State Farm and the WBHOF are partners in Sunday's game and they held press conferences this week, along with the two head coaches. Much of the talk centered on Brittney Griner, a dunking phenom with a 7-foot-plus wingspan out of Nimitz High School in Houston.
Griner, a freshman center for Baylor, has the potential to change the game, and she's already had an impact just in how often her name has been mentioned this preseason.
Last month Charles-Furlow was asked about Tennessee's challenging schedule, the opener with Baylor and Griner.
"She's quite a presence, like a Kelley," Charles-Furlow said.
Cain has size, skill, basketball IQ, soft hands and a sweet shooting touch, but she doesn't dunk. Two Lady Vols have dunked in program history – Michelle Snow with her slams coming on the road and Candace Parker, who threw down on the road and at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Griner's dunking has been a preseason topic, especially since Baylor and Tennessee open the season on national television (5 p.m., ESPN2) on Sunday.
"I told them there's only one person that's dunked in this house, only one, and don't let her come in here and dunk on y'all," Charles-Furlow said with a big smile, her remarks meant as motivation and not smack talk.
So how exactly does that happen?
"We've got to make sure we meet her way outside of the paint, limit her touches, put pressure on the ball, so they can't see her," Charles-Furlow said.
Charles-Furlow laughed softly at the notion that a 6'8 player could somehow be out of someone's vision, but Johnson's ability to defend on the perimeter could possibly obstruct the lines of sight.
"All they have to do is just lob it, but we're going to do our best to contain her in any way that we can," Charles-Furlow said. "We had better pick up our defensive intensity."
Cain, a redshirt sophomore, has been asked repeatedly by various media this week about Griner and dunking.
"I don't pay attention to that," Cain said. "Just don't think about it because if we go out there and take care of business we don't have to worry about it."
Junior Angie Bjorklund indicated the players are aware of Parker's claim to fame, for now, of being the only female player to dunk in Knoxville on Tennessee's home floor.
"We've talked about it a little bit, but I won't make some of the comments we make," Bjorklund said with a smile.
Bjorklund has also taken the position that the attention is good for the game, so much so that she's tried to recruit UT students to Sunday's game by selling them on Griner.
"I think just the way the women's game has elevated these past few years with women dunking now I think that's great for the game," Bjorklund said. "I've been telling some of the students, ‘This girl can dunk, will potentially dunk,' so if that brings fans, so be it. But our goal is to not let her dunk, hand's down."
The subject of slamming – Griner can dunk effortlessly one-handed or two-handed and during warmups at the WBCA All-American game last April in St. Louis she dunked behind her back with two hands – came up in two press conferences this week – one with the WBHOF and State Farm to promote the game and another one with ESPN and its primary analysts, Kara Lawson and Carolyn Peck.
Baylor Coach Kim Mulkey said the adjustment in terms of media attention has been the school, not the player.
"She's used to it," Mulkey said. "This is not new for Brittney. She's been in the last year of high school exposed to a lot of media attention. She's very poised with the media. She's very attestable to the media. She's very comfortable with the media.
"I think if there's any difference it may be our own media relations department understanding the amount of work they're going to now have to do."
Mulkey has welcomed the attention, and she anticipated that it would likely be accompanied by an increase in attendance. Baylor averaged 6,178 fans for two exhibition games last week, nearly 1,000 more than a year ago.
"I could foresee that when we signed her, or in high school before she even signed," Mulkey said. "Pat has certainly been around the game longer than I have but even through international basketball I've never seen a girl play above the rim like Brittney Griner. She is one of those young ladies, watching her on the computer, watching her on TV, watching her in person, it excites you because you're witnessing something that you've never seen before.
"Yes, I've been on a team with a girl that can dunk. I've seen the dunks. But not like this. And when you see it for yourself it's an attraction for those fans who really don't like women's basketball because it's played below the rim. It's an attraction for those males that have an ego that they don't want to give women credit, that you can't see some play above the rim. It's an attraction for the media because that's a highlight film in a lot of respects. You're going to have it, and we expected it (the added interest).
