All three players understand that they have to be ready when the coaches call their names.
Smallbone's state of readiness was particularly impressive because prior to her start against LSU, she had not even played in the previous three games.
"You have to be prepared as an athlete to kind of expect everything, and you have to play your role, especially on a team like this with so much talent," Smallbone said. "I think my teammates help me out with it a lot, too, because they keep me in a positive mindset, and I just have to help the team any way I can if it means starting a game or playing two minutes, one minute, zero minutes, I've got to be ready for anything."
The player she replaced in the lineup for one game, Angie Bjorklund, saluted the work ethic of her fellow junior.
"Syd deserves the chances to be out there on the court with the amount of work that she puts in outside of practice and in practice," Bjorklund said. "She has been a great example to the entire team, especially the younger players of setting the bar and saying, ‘Hey, this is where your work ethic needs to be.'
"And she has kept it high for even myself. I have so much respect for Syd and I am proud of how she's been playing."
Bjorklund will be back in the lineup tonight against the Tigers, but she handled coming off the bench with aplomb.
"It's all about the team, whether your role is to start, whether your role is to come off the bench, no matter what, it's about when you're in the game and giving it your all when you're in the game no matter when that is," Bjorklund said. "That is Coach's call and I respect whatever Coach does because I know she is doing it just to help the team."
Brewer is carving out a significant post role for herself. In SEC play, the 6'3 sophomore is averaging 7.8 points and 5.7 rebounds a game. Brewer has a knack for adjusting her body in relation to the basket and is excellent at using the glass to finish a shot. Against LSU, she came back to Bjorklund to receive a pass after a loose ball, drove to the basket, adjusted her hips as she went in for the shot, drew contact and banked in the ball.
It would seem the bookworm – Brewer is an avid reader, especially James Patterson mysteries – would have done well in geometry based on her inherent understanding of angles.
"Geometry and trigonometry I hated those math classes," said Brewer, who laughed out loud at the question but acknowledged that she did do well in those subjects. "I was more an algebra person. I've never had anybody tell me that I'm mathematically sound on the court, which I guess I will take it as a very high compliment. I guess I am just in tune to the basket."
Brewer has had to develop better practice habits – that was a struggle for her last season as her level of conditioning wasn't enough to keep up on a daily basis – but she has turned a corner midway through her second year. She also has become mentally tough as she absorbed a lot of scrutiny from Summitt and never wilted.
"I think it's not all about basketball," Brewer said. "It's also what you've been through in your life and there have been some times in my life where it's just been very hectic, and I think having that experience before that, a real life situation, and then basketball, you put those two together, it helps a lot because basketball is so simple, but there's a lot that's asked from it.
"Just being able to be strong-minded and I had so much support behind me (from) my family and my teammates, my teammates especially, every day they would help me out. Those are keys things to have people close to you that are very positive about everything."
Teammate support is a common thread, and it's actually the way the coaches want the players to stitch themselves as a unit, because when the game tips off, it belongs to them.
"Coach Summitt tells us all the time that they control practice, but we control what happens in the game," Brewer said.
Smallbone, who made the leap from not playing for three games to starting – and played the best defense of her Tennessee career, according to Summitt – also noted her teammates' support as the key to keeping her going.
"It takes a whole team effort, and I think everyone has a role on this team and everyone has an impact on this team," Smallbone said. "You have to be ready for anything that comes your way and whatever Coach wants you to do, you have to be willing to do it.
"I think Coach recognizes hard work, and she's very good at letting people know, ‘Hey, you're a part of this team, too.' Sometimes she may not show it and that's what your teammates are for. We're strong in the fact that we do support each other so well."
That support also needs to arrive during games and at practice, especially when a player is getting Summitt's full attention.
"Continue to encourage them," Bjorklund said. "Coach might get on them and right after that you've got to go right to them and say, ‘You've got it next play. Forget that play. You got it next time.' "
That is the common theme of the national title teams at Tennessee – they end up holding each other accountable on the court. It has been a slower process with this team because they were mostly freshmen last season, and there are no seniors this year. It's been a learn-on-the-job process for this group.
