her shots (48-69) and has per-game averages of 12.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.4 blocks. In her last two games, she has connected on 13-14 shots, going 6-6 at LSU and 7-8 versus Vanderbilt.
"Right now Kelley Cain, she's a real force for us," Summitt said. "She's going to get a lot of touches. I'm sure she's going to draw a lot of defense as well because of just her ability to catch and score at the rim. She plays within herself, she knows her role and second time around I'm sure she'll probably draw a whole lot more attention. That means somebody else will have to step up.
The perimeter shooters for Tennessee have welcomed Cain onto the court with open arms. She commands attention inside, finishes at the rim and will kick the ball out to an open shooter if bottled up in the paint.
"Kelley has been stepping up huge for us and she definitely makes a huge difference, just her inside presence," Bjorklund said. "You can't stop 6'6. When she's posting up and playing hard like she is that's really tough to stop so we're just utilizing her as much as we can."
Bjorklund has benefited from the breathing space that Cain creates for the guards, and has returned the favor by looking to get the ball to the center.
"Everybody understands to get her the ball," Summitt said. "It's hard for people to guard her because she does position so well. She has great hands and a great shooting touch. You better think about (guarding her with) a player and a half. And if that happens hopefully we can get the inside-out game going. We've done that pretty well. She and Alex have played very well together in the high-low game.
"Kelley drew so much attention in the paint (the last two games) that we had a great inside-outside attack. I thought that, not only Angie (Bjorklund), but I thought Shekinna (Stricklen) benefited, as well, with inside-out play."
With Cain's knee in mind and the hope for an extended stay in Little Rock, Summitt hopes to be able to rely on her bench players.
"We'll have to go deeper," Summitt said. "I don't want to necessarily predetermine how deep that will be. I think it's just a wait and see and a feel during the game.
"This is a different situation for us, and Kelley's not been in that (back-to-back games) so I don't know how she'll respond. I think we're going to have to get some good help off the bench as well, especially if we can survive and advance."
One player who is well past where she was a year ago is Bjorklund, who hit a freshman wall of fatigue and struggled to shoot the ball. She ended up being replaced in the starting lineup in the title game of the SEC tourney a year ago. Bjorklund is entrenched in the starting lineup this season – she was named Tuesday to the coaches' All-SEC Second Team – and has found her outside touch to go with solid defense and board play. She is 10-17 from long range in the past two games.
"I think having a year under my belt has really helped me," Bjorklund said. "I know that this is a long season now. Last year I didn't really understand that. You can say, ‘All right, it's going to last six months, but you don't really know what that means and how much you need to put forth until you get there. This past summer I did take a good solid break off and the year before that I played USA ball and stuff, so I think the summer off helped me, too."
That bodes well for a year from now when Tennessee's seven freshmen are sophomores entering their second postseason, but in the meantime Summitt and her staff are trying to forge a run with the youngest team in program history.
It could be to Tennessee's advantage that this tournament doesn't have a dominant favorite – at least not by the standards of the past several years when the specter of Tennessee and LSU hung over the other competitors. From 2002 to 2008, either Tennessee or LSU was in the championship game with the two squaring off against each other in 2003 (LSU won) and 2005, 2006 and 2008 (Tennessee won).
"I think it's more open than maybe we anticipated early on," Summitt said. "I think Auburn (the regular season champion) right now is the team to beat in the end the way they've been playing, but anything can happen in the SEC Tournament. Some teams feel like they've got to have a win – it's a must-win for them as far as going into the tournament and trying to be playing in the finals. But again anything can happen."
LSU enters the tourney with a five-game winning streak, a turnaround Coach Van Chancellor attributes to starting more experience and fewer freshmen.
"I think everybody had LSU dead and buried six weeks ago and now they look like they're playing as good as any team in the conference," Arkansas Coach Tom Collen said.
Collen also isn't counting out Tennessee, despite the early start on Thursday. The last team to win four straight games at the tourney was Auburn in 1997.
