It has only been 10 months since the most stunning loss in the history of the Lady Vols program when Tennessee bowed out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Ball State. Prior to that defeat, Tennessee had safely arrived to at least the Sweet 16 in 27 tournament fields.
The resurrection plan was underway less than 48 hours later when the Lady Vol players gathered with the coaches in Pratt Pavilion for a practice session last March. For the first time since the NCAA Tournament started in 1982, the Lady Vols weren't preparing that day for another postseason game. They were setting the foundation for this season.
Tuesday's practice session at Thompson-Boling Arena followed a day off following Tennessee's 75-48 wipeout of Mississippi State on Sunday. Pat Summitt's focus wasn't on the outcome but the slippage in the second half when the bench entered, because the staff knows they need players besides the starters to be ready at any time this season.
"I think Pat is smart enough to know, she's experienced, she's done this, and she's also very astute in terms of knowing that we've got about two and a half months to put ourselves in that position (in a Final Four), and you can't let one day slip by," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "You can't miss one day. Our margin of error is small. It's not UConn's margin of error. It's not Stanford's margin of error."
Conventional wisdom says this season is too soon for the Lady Vols to contend for yet another national title for a program that has already accumulated eight. They have no seniors on the roster, and only one junior in the starting lineup. One of their best players, junior forward Vicki Baugh, never played this season and is now out for the season to rehab from knee surgeries.
A team that lost in the first round of the tourney just 10 months ago and set all sorts of dubious program records is essentially the same with the addition of two freshmen – one starting out of position and another who comes off the bench but has also spent time in Summitt's doghouse for inconsistent practice habits.
But the national landscape in women's college basketball isn't that daunting this year past Connecticut and Stanford – two teams who are seemingly locks for the Final Four – and there are two more seats at that table that are there for a program to pluck.
"There is UConn, who's ahead of the field right now clearly," Lockwood said. "Then there's Stanford, as the next tier. And then there are us and probably five, six, seven other people who are competing for two spots. I'll say this, anything can happen, but I would be shocked as shocked can be if Stanford and UConn weren't in San Antonio.
"Pat sees that, she knows it, she's been through this so many times, and she sees the opportunity, but she also sees that if this team even wavers momentarily – forgot about regressing and going down the hill – even if we stand in place and waver somebody will overtake us. She has a real sense of urgency – and we do as a staff – that she wants our team to embrace. Some days it just ain't happening fast enough for her. She wants more, more, more, more."
January seems early to be talking about the Final Four, but the coaches know that if a young Lady Vol team is to find itself in San Antonio in April, the groundwork must be put in place now.
"She sees if we keep pushing and keeping the pedal down we're going to pass a few boats in the water and we're going to get into that harbor, and we'll be one of the four teams in that harbor," Lockwood said. "Our boat will be in the harbor when they close it down. We'll be one of the four in there."
Tuesday's practice was a good example of Summitt's mindset right now. The session lasted two hours, which included film study to show the players the game slippage at Mississippi State. There were full court drills on both sides of the ball, and Wednesday will be an off day to travel without practice to ensure that the players have their legs for Thursday's game in Gainesville against Florida (7 p.m. Eastern, CSS, espn360.com).
"After watching the tape and watching the second half I wanted to show our bench players that they weren't ready to play," Summitt said. "We addressed that; we watched that."
In particular, the coaches need better play out of backup point guard Briana Bass, who has performed well at times this season but struggled with her decision-making against Mississippi State.
"Bree's got to play at a different level," Summitt said. "She looked like she didn't even want to be in the game. I think, quite honestly, because she didn't go in early, she didn't go in ready to play late. I told her, ‘You don't pick and choose when you're going to play hard. We're not going to have a pity party on this team with anybody.' "
Before the team went into the film session, Angie Bjorklund placed an arm around Bass' shoulders and gave her a pep talk and a fist bump.
Bjorklund, a junior guard, is the team's leader this season and the only upperclassman in the starting lineup.
"We're still a pretty much sophomore-dominated team," Summitt said.
Freshman guard/forward Taber Spani is a starter playing out of position. She played facing the basket in high school and has been asked to learn post defense when Tennessee is in its man looks so that Glory Johnson can use her lateral quickness to be a pest on the perimeter. Spani also plays some offensive possessions at the power forward spot, instead of on the perimeter as she did in high school. The other three positions to open the game are held by sophomores.
