SEC Tournament gets underway today

DULUTH, Ga. – The 2010 Women's SEC Basketball Tournament gets underway today at The Arena at Gwinnett Center and if the four-day event follows form with the regular season it's a wide-open race for the crown.

Tennessee won the conference title with a 15-1 record – the only stumble was at Georgia on Jan. 21 – but the Lady Vols were pushed by several teams, including both of the ones playing Thursday in the tourney's first game for the right to face Tennessee on Friday. The Lady Vols had to come back late to beat South Carolina on Jan. 31, and it took a last-second shot by Angie Bjorklund to subdue Ole Miss on Feb. 11.

The SEC coaches held a teleconference this week to answer questions about their teams and the tournament. From Van Chancellor's confusion over Sunday scores all season to Andy Landers sounding like the tourist bureau for two states, the coaches seemed ready for tipoff.

ALABAMA COACH WENDELL HUDSON

No. 11 seed Alabama (12-17, 4-12) faces No. 6 seed Georgia (22-7, 9-7), on Thursday at 9 p.m. Eastern.

The Crimson Tide closed the regular season with a win over Florida to lift itself out of last place in the SEC. Alabama also played well against Tennessee in mid-February, a game that gave the Crimson Tide some momentum, which Wendell Hudson hopes to carry into the SEC Tournament.

"I don't think there's any question the way we played against Tennessee at home helped the confidence level of this team," Hudson said. "It helped us understand if you go out and play hard and play together (good things can happen later). It had to help our confidence, and I think without any question it helped us going down the stretch by the way we played against some of the other teams in the league."

The SEC went to a 16-game schedule this season, and the reaction among coaches was mixed. Hudson was supportive of the move.

"Going to a 16-game schedule was good," Hudson said. "I thought that was really good. We got to bring two more games in the conference, which I thought added to the excitement of the conference race."

ARKANSAS COACH TOM COLLEN

No. 12 seed Arkansas (12-17, 4-12) faces No. 5 seed Vanderbilt (20-9, 9-7), on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. Eastern.

The Razorbacks finished in last place in the conference based on the head-to-head tiebreaker with Alabama, which beat Arkansas on Feb. 21.

"I feel like we've been an up-and-down team all year," Tom Collen said. "We got off to a really poor start in the SEC. I think we dropped our first five games and then we started competing, and we played a lot of good teams real close, including this Vanderbilt team at home.

"We got on a roll, and we won three games on the road. We feel good about our ability to go away from our home venue and be able to compete and win and then we struggled down the stretch. It's really hard to tell where our mindset is at. As the second part of the season started evolving, we talking about setting team goals in terms of the opponents we were getting ready to play. One of our goals was to be able to go to the SEC Tournament and win a game there, because we haven't won a game for a while. Once you win that game, you get on a roll and who knows what might happen.

"I'll be as anxious as anyone to see where our team is at. We've come out of two tough road losses where we have every reason not to believe in ourselves. If they can accept this challenge and play together and play real hard, I think we've got a chance to go down there and compete with Vanderbilt, and I think we've got a good chance to beat them."

Collen expects the close games of the regular season among SEC teams to continue in Duluth.

"I just think the teams are so evenly matched," Collen matched.

Four SEC teams finished with a 9-7 record, and three were at 7-9 in what was a bunched-up middle of the standings and took until the last day of the regular season to sort out the tourney seeding.

We're the No. 12 seed, but I think we can step on the floor on any given night and compete with anybody," Collen said. "We've got a young team so we haven't been involved in as many close games. We've had a tendency of once somebody hits us real hard and made a run at us, sometimes we struggle coming back. … I think this league is very balanced from top to bottom.

"I'm sitting there watching Ole Miss battle Tennessee (Sunday) night and there are just a lot of teams in this league that believe in themselves. I think that will continue, and it's going to be really interesting to see how this tournament unfolds."

Collen's position on the 16-game schedule was that it wore out teams.

"I think it's been hard on everybody," Collen said. "The coaches voted 12-0 to not go to the 16 games over and over again but we decided to go as a league to this format. I think it's been tough. A lot of teams right now have taken enough losses that you wonder how many teams we're going to be able to get into the NCAA Tournament. With that said, a lot of the other leagues are doing the same thing.

