"For most of us this whole year everything has been new," Kelley Cain said. "We were a lot more excited because a lot of us don't really know what to expect. Last year's team, they're veterans and they already knew what to expect."
This year's Tennessee team has seven players – six true freshmen and Cain, a redshirt freshman – who will be playing in their first NCAA Tournament. Cain watched the show a year ago while sitting out to rehab her right knee. This year she's the centerpiece of the team in the paint.
"I'm pumped," Cain said. "I am excited I can actually participate this year. It's completely different. I'm ready to play."
Tennessee, 22-10, received a No. 5 seed and was assigned to Bowling Green, Ky., for a first-round matchup with No. 12 seed Ball State, 25-8, on Sunday, March 22, at E.A. Diddle Arena at 9:30 p.m. Eastern (ESPN2). No. 4 seed Iowa State, 24-8, faces No. 13 seed East Tennessee State University, 20-10, in the first game at 7 p.m. Eastern (ESPN2).
The winners will meet March 24 for the right to advance to Berkeley, Calif., and face the team that emerges from a foursome of No. 1 seed Duke, No. 16 seed Austin Peay, No. 8 seed Middle Tennessee and No. 9 seed Michigan State. Those games are being played in East Lansing, Mich.
Pat Summitt was first asked about the possibilities of a rematch with Duke, but she didn't want to even entertain such on Monday.
"That's a long way off," Summitt said. "Right now, I can't get past Ball State with this young team. It's like I always say, every moment is a teaching moment. We have to have great preparation and I've got an awesome staff. I have so much confidence in what they bring to the scouting reports. I think for our team, this was good for them, being out here for the selection show and see the whole bracket unfold and understand Tennessee's place in history."
Once the show ended the night got busier for the coaches. Betsy McAllister, the team's video coordinator, left for campus as soon she as she finished eating dinner. She watched the show at the office and then began to access game tapes from an archive she has stockpiled all season. Tapes of Ball State, Iowa State and ETSU would be in the assistants' hands later that evening, so that they can begin to compile scouting reports. A tape of Ball State would be at Summitt's house for viewing before she went to bed.
"It's a team that I haven't seen play, but we do have a lot of tape," Summitt said. "I'll be up late watching tape and up early in morning watching."
The players, who have spent the past several days at practice lining up against each other, were ready to see what team they would face next.
"I'm ready to start working on Ball State," freshman Shekinna Stricklen said. "We've been practicing against each other so we're really ready to play other people. I think we're all happy with what side of the bracket we're on, and we feel confident."
Cain's readiness to start play was echoed by several teammates as they spilled out of the TV room at Summitt's pool house and back outside for media interviews. Summitt had invited the team, staff and area media to her house, as is her custom, for dinner and to view the show.
Cooking is also a way for Summitt to occupy her time while waiting for what is for coaches a nerve-wracking day.
"You're always anticipating this day and that's why I like to cook," Summitt said. "I was in the kitchen all day. I went in for practice and that was it. I was home and that's my safe haven in there. It is a day in which I can get very nervous. I worked out, went to practice, got in the kitchen, took a nap and was ready to go."
The team began practice at noon Monday, and Summitt was happier afterwards than she was Sunday with the players' focus and willingness to work at the coach's pace. The team gathered later Monday at the coach's home for dinner – salmon, barbecue chicken and steak, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, jalapeno corn, macaroni and cheese, salad, rolls and an assortment of desserts, including vanilla ice cream homemade by Summitt.
Four live TV trucks parked at the end of Summitt's cul-de-sac, including ESPN, and the players took front row seats eager for their first selection show.
Summitt had said last week that she expected a five seed and had even called her mentor and friend, former UCLA Coach Billie Moore, on Sunday night with her prediction.
"I was glad that I was pretty close," Summitt said. "I told Coach Moore last night, ‘If we take care of business, we'll see you in California.' This was one time they could send us anywhere."
Summitt was thrilled to start the tournament in Bowling Green, a city that is a relatively short drive for her family in Henrietta in the middle part of Tennessee.
"The Head family is going to be very excited, they're only a little over an hour away," Summitt said. "We do have a lot of fans in Nashville and throughout the area and I think that'll be great. I definitely think they'll be there for us. I knew either Chattanooga or Bowling Green would be the two best spots for us in terms of having our fans there and really having people behind us."
The freshmen noted the support that the Lady Vols get – Alyssia Brewer reiterated that it was one of the reasons she chose Tennessee – and they expect to see orange in E.A. Diddle Arena.
"You've seen orange everywhere we've gone," Brewer said. "They follow us, and that's what I love about here. People make those drives all the time for Tennessee, and I would hope they would do the same, especially since this is the tournament."