"I've told the national media don't be surprised after a long, hard tough season that the Lady Vols come down here, despite the fact that they've got to play the first day as a five seed, and they'd have to win four games now in order to win the championship, but I think they're battle-tested, they're tough enough, they're talented enough and it wouldn't shock me a bit if when the dust settles Tennessee's in that championship game with as good a chance to win as anybody," Collen said.
The last time Tennessee was a five seed was in 1997 when the Lady Vols beat South Carolina and LSU (100-99 in overtime) and then lost to eventual champion, Auburn, 61-59 in the semifinals. The Lady Vols also enter this tourney as a five seed.
"I think it says two things," Summitt said. "First of all it says that we're a young basketball team, and LSU and Tennessee have been two of the best in the last four years. Things have changed. We have a young team. Van has a young team. So with that said, I think it speaks also to the overall parity I think there is in this league. Auburn obviously has been very, very impressive, along with Vanderbilt, but if you just look there have been a lot of upsets.
"Or, is it really upsets? I think there may be a little bit more balance, particularly in the middle of the league, and that's not a bad thing. I think that's probably good for the game, a little painful for us because we haven't been in that top one or two teams in the league this year, but I understood going in that this was going to be a real challenge, especially when we lost Cait McMahan and Vicki Baugh."
McMahan, a redshirt sophomore point guard, and Baugh, a sophomore forward, were projected starters for Tennessee but McMahan had to stop playing because of chronic right knee pain and Baugh re-tore the ACL in her left knee.
That meant Stricklen has had to log additional minutes at point guard – fellow freshman Briana Bass comes off the bench and also is coming off major knee surgery – but the point/wing/forward has gradually gotten more comfortable in the role. North Little Rock is about 30 minutes from her hometown of Morrilton, Ark., so Stricklen will likely have her own cheering section. She was the featured story on the front page of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette with a headline that said, "Shine on, Shekinna," and showed a photo of her smiling during a game.
"I think she'll be excited to have a lot of people from Arkansas come watch her play," Summitt said. "Choosing to leave home and come to Tennessee, that to me, was never a question mark for her because we began recruiting her very early. I remember watching her as a ninth-grader and everyone said then that she had set her school and it was Tennessee.
"With that said, I know there's going to be a lot of people that come watch her. Hopefully she'll keep her focus on what she has to do on the court. She'll have plenty of time to visit with family and friends, but right now I think she knows what we're counting on her to do for us. She's playing a big role for us and she has all year, but it's even bigger now that we're heading into tournament play."
Stricklen has matured over the course of the season – perhaps more than any other true freshman on the roster – and despite the various starting lineups, 12 in all this season, she has started every game except one, and that was against Old Dominion last December, when she was held out because of stomach illness.
"I do feel like there's another gear I can go into," Stricklen said. "I feel like I can limit my turnovers. Just take care of the ball, don't try to rush things. I get in trouble because I dribble a lot to the sideline. I really need to stay in the middle, and I have more space.
"I feel like the last couple of games I've been playing really well the second half. The first half I really need to bring it around and come out from the start and play good from the first half to the second half. When shots aren't falling I get down, but mostly I was letting my offense control my whole play. Defense needs to control your whole game. Hustle plays really make a difference. You've got to hustle and give effort."
Those are the remarks of a first-year player who is figuring out, and more importantly, buying into, the Lady Vol system.
Stricklen also has shown signs of becoming a floor leader. During a home game on Feb. 22 against Mississippi State the freshman spoke to Johnson about a defensive assignment. After a few remarks she smacked hands with Johnson in support and encouragement.
"It's something I need to get more comfortable with – Coach is always on me telling me I need to talk," Stricklen said. "Playing point and stepping up and being a leader that's something you've just got to do. When someone is slacking you've got to tell them, ‘Pick it up.' When I'm slacking they always come tell me, ‘You've got to pick it up. We really need you.' That's what I was doing – picking Glory up."