"When it comes down to the tiebreakers and with all those teams lumped into the middle with similar records, it seems a little bit unfair because everybody played different schedules. No two teams have played the same schedule. You could go from a 7-9 team to a 9-7 team if everybody was playing the same people. I think that makes it tough. I don't know how all the coaches feel in the conference, but we'll probably go down for spring meetings and decide we want to go back to just a round robin 11-game schedule the way all of us have been beat up this year."

Collen was joking about reverting to how the SEC scheduled league games from 1992 to 1996 before expanding to 12 games in 1997, 14 games in 1998 and then 16 games in 2010.

"It will be interesting to see how it plays itself out and where we go from here," Collen said. "I promise you the coaches in conference are going to adjust their non-conference schedules as a result of it."

After Collen's team lost to Tennessee last month, the coach said his team needed to take its shots at other SEC teams to finish the season. Now that it's postseason, Collen said he wants to see as many teams get into NCAA play as possible.

"I'm an SEC person," Collen said. "The last thing I want to do is to go in there and muddy the waters and knock somebody down. I want all the SEC teams to be able to get in postseason play and get great seeds. For my team we can't even get to .500 and go to the NIT. For us it's all about that individual goal (of) proving to ourselves that we're able to compete with a Top 25 team.

"Be able to compete with a Vanderbilt, finding a way to beat them I think that finishes off the year with my kids making them feel like, ‘Here we are at the end of the year, we've kept battling, we've kept working, we just knocked off a Top 25 team and that's something to springboard off of in the postseason and head to our workouts. It's probably more that we're motivated by that than necessarily we want to do anything to beat Vanderbilt and hurt them or hurt the SEC."

Collen did think the matchups in Duluth could "throw some confusion" into NCAA bids.

"It's a tough bracket from top to bottom," Collen said. "You look at what happened in the last week of the regular season with Alabama going on the road and winning (at Florida), Auburn bouncing back and beating Kentucky, which has been on such a roll all year long and then South Carolina going on the road and beating Vanderbilt. That's just the last week of the season and there were three solid upsets right there."

AUBURN COACH NELL FORTNER

No. 10 seed Auburn (14-15, 5-11) faces No. 7 seed Florida (14-15, 7-9), on Thursday at 2:30 Eastern.

"We are looking forward to playing and getting the tournament started," Nell Fortner said. "We've had a pretty tough up and down season. I think one of the things that I look back on and look at the wins that we've had in the conference. We've beaten four of the top six teams in the conference and then we've had some losses against team that weren't in the top six.

"On any given night a team like us that finishes 10th can beat just about any team. I agree that Tennessee, that's a little tougher team to beat right there."

(Because of technical difficulties with the teleconference, reporters were not able to ask questions of Fortner.)

FLORIDA COACH AMANDA BUTLER

No. 7 seed Florida (14-15, 7-9) faces No. 10 seed Auburn (14-15, 5-11), on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. Eastern.

Unlike some teams in the early rounds who just recently played each other, Florida and Auburn last met on Jan. 7. Amanda Butler remembered that the Gators played well in the first half and faltered in the second.

"We play two halves for a reason, so we've got to make sure we put two 20-minute halves together," Butler said. "It does seem like it was forever ago when we played them. They've got a lot of momentum coming in beating Kentucky, and we've got to make the most of our preparation time."

Butler's team is treating this week as a second season for the Gators.

"I think the exciting thing about the tournament is it's kind of like entering the conference," she said. "There is a little bit of a clean slate now. We're postseason now and we've got to start over and go into this next phase of the season with a lot of energy and be mentally ready."

Butler's reaction to the expanded league schedule was mixed.

"I think it made what I think is the best league in the country even harder to compete in, because we've got two more games against one another," Butler said. "The one thing that this season has shown us is how good our league is from top to bottom. Tennessee is really talented and really strong at the top but they had some tough matchups.

"There is so much parity that the 16-game schedule put us in a situation where we were beating one another more often rather than two other games and be able to go outside of the conference and beat a non-conference opponent. I think it showed great parity and great strength when you look at teams, no matter what their conference record was, everyone had a chance to beat everyone every single night because there was just a lot of balance in our league.

"The positive side is that because our league is so good, everybody that you're playing just about, if you can beat them, that gives you a chance to improve your postseason resume. The two extra games against such a quality opponent allow you the opportunity (to get a win over a ranked team)."