"Fans get a chance to come, and it won't be an expensive trip," Cain said.
"Our fans travel," said Alex Fuller, who will be playing her last postseason in orange and whose parents will make the trek to Kentucky from their home in North Carolina.
It was Fuller's fifth selection show – she watched the first one as a redshirt rehabbing from knee surgery – so the process is routine for her now. But the freshmen were experiencing their first one.
"That was our first time, and we enjoyed it," Stricklen said.
That would be an understatement. The freshmen listened intently to any reference to Tennessee, cheered at any mention of the Lady Vols, enjoyed all the commentary – especially anything former Lady Vol Kara Lawson said – and waved on cue from the ESPN production crewmember with an energy level Summitt wishes they would sustain in a game.
When ESPN aired clips of Summitt chewing out assorted players, peals of laughter reverberated across the room. The camera showed Brewer in exhaustion on the sideline and getting an earful, an exchange with Stricklen when the freshman had no idea what she was saying and a threat to make Glory Johnson walk home from Gainesville if she didn't play better defense.
Cain, who was not a target on that TV spot – "That's why I can laugh," she said – was still tickled after the show. What was her favorite one?
"When she told Glory if she doesn't deny the high post she's going to have to walk home," Cain said. "And Glory was the only one she said her full name. It was pretty funny."
"Glory walking home, definitely," Angie Bjorklund said. "Everyone was laughing about that."
"Oh, yeah, that was too funny," Stricklen said. "That one and then saying they didn't understand what I was saying. I really didn't know what I was saying myself."
Brewer, barely able to breathe, was about to get a boatload of instruction from Summitt, a moment made even more humorous because the camera caught Brewer rolling her eyes.
"I rolled my eyes? Oh, my God," Brewer said. "I think the funniest was between Strick and Glory. You can definitely tell that my conditioning then was not good, because while Pat was talking to me, I was just huffing and puffing away. But now I've been getting extra conditioning, and it's a different game for me.
"I'm used to it, and it's a good thing. I don't want her to stop yelling at me because that means she's given up."
Amber Gray, another frequent target of Summitt, didn't get airtime in those clips, but when the show went to break, the players told more stories on themselves.
"It was a game before Christmas when she went at me," Gray said. "But it's something that I love because it has pushed me to work the best. It's all good."
Summitt noted the clip somehow missed what she thought was her best one all season.
"I wish they had done the one I told (a player) if I sent her to the grocery store after milk, she'd come back with orange juice," Summitt said.
Even Johnson was laughing while the clip aired.
"It was funny now, not at the time," Johnson said. "I definitely picked it up second half. I didn't want to walk home, but I don't think she would have made me walk home. It was just motivation. It was kind of scary at the time but now it's really funny."
"That was pretty funny," Summitt said.
But there was one serious moment, too. ESPN aired a pre-taped interview in which Summitt, as she has done this season, chided this generation for its short attention span. She also talked about how her teams become her daughters and how she wondered if she could tap into this team's true potential. When asked why she stays in coaching, Summitt answered, "It's still in me."
A room that had been raucous got very quiet as Summitt spoke. When the show went to commercial, the players turned to look at Summitt and she told them, "That's why you'd better bring it."
"She's never said that to us before and so just watching it on TV it was kind of an eye-opener," Brewer said. "She knows we have big things inside us. It's just us having to bring it out."
"We were all paying attention," Stricklen said. "That was the first time we got quiet. We really wanted to hear what she said."
Sydney Smallbone, a sophomore, already knew that about Summitt, but was able to explain the rapt attention of the freshmen, the same generation Summitt had just said too often does not listen.
"I think all of us do respect her so much, and we respect her opinion," Smallbone said. "So when we hear her opinion of us I think we're all tuned in to what she has to say. She's a great coach and we respect her so much."
Summitt's remarks about why she stays in coaching – essentially for the players – also struck a chord.
"That kind of hits home because she is out there working so hard for us, and she's been doing it for so many years," Smallbone said. "She does it for us. She doesn't need the money or whatever. It shows what kind of Coach she is because she has stuck around for us and it makes such a big impact on our lives, and we're grateful that she's still coaching."
This is Summitt's time of the year – postseason – and she has the youngest team in program history to shepherd through the process. Smallbone and Briana Bass, who both hail from Indiana, immediately recognized their next opponent in Ball State, which plays in the Mid-American Conference and is located in Muncie, Ind.
Smallbone's father, Brian Smallbone, and uncles, Marty and Steven Smallbone, played football at Central Michigan, a MAC school. Her father also played basketball there. A cousin, Jenna Stuppy, played softball for Western Michigan, another MAC school.
"I've seen Ball State play in softball, football," Smallbone said. "They've got those blue collar workers."