"I personally welcome it. I would welcome it if she wasn't at Baylor, because I want people in the stands watching women's basketball and appreciating it."
Mulkey's remark about "males that have an ego" dismissing the women's game because it's played below the rim came two days before a sportswriter in the ESPN teleconference said essentially the same thing.
He acknowledged, for the point of playing devil's advocate, that he was a white male working in the male-dominated industry of sports media.
"I think a lot of times old school white male mentality may look down its nose or may have looked down its nose at women's basketball," the reporter said, in asking Carol Stiff, ESPN's senior director of programming, how she intended to grow the sport.
Stiff said the network's approach was to focus on the game itself.
"I think at ESPN we thrive on treating basketball as basketball, and I think as long as we continue to promote women's basketball and their brand as much as equal to the men's as a basketball-is-basketball concept, I think that is a step in the right direction," Stiff said. "I think we just keep showcasing what this game has to offer and people will start tuning in and people will believe this is a game to watch, it's a compelling game, it's basketball."
When Peck and Lawson were asked later in the teleconference about Griner, it was noted that she does indeed play above the rim. Summitt also used the same wording when asked about Griner.
"I think that Brittney is going to have a lot of people focused on Baylor and watching her play and the fact she can dunk," Summitt said. "It's not like it's a challenge for her. When you get players that can play above the rim in the women's game it does generate more media interest, obviously more television exposure and more excitement.
"I think it's good for our game and certainly she is going to have a lot of opportunities to prove how valuable she is to the Baylor team but also the attention that she will receive and the women's game will receive because she's on the floor and playing above the rim."
Peck said, "The one thing that I am very interested to see after talking with Kim Mulkey is she has been described as the first female basketball player that she has seen that plays above the rim. But we have had players in the past that have been able to dunk the basketball but there is more to playing above the rim than the dunk.
"Her ability to block shots. Kim told me that she has goal-tended in practice. Her rebounding ability. She has the ability to run the floor. She has got a little bit of a face-up game. Her versatility. I think the thing that is going to be hard for other teams to deal with is Brittney's ability to play above the rim."
Lawson added, "(The media are saying this is) something that we've never seen before or we've never seen anything like this. That applies for her. I have never seen anything like her. She just has tremendous ability, her athleticism up and down the court, just her gifts that she has.
"For me what's going to be interesting is refereeing, in terms of having not seen anything like this in the women's game before, how does that translate to what Carolyn talked about – goal-tending, how do you play her, how do you defend her, fouls called on her, fouls called against her. Her teammates, up until this year, have never played with a player like her and so I think as they grow together I think that's why their potential as a team is so high because not only will Brittney improve over the course of the season I think her teammates will improve in utilizing her."
Lawson's point is a good one about how the officials will adjust to a style of play not previously seen in the women's game. When Parker was a freshman, she was the recipient of anticipatory whistles – both on offense and defense – as the officials were not accustomed to a player who was that tall and that athletic and able to adjust her body and the ball in the air.
Griner, at this time, lacks Parker's overall skill set in terms of ball-handling and face-up game, but she has explosive power to the rim, court speed from end to end and the ability to block shots.
"She doesn't have the skill set that Candace has, but she's got so much size and shot-blocking ability and in the paint that's going to be a big challenge for us," Summitt said. "Obviously Kelley Cain, we're expecting her to go right at her. At the same time we've got some other options to try to pull her away from the basket. If she wants to stay home (on defense) then we'll have to work through other options.
"I think Kelley's got the size and the presence. She has been pretty consistent in defending. Her (Cain's) ability to score in the paint, I like that, too. But I also wouldn't hesitate to pull her up and let her face up some, as well."