The SEC has selected the sites of the SEC tourney through 2014 with Duluth hosting in 2010, then Nashville for two years in 2011 and 2012, and then back to Duluth for 2013 and 2014.

"I think the Duluth site is pretty central," Butler said. "No matter where we go we're going to be a little bit closer to one school than another. That is always going to exist, but I think we've got to stay focused on where our fans can get to easily, where women's basketball is appreciated and supported well, and I think Duluth and Nashville are two areas where there is tremendous support and interest in the women's game, and in particular the SEC women's game, and I'll guess we'll see what the attendance numbers look like.

"I am excited about the chance because we have a lot of players on our team from Georgia and (they) have the opportunity to go back there and compete. I am a little bit biased because I am from outside the Nashville area so I love going there to play. I think it's two great sites, and time will tell."

GEORGIA COACH ANDY LANDERS

No. 6 seed Georgia (22-7, 9-7) faces No. 11 seed Alabama (12-17, 4-12), on Thursday at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Andy Landers was enthusiastic during his time on the teleconference – with the tournaments and its locations.

"Obviously like the other 11 teams we're excited that it's this time of year – tournament time," Landers said. It's a great time for a basketball player and a coach and a team, most exciting time of the year. We're excited. We feel like we've played better in the last few days than maybe we had a couple of weeks prior to that. We're healthier than we have been in over a month so overall excited and look forward to the challenge of playing Alabama."

The most critical injury for Georgia was the severely sprained ankle of senior guard Ashley Houts.

"It's been a challenge more than anything else," Landers said. "Unfortunately the person that has been injured the longest and affected the most by the injury is Houts. She sets the tone in many ways for our basketball team. It affects the ebb and flow of your team, not just from a playing but also from a mental standpoint."

Landers estimated that Houts, although not 100 percent, was back to the mid-80s.

"She's back now to exploding past you," Landers said. "She's got that back."

Landers also was encouraged by the way his team has bounced back since a four-week lull spread, at times, over January and February.

"We have six freshmen and as a coach, I figured out a long time ago from mid-January to the middle of February is the toughest time of year for basketball players because complacency (sets in)," Landers said. "People have pretty much figured out who the starters are, who the shooters are, who the first person off the bench is going to be. People have kind of settled into their roles.

"Now, settling into roles is a good thing. Being complacent in those roles, whether you're a starter, the leading scorer or the first person off the bench, that's a different thing. That kind of thinking and six freshmen that in large measure is where we have been – injured, growing up, getting through a tough part of the season, and certainly the other thing that complicates all that is you're playing in a league that is more balanced than it's been a years. Every time you go out on the floor if you don't bring your ‘A' game, you can get a whipping. That's where we've been.

"Now, I feel like we're healthier, we're excited about the end of the season, about the tournament. Our practices have always been good, but they've got a little bit better edge to them, a little bit more intensity. I feel good about where we're headed."

Landers was downright giddy about the sites of the SEC tournaments for the next five years with Duluth and Nashville sharing hosting duties. He cited the cities themselves, area attractions, airports and local basketball.

"I think they're terrific," Landers said. "I think they're two excellent choices. The Duluth site is certainly a great site. A terrific arena, very accommodating area just outside of Atlanta gives fans choices and places to stay and things to do away from the games. I think a lot of fans do enjoy wandering around and exploring when they're at events like the Southeastern Conference Tournament. It's easy to get to for all the teams.

"You can fly from about anywhere in America, almost anywhere in the world, you can fly right into Atlanta. As a coach that is something that is important to you. Fans can get here if they wish to fly very easily. Duluth is a terrific site for it. There is a lot of support. In the Gwinnett County area I think personally that has become the hotbed of girls high school basketball in our state so there is a lot of interest there. Add to that that there are a number of teams in the Southeastern Conference that have players on their roster from Georgia, and that makes it an even more attractive site.

"Nashville, another outstanding arena, another terrific city that has options for people to go and do things other than be in the gym when they wish to do that and a great basketball area as well. Middle Tennessee for many, many years, has been a terrific hotbed for girls high school basketball. It's centrally located for all the schools in the conference.

"I think they are two terrific sites. I think the conference made a wise decision in selecting those two sites for the next few years so that people can plan accordingly."

