Brackets to be unveiled tonight

When Angie Bjorklund thinks about the NCAA tourney a year ago she remembers watching the veterans ratchet up their intensity as if the proverbial switch had flipped. This year the sophomore must help show the newcomers the way, and she has been doing that where in starts – in practice.

Angie Bjorklund was the first player on the floor Sunday afternoon 30 minutes before the scheduled start of the session and was lofting jump shots from all spots along the perimeter at Pratt Pavilion. After practice ended more than two hours later, she stayed to take more shots.

A year ago Bjorklund was staggering to the finish line of a long season as she felt herself slipping physically and mentally. This year a sweat-soaked Bjorklund was still energetic after finishing her workout Sunday and looking forward to the announcement of the brackets tonight and a week off from class.

Tennessee is on spring break – Bjorklund had four midterms last week – so the players have a week away from the commitments of the classroom. The previous two weeks meant missing half of the week because of the SEC tourney – the Lady Vols played on the first day – and then returning to Knoxville to catch up on class and take exams.

"The past couple of weeks was crazy," Bjorklund said. "I had four midterms, and I know my teammates had a lot of tests. So just having that out of the way and having a week off of school and just focusing on basketball is going to be huge for us. Getting good rest, taking care of the little things, that'll really help us get ready."

With six true freshmen about to enter their first NCAA tourney, some breathing room would be beneficial.

"I think definitely, especially for some of our younger players," Bjorklund said. "I remember this time of the year last year was kind of tough mentally. You're gone weeks at a time (for NCAA play) and so getting those midterms done and having this week to get ready is huge for us.

"Last year we had upperclassmen. They had been through it. They know how to prepare and not procrastinate, and we're all learning."

The team will practice Monday afternoon and then reassemble at Coach Pat Summitt's house later in the evening for the official unveiling of the brackets on ESPN at 7 p.m. Eastern.

Like everybody else with an interest in March Madness – which now extends well into April – the team has pondered what could happen.

"Of course we think about it, but at this point I couldn't even guess where they're going to put us," Bjorklund said. "I think every year you try to guess and you never guess right with us. We'll see, and we're up for the challenge. Wherever we go, whatever we're seeded, we're going to come ready to fight."

Bjorklund will need to be of those leading the fight this season as six freshmen plus redshirt freshman Kelley Cain will log minutes in their first career NCAA tourney. The other two players with NCAA experience are sophomore Sydney Smallbone and redshirt senior Alex Fuller.

Bjorklund had the example set for her last season when five veterans in the starting lineup set the tone as soon as the calendar flipped to March.

"I just remember the seniors, it was almost like a light switch," Bjorklund said. "They just completely turned it up. They knew what postseason basketball was all about. I hope that I can do that for this team, and Alex and our upperclassmen that have seen that. This is a whole new level. This is a whole new game. And they're going to learn from experience. It's hard to tell them. The seniors last year would try to tell me, but you don't know until you go through it."

Summitt watched that group do for two consecutive years what she thought could not be done – flip the switch in postseason – but that class had special competitors, and it resulted in back-to-back national titles.

"Just the fire and the passion," Bjorklund said. "They would do anything to win. Whatever it takes. More hustle plays. It was a lot more physical. The refs let a lot more go. It's a whole new level because it's one and done. That in itself just makes the biggest difference."

This year Summitt has the youngest team in program history, and she wasn't pleased with the overall energy at practice Sunday.

"I just think it was a very average day at best," Summitt said. "It doesn't look like a team on a mission. Angie played really well today. Kelley did some good things. Strick did some good things. But as a team overall below average."

The assessment actually underscores the chasm between the starting five and the players who will come off the bench. Summitt is finally getting comfortable with her starters – she seems to have settled on Bjorklund, Cain, Fuller, Shekinna Stricklen and Glory Johnson – but she is never certain of her bench rotation until she puts players in and sees what happens.

Her modus operandi this season was to usually play all 10 in the first half, figure out who was bringing what that game and make adjustments for the second half. But the one-and-done format of the NCAA tourney doesn't allow for much experimentation.

"I don't know that I'll go 10 deep," Summitt said.

The health of Johnson could also be a factor. The freshman forward, whose defense will be key in postseason, is already wearing a hard cast on her lower left arm to immobilize her thumb because of a sprained ligament and on Sunday she jammed the middle finger on her right hand. She will see the Lady Vols physician, Dr. Rebecca Morgan, this morning to determine the extent of the injury.

Summitt has Smallbone, Alicia Manning, Alyssia Brewer, Briana Bass and Amber Gray on the bench to use in a rotation.

"I think Alicia can help us," Summitt said. "I've gotten more confidence in her and Lyssi. Amber can help us in short segments. Bree has got to get better defensively. Syd offensively can come in and make shots for us.

"I think they've gotten a lot tougher. Lyssi, she can play for more minutes than she started out. She started out two or three times up and floor, and she was winded. She is doing a better job. She's gotten in better shape. I want Bree to be a lot tougher defensively. With her size she has to really commit to denying the ball, just getting on people. At times she's very soft defensively and that could hurt us so she's got to have a different mindset.

"I think overall we're talking about as a staff how many players will we play in postseason?"

Those decisions will be hashed out in practice this week and will also depend on how any game unfolds.

Tennessee and the other 63 teams will finally found out who their next opponent is when the brackets are announced Monday evening. It will be the first bracket unveiling for the newcomers.

"I think we're definitely excited," Gray said. "We're not too worried about (seeding). We've got to take every game like it's a huge game no matter who we're playing against, no matter where we're playing."

"It's definitely fun watching and seeing where you're going to be," Brewer said.

Summitt has usually had a general idea of how her team would be seeded but not this season.

"I have absolutely no clue," Summitt said. "I have no idea. Clearly in the past when we've known we were going to be a top seed we could speculate but we still didn't know. I think with the season that we've had, it's just up for grabs. I would like to think that we could stay fairly close to home for the first round. To me, that would be good from (the standpoint of) our fans, whether that's Chattanooga or Bowling Green or wherever."

Even when Tennessee was among the top seeds the committee didn't place the Lady Vols in Chattanooga. In 2004 they were shipped to Tallahassee, Florida, for the opening rounds, and in 2005 they were assigned to Philadelphia in regional play, instead of Chattanooga. In 2006, the Lady Vols could have opened in Nashville and instead went to Norfolk, Va.

Summitt would like to be closer to home this year, and she projected a five seed for Tennessee, which would be the lowest seed in program history.

"I do think for a young team like we have, every advantage we can try to get, we want," Summitt said. "There's not many ways you can get an advantage other than bringing it yourself and play at a different level or have the backing, the fan support that will help inspire you when you need it. I think, for us, it would be a positive (to play in Chattanooga).

"It's not so much campaigning for that, it's just that I would like to not have to travel. I feel like we've been on the traveling roadshow for awhile. But that's wishful thinking; there's no guarantee that we're going to be close to campus at all."

The players are aware that no Lady Vol team has ever missed the Sweet 16 in the tourney's 27-year history, but Bjorklund said that did not need to be the emphasis.

"You don't really think of that," Bjorklund said. "If you focus on that, that could bring more pressure. These younger players already have pressure enough. We don't need to think about that. We just take it one game at a time. We're going to win this game and then the next game comes. We've got to take it one possession, one second, one minute.

"I think they know what it's going to take, but at the same time you have to go through it. I think with Coach we'll be ready."


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