The best part of that exchange for the Lady Vols is that Johnson was receptive to the words – an indication that the freshmen are getting more comfortable with each other on the court.
"We're all freshmen and at first it was kind of hard to tell another freshman what to do because we were all in the learning process," Johnson said. "But now that we have a year behind us she can tell me what to do, I can tell her what to do. If she does something wrong I tell her. If I do something wrong she tells me. We're at that level now. Nobody's a freshman really."
The freshman also seems to have absorbed another lesson. When asked what to expect from watching film on Alabama, Johnson said it was about what Tennessee brought. She has learned that how teams look on tape isn't relevant to how they play when they see orange.
"We've got to bring our ‘A' game because teams play completely different against other teams than they do against us," Johnson said. "Everyone is going to come hard and come to play."
The freshmen also will see teams they are at least familiar with – and that's a first for them.
"We played everyone so we already have our scouting report intact," Summitt said. "What we've seen on tape if there're new wrinkles we'll address that when we get there."
Summitt is concerned about having so many freshmen having to play consecutive games if the Lady Vols can win in Little Rock.
"Quite honestly I think that's a concern," Summitt said. "We don't know how they will respond. It's more an individual thing that just a blanket-team thing as far as ‘Will the team cave in?' I think the real question is ‘Which players are going to give in to fatigue?' Hopefully as we discuss it and as we open up our first game – we're thinking survive and advance.
"We may have to do the cold whirlpools. Jenny (Moshak's) been in this business a long time. If anyone knows how to get their legs back, she knows how better than anyone I've ever worked with. That is a concern, but Jenny has already told them: ‘We're going to get your legs back. You just have to do what I tell you to do.' "
Cold whirlpools were never a favorite treatment plan for last year's veterans, but they did it and had plenty of leg left in the postseason, as evidenced by the SEC tourney title and a repeat national championship.
But for seven players on Thursday it will be their first postseason game.
"I'm really excited," Stricklen said. "I'm ready for it. I feel like this team is ready. We've had a few ups and downs, but I think we all came together."
"It's a little nerve-wracking but at the same time I know what our team can do," Johnson said. "I know what we need to do to succeed. Put it all out there and come to play together and we'll be fine."
And playing in Little Rock is more appealing than returning home to practice.
"Exactly," Bjorklund said. "That's really how you look at it because no matter what we're going to be working as hard as we can. It's either practice or play. Playing is a lot more fun without a doubt."
"More than anything we all love to play rather than practice, whether we're practicing or we're playing as long as we're still working hard every day," Johnson said. "We've got to work to actually keep playing and as long as we keep doing that I think we'll be successful. We've just got to keep putting it all out there."
Bjorklund said the team must take to heart a worn-out sports cliché because it actually applies in this case.
"We just have to take it one game at a time," Bjorklund said. "We can't think, ‘Oh, four games.' One game at a time because we have to win each game to get to that championship and that's what we want to get to. We've got to be ready each day."
If Tennessee were to beat Alabama the foe Friday would be Florida, which beat the Lady Vols in Gainesville.
"We want to get back at every team we can," Bjorklund said. "That's all it was last year. We were pumped when we had the opportunity to play the teams we lost, Stanford and LSU. Just like playing Vandy (Sunday) night. We knew what we did wrong last time and we just have to make those changes and that's what it takes to win. I think it's just making the adjustments and going all out and we'll be just fine."
"A lot of the teams that beat us we feel like we could have beaten them by clearing up a lot of mistakes that we had during the game," Johnson said. "Having the chance to beat them and show them what your team can really do and get them back for what they did, it's exciting to play teams that have already beat you."
The only way to set up that scenario is to first get past Alabama. And although the Lady Vols are a five seed with five losses Hudson knows a postseason Tennessee team is still formidable. His team also looks forward to the challenge.