KENTUCKY COACH MATTHEW MITCHELL

No. 2 seed Kentucky (23-6, 11-5) has a first-round bye and will await the winner of the Florida-Auburn game. Tipoff is set for Friday at 2:30 p.m. Eastern.

Kentucky enters the tournament having swept three of the SEC's top awards – Coach of the Year in Matthew Mitchell, Player of the Year in Victoria Dunlap and Freshman of the Year A'dia Mathies.

"We are proud of our players, proud of our team for being able to earn the second seed in the conference tournament and one thing we are so grateful of is being able to play in this conference," Mitchell said. "We just think it's a real honor to play in the Southeastern Conference and one of my absolute favorite things as a coach is to go to the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

"I think it's one of the toughest tournaments in the country to win. You're going to have to play very, very good basketball over consecutive days to be the champion. We're excited about the opportunity to go down there and compete."

Mitchell said Dunlap's emergence this season was because she learned to play on both sides of the ball.

"She has had an outstanding year and the thing that makes her so valuable to us is her versatility on defense," Mitchell said. "I think that's where if I am look around the conference and see players that have made an impact and try to compare them to Victoria, the place where I think Victoria is so strong is her versatility on defense. She is one of the few players that can guard just about every position on the court and do it fairly effectively. That kind of versatility allows you and your team to do some things defensively that for us have been effective.

"When your best player is your best defender I think that also helps your team with its identity and motivates other players to play extremely hard on the defensive end. That is her value to our team. She has really been able to transform her game from a defender and rebounder and athlete into a person who can score and take over a game offensively. That's something she didn't do in her first two years here at Kentucky. She's made tremendous improvement. We wouldn't be in the position we are now without her. We're awful proud she's playing for us."

Kentucky didn't close the season strong with road losses to Tennessee and Auburn. The size of both teams was a factor.

"We are concerned about how we finished," Mitchell said. "One good thing for our players is that fortunately they've worked hard enough to earn themselves a bye in this tournament, and we're trying to take advantage of that and give them a couple of days off and see if we can recharge. This team has been pretty resilient.

"I think matchups are interesting in this tournament, and I think that some teams match up better with others. The teams that have tremendous size really give us a lot of problems. Tennessee obviously just overwhelmed us with their ability to be physical and their height really bothered us around the rim. Auburn (on Sunday), (KeKe) Carrier just really bothered us being able to finish us around the rim.

"For Kentucky it's all about what teams advance through and what matchups we can get. For everyone else I would suspect they would feel the same way. That logjam there with all those teams at 9-7 everybody has kind of played at different levels of success with different teams.

"Tennessee is clearly the team to beat. They are talented, they are big, they are powerful. When they are playing at their top level they are one of the most formidable teams in the country, let alone our conference. It is a balanced tournament and I think it will be very exciting and fun to watch."

LSU COACH VAN CHANCELLOR

No. 4 seed LSU (20-8, 9-7) has a first-round bye and will await the winner of the Vanderbilt-Arkansas game. Tipoff is set for Friday at 6:30 p.m. Eastern.

LSU has had to scramble the past two years late in the season to get a first-round bye in the tourney.

"This team of ours is giving me cardiac arrest two years in a row," Van Chancellor said. "We win five games in a row last year. This year we won five out of six. Lately, we have played some great defensive basketball. We're playing pretty good right now.

A year ago, Chancellor's team improved when he put more upperclassmen into the starting lineup and brought the newcomers off the bench. This season, LSU's surge coincided with the insertion of sophomore Destini Hughes into the lineup.

"Our defense has always started with great point guards," said Chancellor, who compared Hughes' defense of Alexis Rack in the last game of the season against Mississippi State to the 1997 defense of the late Kim Perrot, who played for the Houston Comets when he was the coach.

"You go back to Temeka Johnson and Erica White, and that's the ability to stop the ball. We struggled a little bit earlier in the season. Long arms, very quick, and loves to play defense. If you are going to have a great defensive player you've got to find somebody that loves to play that.

"I don't think there's any doubt in my mind that (Sunday) was the best game we played (against Mississippi State) since Sylvia Fowles played here in 2007. The first 20 minutes were the best basketball we've played in two years."

Chancellor expects the surprise scores of the regular season to continue into the tournament.