"I think we've learned a lot this season but at the same time we have a long ways to go," Bjorklund said. "I think if we focus on one day at a time, every day in practice getting better, then we'll be right where we need to be."
The players showed the coaches last Sunday that they could take a hit on the road – the 53-50 loss to Georgia – and bounce back in the next road game.
"I think that we learned all that we could from that game (against Georgia) and then we came back and we rebounded very well against LSU," Brewer said.
Brewer understands the importance of practice, but she also knows nothing replaces game experience.
"I honestly think it's going to be repetition, not necessarily repetition in practice," Brewer said. "You can do as many game situation type things as you want but until you get to the real game and how you react then … if we keep communicating like we did against LSU it'll be fine. Against LSU we talked the most and we communicated the most and that's one thing we've been trying to do, and we finally did it."
Communication has been cited by the coaches and players as the key against LSU. Tennessee stayed in its matchup defense – Coach Van Chancellor cited its length as formidable – and talked throughout the Lady Tigers' offensive possessions. The players identified cutters – those on the top of the zone now knew what was happening behind them – and the shooters – those at the back of the zone now could get to the boards.
"It works a lot better when you have high hands, low hips, quick feet and communicating," Summitt said. "Van said afterwards he had never seen a zone that big. Of course, sometimes he kind of exaggerates. (But) it was good."
Turnovers remain an area of concern. Tennessee had 25 against Florida, got it under control with 16 against Vandy (the Commodores had 27) and then put up back-to-back numbers of 23 miscues against Georgia and LSU.
"If you look at the stats, you see that our defense has been a little better than our opponents," Brewer said. "We've been out-rebounding them, but one thing that makes our defense not as good as it should have been was our turnovers. We still had 23 turnovers."
Those can often lead to transition opportunities for the other team, and the defense doesn't have time to get set.
"People are really trying to come after our guards and in some cases we had some panic plays," Summitt said. "We just have to continue to focus on our composure and certainly not exposing the ball, because I think that's been an issue for us and then flat passes. There are a number of players that have flat passes."
Against LSU the Tennessee posts were losing the ball more than the guards – that tends to allow the perimeter players more time to transition from offense to defense – but that was partly because the ball was being pounded inside, and the posts were getting called for offensive fouls or losing the ball in traffic.
"We were going inside more so that's going to happen," Summitt said. "Double teams and overplay, very aggressive and physical."
In this case Tennessee didn't let losing the ball on offense affect how it played defense, especially in the last nine minutes against LSU when it was a tight game, until the Lady Vols managed to create some separation. As evidence, they shot 11-22 (50 percent) in the second half.
"Not really but one thing that we need to cut down on our offense is our turnovers," Brewer said. "I think once we do that it will be a significant difference."
The team spent a good portion of its practice time for the past two days tweaking its offense, with a lot of emphasis on player movement. The offensive execution issues against Georgia – when Tennessee holds a team to 53 points it expects to win the game – stemmed from players being stagnant.
But the outcomes across the league also reflect the familiarity the SEC teams have with each other and how to stop each other. In 13 non-conference games, Tennessee averaged 79.7 points per game. In six SEC games, that scoring output has dropped nearly 15 points to 64.8 points per game.
It was a little more than three weeks ago when Tennessee tallied 96 points in a win over Oklahoma.
"These SEC games seem long," Brewer said. "It does feel like we played OU in November. That's one of those games that you look back as a team and say this really wasn't that long ago that we played like that, and we can continue to play like that. We didn't necessarily play all the way like that against LSU, but we played some like we did then."
It also underscores the nature of conference play – such keen familiarity with what the other team wants to do can lead to grind-it-out games.
"We're all so familiar in the conference with everybody," Summitt said. "They know all of our warts, and we know theirs."
Tennessee's defense continues to be stout. It allowed 56.8 points in the 13 non-conference games and has surrendered just 54.5 points per game against SEC opponents. The Lady Vols have done this by deploying both man and zone schemes.