Cain and Johnson will operate inside when Tennessee has the ball. Cain and freshman forward Taber Spani will be inside when Baylor has the ball, and Johnson will be dispatched to defend on the perimeter. Joining Spani on the perimeter in the starting lineup will be Shekinna Stricklen and Angie Bjorklund.
The return of Johnson to practice was critical for Tennessee and although the forward seems to have adjusted to her shoulder brace, she took a tumble in Friday afternoon's session and tweaked her right ankle. She was able to return to the court.
"Sometimes it's hard to watch," Summitt said. "I don't know what's going to happen."
The Lady Vols will return to practice Saturday.
TIP-OFF CLASSIC: Sunday will mark the 17th annual State Farm Tip-Off Classic with Knoxville having last hosted the event in 2002.
"I think it's best for women's college basketball for it to move around," said John Althoff, the collegiate sports sponsorship coordinator for State Farm. "We've had great success in the past in a lot of different venues."
The event is held in conjunction with the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, which is located in downtown Knoxville, and some consideration may be given to finding a permanent home for the event.
"It would be a decision that would be made by a few different parties, one being the Hall of Fame, and State Farm and ESPN," said Carol Stiff, senior director of programming for ESPN, which is broadcasting the game.
"We've gone to a one-game format from a doubleheader format. I think we just need to wait and see how things pan out before we make any decisions, but we'll look at everything from ratings, attendance, the game itself and make some decisions afterwards. For right now we haven't made any kind of decision to leave it at one location."
The WBHOF induction class of 2010 will be introduced at halftime of Sunday's game. Being honored are:
Leta Andrews, the winningest high school coach of all time with a 1,321-282 record. In 47 seasons at Granbury High School in Texas, she has taken her team to 16 State Final Four appearances with a state title in 1990. She is entering her 48th season as head coach.
Teresa Edwards, the most-decorated player in the history of USA Basketball with four gold medals and one bronze and the only American basketball player to participate in five Olympics. Edwards was a two-time All-American at Georgia.
Rebecca Lobo, the two-time Kodak All-American helped lead Connecticut to the program's first national championship and a 35-0 record in 1995. She was the Wade Trophy winner and Naismith Player of the Year in 1995 and a member of the 1996 Olympic Team. Lobo played in the WNBA and is now a sideline reporter and color analyst for ESPN.
Gloria Ray, the architect of the WBHOF as she was responsible for overseeing the design, development, construction and management of the hall. Ray was the first women's Athletics Director at Tennessee and helped establish the Lady Vols as a nationally recognized program and brand. Ray also helped to establish the first women's SEC basketball tournament.
Teresa Weatherspoon, one of the original players of the WNBA who started 220 consecutive games for the New York Liberty while leading the Liberty to three WNBA Finals appearances. Weatherspoon, now the head coach at Louisiana Tech, was a two-time Kodak All American and led the Lady Techsters to the 1988 national title. She was the 1988 Wade Trophy winner and a member of the 1988 Olympic Team.
Chris Weller, the former coach at Maryland was just the fifth Division I coach to earn at least 400 victories at one school, setting a school record with 499 wins. In 26 seasons, she guided Maryland to three Final Fours, eight Elite Eights, 10 Sweet Sixteen appearances and eight ACC Championships and was named the 1992 Naismith Coach of the Year.
Karen Tucker, spokeswoman for the WBHOF, said five of the six inductees are expected to be in attendance at halftime. Weatherspoon, a first-year head coach, felt like she needed to remain with her team.
Tucker pointed out that both benches will be full of WBHOF inductees with Pat Summitt, Holly Warlick and Daedra Charles-Furlow of Tennessee, and Kim Mulkey and Leon Barmore of Baylor. They are the only Division I teams in the country to have multiple hall of famers on the staff, Tucker said.
"It's great for us to have the event back in Knoxville because obviously we're always trying to get people to the Hall of Fame to learn about the history of the game, and we hope for a great crowd Sunday," Tucker said.