"I don't think there is any doubt," Chancellor said. "I've been connected with this league since 1978. There has been more surprise scores than I've ever seen. I don't want to mention them. I don't want to make somebody mad, but when I would get the scores every Sunday night I would get the scores from my SID and I would say, ‘Are you sure you don't have that score backwards?'

"There have been more scores that shocked me since than at anytime since I have been in this league. I think there will be some upsets in this tournament. I don't know if I would even consider some of them upsets. It could go either way."

LSU, as one of the teams on the western end of the SEC, has a longer distance to travel with tourney venues located in Georgia or Tennessee.

"I think it's fine," Chancellor said. "If it was left up to me personally I would do like we do in college baseball. I would pick one site and let it stay there. Give it to one site and let them promote it and run it and everybody would know where we are going. But if we can't have one site I'm glad we've at least eliminated it down to two."

OLE MISS COACH RENEE LADNER

No. 9 seed Ole Miss (16-13, 7-9) faces No. 8 seed South Carolina (14-14, 7-9), on Thursday at noon Eastern.

These two teams will get the tourney underway on Thursday with the winner advancing to the quarterfinals to meet Tennessee on Friday.

Ole Miss started out the 2010 SEC season by hovering at the top of the standings. The regular season finale with Tennessee was shaping up to be the game that determined the champion, but the Rebels faltered in the second month of play.

"It's been an interesting year for the Rebels," Renee Ladner said. "We started out extremely well in the month of January and (we stumbled) in February, and we've been struggling a little bit ever since. Nevertheless, we've had some really good highs, and we've beaten some really good teams. We're going into the tournament feeling as if it's anyone's tournament.

"Just watching this league this year, you put a couple of games together you might have the opportunity to (win the tourney). This isn't our first rodeo. We're going to just have to tighten up the shoelaces and go at it very hard."

Ladner liked the expanded schedule because it also expanded TV coverage for the Rebels.

"The 16 games is not such a big deal for us," Ladner said. "It's just one more week, but it's who you can catch, and we seem to have caught Tennessee twice, Vandy twice, LSU twice and Arkansas twice and that's a tall order. I think we've had an extremely hard schedule. I think the 16 games have been really good.

"We've gotten a lot of TV coverage. It's given us two more games, and a lot of people are following the SEC once again and all of the games, for the most part, have been competitive. I don't think it changes for another year. I've always liked the East-West, but we can't seem to come to an agreement on that so right now it is what it is and you just have to go and compete every night."

Ladner played for Ole Miss and was an assistant coach before taking over the program two years ago when Carol Ross, a former teammate, retired. She said she can't recall a more unpredictable season across the board for the SEC.

"Not ever in my 10 years," Ladner said. "The length of the time I've been in the league the last few years there had always been favorites and then everybody else on the bottom. It's been an interesting year. It's been a good year for our TV coverage. It's been a good year for fans.

"It's not necessarily a good year for all of us because we've had to fight every night. It's parity, it's balance, good players, good coaches, that's what the SEC is made of."

MISSISSIPPI STATE COACH SHARON FANNING

No. 3 seed Mississippi State (18-11, 9-7) has a first-round bye and will await the winner of the Georgia-Alabama game. Tipoff is set for Friday at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Sharon Fanning is treating the tournament as a warmup for the NCAA tourney in terms of getting her team ready to compete in postseason.

"We know that we have to play well at this time of the year, so we are hoping that we bring it this week," Fanning said. "This is such a competitive year. Anybody can win. It is a new season and hopefully it will provide an opportunity for us to improve and get ready for the (NCAA) tournament, if we get that opportunity as well.

Mississippi State finished the regular season with a lopsided loss to LSU.

"LSU is I think the number one defensive team in the league, and they guard you so hard inside three-point range. They're long, they're quick to the ball, so they're going to contest those shots. You're going to have to make the extra pass, you're going to have to reverse the ball. It's going to have to get to the paint.

"We're third (seed), so there is something along the way that we've done well. So many teams it's been a tossup some games. You can sit back and wonder why and how did this team beat this team and then they beat another team and then they lose to this one. That's just been the league this season.

"It's going to take that toughness, and that execution and be patient but do it together. If we do that it's anybody's tournament."

Fanning deferred to the league to research the best venues for the SEC's postseason showcase.