"I think we'll probably have to mix it up," Summitt said. "So what we have to do is be very committed as a coaching staff to talk on the bench and to know when we think a change is good. We talk constantly about it."
Bjorklund smiled when asked if it was odd to play so much zone defense. During her freshman year she was on the same team as Alexis Hornbuckle, Nicky Anosike, Candace Parker, Shannon Bobbitt and Alberta Auguste, and the Lady Vols primarily were in man, and it often extended full court.
"Tennessee has always been known for their man-to-man and pressure D, but I think Coach is using what she has," Bjorklund said. "We're a long, rangy team, tall, so I think Coach is making adjustments with the players that she has. I think that speaks volumes for Pat Summitt, able to put in whatever she needs."
Bjorklund is a junior whose career at Tennessee has already gone from the highest point – a national title in 2008 – to the lowest – a first-round loss in the NCAA tourney. She has a lot of game experience to draw upon, and now the sophomores are catching up. Brewer, one of those second-year players who got tossed into the proverbial fire last season, pondered the question of whether or not the conference games seemed tougher this season.
"Some do and some don't," Brewer said. "Last year I would say it was a lot tougher because the games, Vandy and Florida, we wouldn't have won. We wouldn't have been able to mentally toughen it out and be able to pull out the win like we did."
Brewer credited the intense workouts that began last March with changing the team's overall mindset.
"There is a lot of mentality in everything that we did in the off-season," Brewer said. "We got mentally broken and brought right back up. That has come into play a lot of times this year.
"Last year we had a target on our back. This year we still have a target on our back. I think we have a year now and everybody else that we played against last year has a year as well. The SEC is a really tough conference and you know that every game you play they're going to bring their best game no matter what."
The win at LSU allowed Tennessee to claim a spot atop the standings in a tie with Ole Miss, instead of falling into a tie with Georgia for second place.
"It puts us in a great position and, if we continue to win, puts us in great position to win the conference if we continue to play well on the road and home games," Bjorklund said.
"We're just going to play every game like it's the SEC championship game to be able to stay alive and then when we get to the tournament then we've just got to play all out no matter what," Brewer said.
Ole Miss had been picked to finish ninth in the SEC by the media. LSU, the media's pick to finish first, has three losses after five SEC games and is currently in ninth place. Summitt expects the conference race to stay close all season among several contenders.
"I think this is the SEC this year," Summitt said. "Get ready. It's going to be a war every night and go down to the wire and you had better be ready to close out the game. I think going into it we all felt like our league was better and I think on a given night if you're not ready to play then you're going to get beat.
"That's what we're trying to instill in our players that we have to have possession by possession, whether we're on offense or defense. We've just got to have everyone focused."
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 sophomore guard/forward, No. 40 (12.7 points per game, 6.3 rebounds per game, 4.1 assists per game); Sydney Smallbone, 5'10 junior guard, No. 20 (2.9 ppg, 0.6 rpg); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 junior guard, No. 5 (14.8 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.6 apg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 sophomore forward, No. 25 (12.7 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 1.4 steals per game); and Kelley Cain, 6'6 redshirt sophomore center, No. 52 (9.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 2.8 blocks per game).
A key player off the bench for the Lady Vols is Alicia Manning, a 6'1 sophomore forward who had seven rebounds against LSU and two steals picked perfectly out of the matchup zone.
"That's been good for us, because we've always thought that that kid can contribute more," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "We like the fact that's she going out there and playing with an attack mentality. She's boarding. You also see her going to the basket a little bit more. Midrange shots, we feel like she can knock that down. We hope that's something she'll do for us."
