"I gave anyone a chance who wanted to leave to leave," Summitt said. "We went around the table and I said, ‘Are you in or out?' We need to know. I told them if you want to leave, now is the time, because it's not going to get any easier. We're getting ready to raise the bar on the expectations we have on the court and in all your strength and conditioning work."
On Wednesday, eight returning players – Kelley Cain is being held out because of her right knee pain and she will have surgery this spring to remove two migrating screws and Vicki Baugh is rehabbing from ACL surgery – will report to the football field for a workout tailored by Heather Mason, the strength and conditioning coach.
"We're going to keep having practice as long as we can and Heather Mason our conditioning coach has got quite a game plan set up for them as well," Summitt said. "She's the toughest coach on campus so I think their strength and conditioning will pick up, and this is time we can invest in it."
The sessions at Pratt are actually "skill-related instruction," by NCAA bylaws in which schools can mix two hours of team court work with six hours of conditioning sessions.
"We go into the off-season rules now," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "We have eight hours per week. Two can be basketball-specific and with the team. Six must be strength and conditioning fitness activities. After April 15, you can only work with your team in groups of four (players) or less. That goes into effect as far as the individual workout rule. Up until April 15 you can go two hours a week (with the entire team)."
The division of hours skews heavily to strength and conditioning.
"Their bodies are going to change," Summitt said. "Their minds are going to be challenged."
The first step in the process – one that would separate the "women from the girls," according to Summitt – began this week when the team reported for the one-hour session on the court.
"We're here because we've got to get better," Summitt said. "When you lose for the first time in history your first game, it's extremely disappointing but also very telling about our basketball team and how far we have to go to be competitive. The best thing to me is get them right back in the gym and try and teach and re-teach a lot of things. They have to all understand that this is unacceptable losing a first round game, and we lost to a team that just out-hustled us, outplayed us and obviously had the discipline that we lacked.
"We've got a lot of young players but still they just don't get it. They don't get down in a stance. If they do, they stand up. They aren't committing to talking and defending and making free throws and making shots. We want to get back out and work on our defense, work on using our screens, rebounding, boxing out, all the fundamentals that we have yet to commit to consistently. We'll do a lot of breakdown drills with our defense and our offense and then put it together and work on team concepts. That covers a lot of ground."
It was a season of firsts as the Lady Vols racked up dubious distinctions ranging from losing the most-ever conference games at five to receiving a five seed in the NCAA tourney, the lowest in program history.
On Tuesday, Summitt entered another territory for firsts. She has already determined part of her starting lineup for next season with Cain and Baugh inside and Angie Bjorklund on the perimeter. Cain will have surgery this spring, and Baugh is coming back from her second ACL surgery, but Jenny Moshak has told Summitt that she is "very confident" that both will be ready next fall.
"I made it very clear if Vicki is healthy, she's in the starting lineup," Summitt said. "Same is true with Kelley. Angie is in the lineup. We've got two spots open. Start working."
It is worth noting that one of the hardest workers Tuesday was Bjorklund, who has a guaranteed spot in the starting lineup but didn't let up at all. During sprints at the end of practice, she pushed Glory Johnson – a state sprint champion – to the finish line. It is that competitor mentality that Summitt is seeking. Bjorklund also called the team together before practice for a huddle, and she did most of the talking. As a junior Bjorklund becomes a team leader, and it appears she is taking the reins without waiting to be told.
Three freshmen also will arrive on campus next fall in guards Kamiko Williams and Taber Spani and forward Faith Dupree. Spani has deep three-ball range, and Summitt expects her to compete for immediate playing time on the wing. Like any freshman, the question mark will be defense – Williams could help the team in that regard, according to Summitt – but outside of Bjorklund, the perimeter defense was weak all season.
"Look where Angie is right now, and Taber has that kind of work ethic," Summitt said. "I feel like she's got a chance to be solid (on defense)."
Freshmen Shekinna Stricklen and Johnson started most games this season – 32 of 33 for Stricklen and 27 of 33 for Johnson – but Summitt's remarks made it clear those spots are up for grabs now. The other returning players are guards Briana Bass and Sydney Smallbone, guard/forward Alicia Manning and forwards Alyssia Brewer and Amber Gray.
Smallbone moved into the starting lineup for several games late in the season because Summitt wanted competitors in the lineup, and competition – instead of spots by default – can help bring that to the surface.
"I'm hoping that they understand that we've got to get better and they understand that if we don't get better then we're not going to be any better as a basketball team and we've got to show improvement every day, and they've got to take ownership every day when they come in here as to how they want to improve the game," Summitt said. "They've got to get in and get more shots. We've got Pratt Pavilion. Not many people have a facility like this, so we have no excuses. We've got to get in here.