"Being that I am from Chattanooga I always liked Chattanooga," Fanning said with a laugh. "I think the folks where they rotated it through the years have been very committed to making it the best tournament possible, but I think Nashville and Duluth have done a great job. The SEC office is going to be the experts on what we need to do and the coaches definitely have input. The people in both of those areas have done a tremendous job. I think what all the coaches want is to continue to grow our game and crowd and have the best opportunity and the best conference tournament in the nation.

"Obviously we would all want it close. The main thing is the best tournament. Whatever we can do as a group to attract the largest crowd that's what we need to do."

Fanning expects the SEC to be well represented in the NCAA tourney.

"I am going to be disappointed if there are not at least six, and I think that there will be more than that on the table," Fanning said. "I am not sure how the tournament will affect everybody. There are a few folks who are bubble teams. I would be real disappointed if there are not at least six and hopefully we can get more."

Like several coaches on the teleconference, Fanning saw Tennessee with the target this week.

"They have such good balance, depth and size," Fanning said. "They have the experience of these kids coming back. I think of course they're the team to beat. Several teams have had some great games with them. I think it's game day, and everybody has to be ready to play. But if you look on paper and what they've done then obviously they're the team to beat."

SOUTH CAROLINA COACH DAWN STALEY

No. 8 seed South Carolina (14-14, 7-9) faces No. 9 seed Ole Miss (16-13, 7-9), on Thursday at noon Eastern.

South Carolina won its first game with Ole Miss in Columbia, S.C., and Thursday will be the rematch.

"We were fortunate to meet Ole Miss at home, and we were playing pretty good basketball at that time," Dawn Staley said. "We were focused and ready to play them. We knew their personnel coming in, (Bianca) Thomas being the leading scorer in the conference. They are a very experienced basketball team that really plays well together.

"We had to disrupt the flow of what they wanted to do and make them go a little bit deep and make other people shoot the basketball besides Thomas, and I thought we did a good job with that."

The winner will play Tennessee on Friday.

"If we are fortunate enough to beat Ole Miss and play Tennessee, I thought the game that we played Tennessee here we probably played our best basketball as far as minute 40 to minute three, and then the last three minutes I thought Tennessee's experience took over and we just didn't make good decisions down the stretch," Staley said. "I think our players will be up for the challenge of playing Tennessee once again."

Staley also saw Tennessee as the favorite but not an overwhelming one.

"I know Tennessee has played great throughout the entire season, but they've been challenged in (some) of those games," Staley said. "It goes to what experience does for you. At the same time I think it is wide open as far as what the results have been doing the entire season but then the last week of the season I thought it would go as it went with unexpected teams pulling out a victory and that's including us."

Ultimately, said Staley, a former All-American at Virginia and an Olympian, the players determine the outcomes.

"We leave it up to the players, and sometimes they want to play extremely well, and sometimes they want to play poorly," Staley said. "You never know. As far as Duluth goes it's the luck of the draw sometimes."

TENNESSEE COACH PAT SUMMITT

No. 1 seed Tennessee (27-2, 15-1) has a first-round bye and will await the winner of the South Carolina-Ole Miss game. Tipoff is set for Friday at noon Eastern.

Pat Summitt, as she has done all season during media gatherings, praised her team's commitment in the off-season.

"I think our team this year has made a lot of progress over last because of all the youth we had," Summitt said. "While we are predominantly a sophomore team I would say that the biggest thing that has allowed us to be successful is our off-season and our summer workouts."

Summitt's usual mode in postseason is to turn the needle more to the positive side after riding a team hard during the regular season. With a young team that has been more prone to slippage and reverting to bad habits, she's had to be more flexible with that needle.

"I think you can't predetermine how you're going to respond or coach a team," Summitt said. "It's all about feel and understanding when you can have your volume turned up and when you need it turned down and when they need a pat on the back versus someone getting on them. I think with our coaching staff we all work well together and yet we have our different methods of communication with individuals on our team. And it's not always the same.

"I think you have to get to know each and every one of your student-athletes and when to say what. A lot of it is guessing. You hope you're pushing the right buttons, but it doesn't mean that you always get the results that you want."

Summitt does believe that she is taking a battle-tested team to Duluth.

"I think so," she said. "We've had a lot of close games. I really think that we have made great strides. As I say all the time, ‘Every moment is a teaching moment.' I think that our coaching staff has really been here teaching. I always say that's our classroom. And our players have bought in.