Auburn Coach Nell Fortner is expected to start: Morgan Toles, 5'9 freshman guard, No. 1 (7.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 4.1 apg), hails from Fayetteville, Ga., scored a career-high 17 points against Florida, high school teammate of Lady Vol center Kelley Cain at St. Pius X in Atlanta, later transferred to Sandy Creek for final two years of high school, also played for the Georgia Metros, father Alvin Toles played football for the Vols (linebacker) from 1981 to 1984, chose Auburn because it's close to home, favorite pro player is Steve Nash; Alli Smalley, 5'8 junior guard, No. 5 (14.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.7 apg), hails from Arab, Ala., lone returning starter from last season, preseason All-SEC Second Team, reached 1,000 points in her career in the Jan. 21 game against Vanderbilt and now has 1,016, scored a career-high 27 points against Alabama, brother Blake was a member of the male practice squad and is now a team manager, says favorite pro is former Lady Vol Tamika Catchings, because "she gives 100 percent on both ends" (Indiana Fever) and also former Tiger DeWanna Bonner (Phoenix Mercury); Blanche Alverson, 6'3 freshman guard/forward, No. 14 (6.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg), hails from Andalusia, Ala., turns 19 years old on Thursday, has attempted 80 three-pointers, second on the team to Smalley's 109 attempts, brother William is on the "Crushers," the male practice team, parents graduated from Auburn, great-grandfather, Rube Alverson, played baseball for the Tigers, favorite pro player is Dirk Nowitzki, a big that also plays outside; Jordan Greenleaf, 6'1 redshirt junior forward, No. 21 (7.2 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 1.6 spg) hails from Rex, Ga., missed all but five games last season after suffering an ACL injury in practice Dec. 4, 2008, leads the team with 65 offensive boards this season, went over 500 rebounds for her career against Alabama on Jan. 14, favorite pro players are Dwayne Wade and Kevin Garnett; and KeKe Carrier, 6'7 redshirt senior center, No. 33 (14.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 2.4 bpg), hails from Lake Charles, La., is eight blocks away from the No. 2 spot on Auburn's career list and needs 86 points to reach 1,000 for her career, favorite pro player also is Catchings "because of her drive."
Another key player for the Tigers is Parrisha Simmons, a 6'0 sophomore guard who has started 14 games this season. She is averaging 5.7 rebounds per game and of her 114 boards, 65 have come on the offensive end. Simmons shares a birth date with Alverson, who has started four games. Simmons will turn 21 years old on Thursday.
Auburn, the reigning SEC champions, is a different team this season after the loss of DeWanna Bonner, the SEC player of the year, Whitney Boddie and Sherell Hobbs. Those three, plus Trevesha Jackson, were senior starters and are no longer Tigers for Fortner, who was the 2009 SEC Coach of the Year.
"We are the team that we are right now because we are getting a lot of great experience for some young kids," Fortner said. "If you lose some games, you just have to take all of the good out of it that you can and use that experience to get better the next game. That is what we're trying to do. This is a tough conference, we are in a tough place, there is no question, but this team has a lot of fight in it and a lot of heart so we'll keep after it."
The Tigers arrive in Knoxville with a three-game losing streak, the latest being a 68-50 loss at Kentucky.
"Losses are just like wins in the sense that they can snowball on you," Fortner said. "Wins can snowball on you and so can losses."
Thompson-Boling Arena is a tough place to hunt a win, but Auburn is one of just 10 teams to claim victory there. The Tigers defeated Tennessee, 71-68, on Jan. 9, 1988.
The nine other teams to leave the arena with a win are Texas, Louisiana Tech, Georgia, Connecticut, Stanford, Duke, LSU, Florida and Virginia.
"They have a bona-fide home-court advantage," Fortner said. "I think everybody has a bona-fide home-court advantage, but I think some are just over the top better than others and I think Tennessee is one of those and UConn is one of those. You know, whenever you can put 14,000 people in an arena, that is an over-the-top home-court advantage."
Four of Auburn's last six games have been on the road in conference play, while Tennessee is playing at home for the first time in nearly two weeks.
"Here we go with another SEC game, a tough environment and tough road game," Fortner said. "There are no easy games in this conference. Tennessee, right now, is the best team in this conference. They have that team back from last year with a year of experience under their belt.
"It can be so dangerous, we will have to go there and play some good basketball and shoot the ball well and handle the crowd, because they always come out with a nice crowd."