"We felt it was very important that we get back in the gym. We're back in the gym while other people are playing because we didn't play. We got whipped by a team that was just better than us on that night and far more competitive. My biggest concern about our basketball team is that we have a lot of players who wouldn't even care if you kept score. They just want to go up and down. We keep score on everything and there's accountability.
"The biggest fear, I told them, was the lack of competitiveness, and you're going to have to show what you have, and the most-competitive people should be the best players on the floor."
One of the players on the floor Tuesday didn't even have to be there, but redshirt senior Alex Fuller showed up and pulled on a scout team jersey to help what are now her former teammates.
"I told her not to come," Summitt said. "I told her, ‘Your knees, I don't know how much more they can take.' But she cares. She cares an awful lot. Alex is hurt, too, and Alex wants to see this team come together and just her being here shows her commitment to that.
"Alex was here today because Alex is probably about as lost and confused as the coaching staff. She invested so much as a leader in our team, and I have tremendous respect for that. She probably doesn't know what to do with her time right now. I told her I didn't want her to practice. I wanted her to get those knees a little bit better, but I noticed when I came in she was standing against the wall and all of a sudden she's over here against this wall and finally I just looked at her and said, ‘Go ahead.' "
Fuller has said she would like to play in the WNBA and/or overseas. Summitt believes Fuller has the talent to play professionally if her knees can continue to withstand the rigors of basketball.
"It all depends on her knees," Summitt said. "She would probably have to go into a tryout situation. She could get drafted, but I think more than likely she'll get a tryout."
Former Lady Vol Dominique Redding was also on the floor Tuesday to help Fuller on the scout team.
"I heard from a lot of different ones," said Summitt, who summed up their reaction as "unbelievable. Never seen a Tennessee team give in like this one. Our former players they were shocked. They were angry. They're mad about this. They said, ‘This team doesn't look like a Tennessee team.' I share their feelings. It's hard. There's no other way to put it."
Summitt said she got up Tuesday morning and took a walk around her neighborhood on a beautiful spring day in East Tennessee with temperatures in the 70s and trees and foliage breaking out in blooms.
"I couldn't have been more miserable," Summitt said.
Summitt will travel to the Final Four in St. Louis – the WBCA also holds it annual meeting at that time – but she said she would have attended anyway.
"I need to be there," Summitt said. "I've been there so many times and I think it's important that I go and be among the other coaches."
Spani has been selected to play in the WBCA High School All-American Game – it is played in conjunction with the Final Four – and Summitt will also attend that event, as she did last season in Tampa when Lady Vols in waiting participated.
"I want to watch Taber play absolutely," Summitt said.
But Tuesday was about the players already on campus and ensuring they knew Sunday's early exit was unacceptable at Tennessee.
"Losing in a first round game we were exposed on our lack of commitment to defending the dribble drive, boxing out, playing with composure on the offensive end," Summitt said. "There weren't a lot of positive things that we saw. Ball State, they were more aggressive, actually more physical at times, executed really well, beat us in transition, we gave up open threes after open threes. It looked like a team that just didn't have a scouting report at all."
"They watched the film so we saw it. They didn't commit to getting down and defending one on one, didn't get back in transition, didn't point and talk and match up. Did they panic?"
The answer seems to be yes, because the players had said they felt confident going into the game. Even Summitt was cautiously optimistic after the practice sessions in between the SEC and NCAA tourneys. But the freshmen collectively played tight and never seemed to relax, especially on offense.
The game started well for Tennessee, as Cain was unstoppable inside and had 10 points and eight boards in 14 minutes. But then her right knee got sideswiped and she had to leave the game. She tried to warm up for the second half, but could not go.
"Kelley was very confident," Summitt said. "I think when she went out that really hurt us a lot. Kelley, she's invested a lot in this season and the fact that she couldn't play in the second half she felt like she was letting the team down. But I made it very clear to her, she couldn't go. It wasn't an option for her. So she doesn't need to beat herself up. Trust me, when Jenny told me she couldn't go, I was like, ‘This is going to be difficult.' They didn't have an answer for her."
Cain will continue to have her right knee treated by Moshak and was held out of Tuesday's workout. The rest of the team will report to the football stadium on Wednesday and then back to Pratt on Thursday.
The workouts put Summitt back in her element – coaching and teaching on a basketball court – but her mental equilibrium won't be restored until next fall.
"It'll take until the start of a new season because I can't get rid of this right now," Summitt said. "Maybe that's not smart on my part, but that's who I am. I'm disappointed in myself, disappointed in our team, disappointed for our fans. We let a lot of people down. We have the greatest fans in the history of the women's game. We had a lot of orange in that building. I don't get it, and I am very sorry that we could not have been better.
"Losing in a first round game is unacceptable for this program. We're never going to accept that."