"Tennessee is who they are and I thought the game that we played up at Tennessee was a game that we gave a lot of effort in and had some opportunities and had a shot at maybe making some things look a little different," Hudson said. "And of course you're playing Tennessee, which is the team that you would have to play to win this SEC tournament anyway. That's the way I'm approaching it and the team is approaching it. You've got to play them somewhere to win it if you're going to have an opportunity to win it so let's go in and let's give it our maximum effort.
"If you've got to try to beat Tennessee you've got to beat them sometime so why not the first game?"
That win-or-go-home scenario can cause some topsy-turvy outcomes in postseason as the pressure builds and a favored team can run into a hot one. It's a cauldron that freshmen have to just experience to understand, according to Bjorklund, who is now a sophomore.
"Last year they tried to prepare me, but you don't what it's like until you experience it," Bjorklund said. "This is like our third season. We look at it like that – preseason, conference play and then postseason. So this is almost like a whole new beginning. Every game counts obviously from here on out. It's one and done basically."
The excitement is enhanced this year by the fact that although Auburn is the favorite, the feeling among the SEC coaches is that other teams could take the title, especially with Tennessee and LSU having both lost five senior starters.
"I think it makes the tournament more exciting when there is that feeling in the air that just about anybody can win the tournament I think that makes it much more exciting, certainly for everybody else in the tournament when there's not just those two strong favorites like there has been the last couple of years," Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said.
Collen gave the nod to Auburn – led by SEC Player of the Year DeWanna Bonner – as the favorite but also noted the parity.
"I think this conference is awfully competitive from top to bottom," Collen said. "I think they're probably very happy, very excited and very deserving in winning the regular season championship. I don't know whether that makes them the favorite to win the tournament. It clearly puts a target on their back. And I think Nell (Fortner) will tell you that there are many schools in this league capable of stepping up and beating Auburn if they play well and Auburn doesn't. They seem to have a great deal of chemistry, a great deal of leadership with four great seniors.
"On paper I think you have to make them the favorite, but as I said when you look at a club like Georgia coming in as the seventh seed with all the tradition that they have and knowing that there were six teams that finished above them that's a lot of teams that can knock anybody off on any given night. I think this tournament is wide open, and I think it's going to be a matter of who plays well, who gets hot and keeps the momentum going. I think that could be anybody."
Chancellor and his staff took the tourney bracket to lunch on Monday and couldn't agree on the projected outcomes after little disagreement in the past.
"I'll say it's more wide open than it's been," Chancellor said. "My staff and I went to lunch and we all filled out a bracket. We disagreed on a lot of different games. I think there will be a lot of games undecided. But I still think with Auburn's experience you've got to install them as the favorite in this tournament, but there are a lot of teams that could win it. There are a lot of teams that could win one to two to three games."
Chancellor's Lady Tigers could be well positioned in this tournament based on how they closed the season.
"That's really hard to say," Chancellor said. "We're playing well, but I don't know if anybody can say they're going to be set for a good run because it's pretty even. I don't know if like past years – I thought last year at this time we were going to have a great run.
"I think somebody is going to have a great run. I just don't know who it is. All the games are going to be too close for someone to predict that they could have a great run. But I'll say this. We're playing pretty well right now. We're playing as good of basketball as LSU could play."
Tennessee's loss at LSU last week forced the Lady Vols into playing on Thursday and creating the need to win three games just to get to the title one.
"I think the loss at LSU, as much as it hurt, I think they recognized they didn't play both halves," Summitt said. "We've obviously addressed that. Vanderbilt, I thought we fought hard for 40 so hopefully we can take some momentum into the tournament. But I don't know. I never know with this group."
The last Tennessee team to play on the first day of the tourney acquitted itself well when the season was said and done in 1997.
"They won a national championship, didn't they?" Bjorklund said.
Solid play from the freshmen would help to ease Summitt's postseason mind this week.
"We put ourselves in that position so we've got to play ourselves out," Johnson said.