Tennessee's post players will likely be glad to see Carrier, even though she is shooting 58.2 percent from the field, is the second-leading scorer for Auburn this season and has more than 500 career rebounds. After getting in foul trouble in some SEC games with smaller players flopping in the paint like fish out of water, the Lady Vol posts get to square off against someone with size.
"It's all about how the refs are going to call it," Alyssia Brewer said. "I don't know if they'll let us play or they'll call everything."
When the players are of relatively equal size the officials tend to let them collide in the paint.
"When we played OU, Kelley (Cain) and Abi (Olajuwon) and I, we went at it the whole entire time," Brewer said.
"That's going to be a great matchup to watch," Summitt said. "I'm very anxious to see how we match up with her. My thought is we may have to rotate some, Kelley and Lyssi on that."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Auburn game. Here is his assessment.
When Auburn has the ball: "There are two phases to their attack and obviously (KeKe) Carrier and (Alli) Smalley are the two leaders for them in scoring in SEC play," Lockwood said. "They have great inside play, which centers around Carrier. Jordan Greenleaf is the unsung hero on this team. She is a very good midrange player. She is one of the best offensive rebounders in the SEC. She can make a high post or corner jump shot. She puts it on the floor a little bit.
"So, she and Carrier are getting the paint points and then you've got Smalley, who's one of the best pure shooters in the conference and then with (Blanche) Alverson, who's a freshman, she's going to bring to mind a more slender version of Sid Spencer in the sense of really can shoot it, little bit multidimensional, not a terrific ball handler but you give her (a little) space and, boy, she make a shot."
Morgan Toles plays point guard for Auburn, and her father played football for the Vols – the Lady Vols didn't have an open scholarship – so she should be particularly inspired to play well at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"What do you think," Lockwood said when the question was asked of him. "She's a very good penetrator, handles the ball probably 95 percent of the time for them when she's in the game, uses ball screens really well."
Defensively, "I would be real surprised if they don't play at least a half a game of zone," Lockwood said. "They will play man, but their 2-3, 3-2, they mix those in, but more 2-3."
When Tennessee has the ball: The Lady Vols are moving Glory Johnson back inside for the opening tip against Auburn after she started the past two games on the perimeter – with Kelley Cain and Alyssia Brewer inside – because of the turf toe injury to forward Taber Spani, who practiced Wednesday and will be evaluated day to day.
"I wanted to get Glory in the lineup and I just didn't feel like she was as comfortable in her face-up game as she is in getting paint points," Pat Summitt said. "I wanted to put her in that position. We'll have Kelley in the paint as well. With Keke, she's really going to have to play solid defense. Bring Lyssi off the bench.
"People make so much of who the starters are. You can change that in the matter of five seconds or five minutes. I just feel a little better right now to get Glory in the paint as opposed to facing up early."
Johnson also is averaging nearly a double-double in SEC play with 12.0 points and 9.5 rebounds a game and, for now, her game is more productive when she's in the paint.
"We don't want to lose that productivity," Lockwood said. "I think that's where she's more comfortable. I think that's when she's been more effective for us, especially offensively. She's obviously got great versatility defensively. We can guard her one through five. What we'd like to do is work her in a little bit more (on the perimeter offensively), have her spend some time with the perimeters in practice, get her comfortable."
The perimeter players were in motion for most of the offensive reps in practice this week, and the coaches want to see that movement in Thursday's game.
"We want more ball reversals, we want the defense to move a little bit more, and we become a little bit more attacking because you don't know necessarily where the shot is going to come from," Lockwood said. "All the players are in the attack mode."
Defensively,, Tennessee will continue to mix up its man and zone looks with the deployment often dependent on the Lady Vol personnel on the floor at a given time.
"You've probably seen Tennessee play more zone (in the past two games) than any two games in its history, but it is based on personnel that we have, personnel that they have and what we feel is going to be effective," Lockwood said. "We've come to the thinking of it's not whether you're in man or zone, it's about getting stops.