The Cardinals are led by first-year head coach Kelly Packard, the former head coach of the Colorado Chill of the National Women's Basketball League (NWBL) and a longtime assistant at Colorado State, where she worked for Tom Collen, now the head coach at Arkansas. The 25 wins in 2008-09 set the school record for victories in a single season, and Ball State will be making its first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
Tennessee will be making its 28th appearance in the NCAA tourney and has an unblemished record in the first two rounds of play. No Lady Vol team has missed the Sweet 16, and it will take two wins in Bowling Green to keep that streak intact.
"I'm not going to guarantee my tuition or anything," Cain said. "We just want to win no matter what."
Cain was referring to a pledge by Oklahoma's Courtney Paris to pay back her scholarship if the Sooners did not win the national title this year. The pressure ante was upped on the selection show when Paris' father directed Coach Sherri Coale to lead his talented twin daughters, Courtney and Ashley, to a championship.
For Summitt, this postseason is about pressure release.
"I think there are some things to take a little of the pressure off of them," Summitt said. "I'll meet with each individually and tell them what's expected. At the same time, tell them that for once in a long time, we're not the top dog, we're the underdog, and they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by laying it all on the line."
Tennessee got some good news Monday when X-rays revealed that the middle finger on Johnson's right hand was not broken. She sustained a sprain and it will be taped and treated this week. Johnson had a splint on the finger Monday to go with the hard cast she is already wearing on her lower left arm to protect an injured ligament in her thumb.
"It'll be fine by tournament," Johnson said. "I plan on playing whether I'm all well or not. I've just got to go hard for my team."
Pre-bracket predictions had the SEC fielding five and maybe six teams in the NCAA tourney. It ended up being seven when Georgia slipped in. The six league teams were Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Auburn, Florida, LSU, Mississippi State and Georgia.
"The SEC has such a strong conference I wasn't really surprised," freshman Alicia Manning said. "I think they were smart about doing that."
"That shows you how good our conference is and we have a very high chance of bringing it back to the SEC," Cain said.
By that Cain meant keeping the national title within the sisterhood of the SEC. The players wore orange long-sleeved T-shirts at the gathering that said "Tennessee Is A Sisterhood." They filled out their brackets as the 64 teams flowed into the slots on the large screen television and dutifully fell silent anytime Summitt was asked a question live on the air.
"It was really fun for the first time being here in college and getting the bracketology and all that stuff," Bass said. "We came in here and wanted to have a good time."
Brewer was already looking forward to another one.
"It was really exciting for me, and I can't wait to do it the next three years," Brewer said.
Past selection shows have sometimes ended with Tennessee puzzled over its seed, geographic placement or both. But after 10 losses and a lot of uncertainty everyone seemed pleased Monday.
"I think that was awesome for us to get that number five seed," Brewer said. "I thought they were going to put us in the same bracket as UConn. No matter who you play, no matter what seed you are, you've just got to take care of business because anybody can bring any type of game."
"I'm really excited about it," Manning said. "I'm ready to play."
"It was exciting," Johnson said. "People underestimate us."
"It's an amazing feeling," Gray said. "Obviously it's a bunch of nerves in our stomach. My stomach was hurting the entire time because we didn't know where we were going to go, but it was a good feeling. No matter where they put us we were going to have to leave it out on the floor anyway."
"I'm ready to go out and play," Bass said. I'm anxious. I think this is a very good pick for us, and I think we're ready to accept the challenge."
"I think we got a fair draw so we're all excited about it," Cain said.
"I'm anxious to get that first game," Smallbone said. "We're not looking ahead, but I like our bracket and I like what it can possibly do for us."
The fact Tennessee got the Berkeley Region was intriguing to Bjorklund, who hails from the state of Washington. Should the Lady Vols advance that is at least closer to her hometown than the other regionals in Oklahoma City, Okla., Trenton, N.J., and Raleigh, N.C.
"I might have a few family fans there," Bjorklund said. "I am very excited about where we got picked. We just need to take it one game at a time and continue having a good preparation week."
Fuller hadn't even pondered the fact that this was her final journey as a Lady Vol.
"I'm not really thinking about it right now," Fuller said. "I am focusing on the right now. I think we're all happy with it. We didn't really know what to expect coming in to it. We were all happy with a five seed."
Fuller, a fifth-year senior, opted to come back to help lead a team of freshmen and sophomores. Are those underclassmen now motivated to help Fuller in her final postseason?
"A lot, because she decided to stay," Cain said.
Bjorklund was participating in her second selection show and could appreciate the freshmen's exuberance.
"I think we're all excited and I know our youngsters are really hungry to go in and win this tournament," Bjorklund said. "That's our goal. That's always our ultimate goal, but we need to take it one game at a time."