The first players off the bench are sophomores, followed by a junior, Sydney Smallbone, who enters the game for offense because of her outside shooting, and a freshman, Kamiko Williams, who has struggled to fully learn the offensive and defensive systems, though she has made strides on defense, usually the tougher lesson for first-year players.
With that much youth, the coaches are having to ride herd, so to speak, on the players daily.
"Not the whole team but, individually, yes, absolutely," Summitt said.
Concepts must be repeated and reinforced. The staff expects slippage from practice to game, but the coaches are trying to minimize it, as much as possible. Lockwood pointed out that the devastating loss to Ball State wasn't that long ago. And essentially the same squad is now trying to go from first round defeat to Final Four.
"We're just 10 months away from one of worst catastrophes that has ever happened here," Lockwood said. "Coach (Chuck) Daly used to say, ‘A pessimist is an optimist with experience.' We've been through it."
Lockwood said a veteran team might have a bad possession on offense and then correct it the next time down the court. A young one can sometimes need a few possessions to make fixes.
"We've seen it in games, our last three, four possessions (in a row) were horrible," Lockwood said. "The good teams narrow the space in which bad things occur, and that's what we are trying to correct."
Summitt's intensity level has already crossed into February territory.
"I would not disagree with that," she said.
Bjorklund brought up the Final Four, without prompting, when asked what Summitt was stressing to the team right now.
"Taking our game to the next level, where we can go hard for 40 minutes," Bjorklund said. "She is really stressing that. Yeah, we're playing well, we're playing a lot better, but we're not a Final Four team yet.
"I think taking our game to that next level, especially with our intensity on defense and rebounding, really focusing on that and also she really stressed, a huge point, getting in the gym over the break and investing in our game, whether it's taking an extra 200 or 300 shots a few times a week or pulling a teammate in and shooting with a teammate. I think we're holding each other accountable."
Bjorklund's backcourt mate, sophomore Shekinna Stricklen, smiled when asked about her coach's intensity level.
"Today she was very upset from the end of the Mississippi State game," Stricklen said. "It just shows that we have to play a 40-minute game. Sometimes we play hard, and then sometimes we just drop. She was showing today that we can't let down. We've just got to go hard 40 minutes.
"I don't think it's too early (to talk about the Final Four). I think she's really just trying to get it in our minds that we've got to keep getting better every day. We're better, but we've just got to get better and better every day if we really want to get to the Final Four."
A key for any team making it that far, of course, is health. Injuries can torpedo a promising season – the Lady Vols lost Baugh in February a year ago and won't have her this season – and Tennessee would be hard pressed to take any hits at key spots on the floor and still expect to contend this season for a national championship.
"It breaks my heart for her, because I know how hard she's been working out in rehab and staying over the summers," Bjorklund said of Baugh, a fellow junior who will now take a redshirt year, the second member of that class to do so, with Kelley Cain a redshirt sophomore this season.
"We all want her to get healed up and I think it was good for her to find out she needed another surgery and to get whatever needed to be taken care of, taken care of so she can get back on the court. It's going to be hard not having her this year, but next year she's going to have a huge impact for us."
Tennessee was down to seven players at practice Tuesday as Williams, Smallbone and Cain were all held out because of stomach illness. Stricklen had stomach pains but was able to practice.
"We've got to get healthy but hopefully this will run its course, and we'll be all right," Summitt said.
The Vols basketball team took the court immediately after the Lady Vols session ended Tuesday, and Summitt spoke to several of the players, hugged them and offered congratulations for Sunday's 76-68 win over then No. 1 Kansas. The Lady Vols were on a charter flight back from Starkville, Miss., for most of the game but made it back for the end.
"I talked to Bruce right after it," Summitt said. "It was amazing. We got to see the last of it, so that was good."
Summitt and Bruce Pearl both tend to be at their best when their backs are against the proverbial wall. Pearl's team has won two games – the Kansas one will go down in Tennessee lore – since four players were arrested after marijuana and guns were found during a traffic stop on New Year's Day. One player has been dismissed and three remain suspended. Summitt is steering a team that didn't win an NCAA tourney game last season and is using her sheer force of will to try to get it to a Final Four.
"I think there are a lot of similarities," Summitt said of her and Pearl. "I think we understand we have to be demanding. Remember, you don't get what you expect. You get what you demand. So every day I am thinking I've got to go in and demand a little bit more.
"That's because my job is to get the absolute best that this team has, along with the help of my coaching staff. That's my job."