"Last time I checked they didn't have a category of how many times you were in man or zone, but they do have a category for how many stops and what your field goal percentage defense it. We want to base it on what we think will get us stops."
ON TAP: Eight other SEC teams are in action Thursday in the following matchups: Alabama at Vanderbilt; Georgia at Mississippi State; Kentucky at LSU; and Ole Miss at South Carolina. Arkansas and Florida are idle.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Auburn, 32-10. The Lady Vols are 15-2 in Knoxville, but the Tigers have won the past two matchups – a 78-58 win in the SEC tourney in Little Rock, Ark., and an 82-68 win at Auburn on Jan. 25, 2009, before a sellout crowd of 12,067. That feat – it was the largest crowd to see a men's or women's basketball game at Auburn – warranted two pages and seven photos in this season's media guide for the Tigers. … Tennessee is 14-4 in games played on January 28. The last win on this date was against Duke, 67-64, in 2008. The first win on January 28 was against Milligan, 72-26, in 1972. The four losses on this date were to Tennessee Tech, 59-45, in 1970; Belmont, 60-59, in 1977; Georgia, 81-76, in 1990; and Georgia again, 81-74, in 1991. … Current Lady Vol Assistant Coach Daedra Charles-Furlow, who is on limited duties this season while taking care of some health issues, will see some old friends tonight. Charles-Furlow was on Nell Fortner's staff from 2006 to 2008. … Auburn is playing its last season at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum. Auburn Arena, which will include a practice facility, will open for the 2010-11 season, and the Tigers will host the first/second rounds in the NCAA Tournament in 2011. Nell Fortner was among those who signed the final steel beam before it was put into place on the structure. Capacity will be 9,600 and will include luxury suites and loge seating. The arena also will house the coaches' offices, medical and workout/conditioning facilities, locker rooms and the two-court practice facility. … Tennessee Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick is the third most-tenured assistant in women's college basketball, according to the Lady Vol game notes. Warlick has been on the Lady Vol sidelines for 25 years and ranks behind Annette Rocheleau of Montana (29 years) and Carol Peschel of UNC-Greensboro (26 years). Connecticut's Chris Dailey and Stanford's Amy Tucker are also in the silver anniversary club. … Both Auburn and Tennessee are relying on young players this season. The Lady Vols don't have any seniors, and the Tigers have just one in KeKe Carrier. Carrier, at 6'7, isn't the tallest player on the team. That distinction belongs to Pascale "P.J." West, a 6'8 freshman center from LaGrange, Ga. West has played in 16 games this season for the Tigers. West and Carrier are two of the three tallest players in the SEC. Tennessee's Kelley Cain is No. 3 at 6'6.
BY THE NUMBERS OVERALL WITH SEC PLAY IN PARENTHESES: Tennessee is averaging 75.0 points a game (64.8) while allowing opponents to score 56.1 (54.5). Auburn averages 63.5 points a game (60.4) while allowing 62.2 (65.7). The Lady Vols are shooting 46.6 percent overall (45.3), 36.5 percent behind the arc (32.9) and 68.4 percent from the free throw line (63.6). The Tigers are shooting 41.6 percent overall (40.4), 31.3 percent from long range (27.7) and 57.5 percent from the line (53.6). Tennessee makes an average of 5.6 three-pointers a game (4.5) while allowing 5.8 (6.5). Auburn makes 4.0 threes a game (3.3) while allowing 5.3 (6.1).
Tennessee averages 43.1 rebounds a game for a +9.2 margin (39.8, +8.7). Auburn averages 41.3 boards for a +6.1 margin (42.4, +7.9). The Lady Vols average 15.6 assists (14.5) and 15.5 turnovers (17.5) a game. Opponents lose the ball an average of 17.0 times a game (17.2). The Tigers average 13.4 assists (13.6) and 17.3 turnovers (17.4) with foes losing the ball 15.6 times a game (13.7). Tennessee averages 7.3 steals (6.0) and 5.5 blocks a game (4.7). Auburn averages 6.1 steals (5.3) and 5.1 blocks (4.7).