"They bought in to the scouting reports, they bought into getting in a lot of shots outside of our assigned practice times. That's made a difference in a number of our players. I think that is significant because that tells us that they are invested and there is no doubt that they want to win. But they know this league is tough and we've got to take it one game at a time."

Summitt wasn't in favor of the expanded SEC schedule but agreed to try it. Tennessee doesn't use the two built-in bye weeks that the SEC had in past seasons – it was just one this season – so the number of games remained the same for the Lady Vols over the final two months. Summitt enjoyed stepping out of conference to play other top teams.

"I think the majority of the coaches wanted this format," Summitt said. "I think we went along with the majority. Not that I was in favor of it, but I want to be a team player. I think it's been good. It's tough when you play teams twice in the regular season and then you meet them (again) right when the SEC Tournament rolls around.

"We're all familiar and knowledgeable of the teams and yet it's still very, very competitive because the coaching in our league, to me, may be the best it's ever been."

Tennessee held a practice session in Knoxville on Wednesday afternoon with an emphasis on post feeds and defense. Most of the drill work occurred in the half court to keep legs fresh for Friday, and while Summitt's tone was one of overall encouragement, she also let the team know what was at stake.

"We have a lot at stake with the number one seed, and we know that everyone is coming after us," Summitt said. "They've got to have a sense of urgency. We've got a few players that don't quite have a sense of urgency and sometimes the youth comes out.

"If we can keep the one seed, it would be huge. We're going into a war zone here for lack of a better word because we've beaten everyone but Georgia and so we're going to get (every team's) best shot. For us we've got to have the mentality that we've got to protect our turf and make sure that we're playing the kind of basketball that will allow us to survive and advance over and over and over."

The players will attend their Thursday classes and then depart by bus for Duluth, where they will hold a short shooting-only session at a local venue. With a shoot-around time at the arena assigned for early Friday morning and then a noon tip, Summitt plans to have the players in their hotel rooms soon thereafter.

"We'll get to bed early," she said.

VANDERBILT COACH MELANIE BALCOMB

No. 5 seed Vanderbilt (20-9, 9-7) faces No. 12 seed Arkansas (12-17, 4-12), on Thursday at 6:30 Eastern.

Vanderbilt expected to have a first-round bye but Sunday's loss to South Carolina tossed the Commodores into Thursday play.

"I think we had a lot of injuries early on (before the season started), a lot of adversity that we had to overcome, and I think we did a great job doing that," Melanie Balcomb said. "I think we've played inconsistent, probably like every team in the conference, that is why we ended up with a loss at the end of the season. I liked how we were finishing. We had a very tough schedule this year. I like what our kids have done. I like how hard they're working. But again disappointed down the stretch that we couldn't finish out the last game at home and get a bye. We kind of put ourselves in a tough situation having to play a first round game.

"We have to move on. We have to move forward and not look back. The game is over. We don't have any control of that outcome anymore. To keep looking at that game doesn't do us any good anymore than it does to look at a good win that happened in the past. The past is the past. We have to look forward. What did we learn from it and what can we do better next game to improve from that loss."

Vanderbilt played Arkansas just once this season, a 67-61 win in Fayetteville.

"Arkansas is playing very well right now," Balcomb said. "I think they have improved all season. We had a tough time beating them there. I can say the South Carolina loss doesn't matter, and the win at Arkansas doesn't matter. What matters is how good are we now, how good are we Thursday night."

Balcomb's position on the expanded SEC schedule was that it left no time for rest.

"I think Vanderbilt, most of the people tell us we win on hard work and execution. We don't necessarily win on talent," Balcomb said. "When it comes to hard work and execution I feel like we've been inconsistent this year. When we did play hard we were able to win.

"I think 16 games, where it hurt us, you didn't get those bye weeks that you got in the past. We were used to having a week or two where you could give the kids two or three days off and only play one game that week so I think we've lost some games because of just mental fatigue, as well as physical fatigue that we hadn't in the past."

The notion that any team could win on any day wasn't just a cliché in the SEC this season, according to Balcomb.

"The reality of that was, yes, that was true, but there was usually a top half and a bottom half and I see this year with the 16 games there is no top and bottom half," Balcomb said. "There's Tennessee and there's pretty much everybody else and we're all in a big block and a lot of people in the middle. From top to bottom I think this is the first year that that reality of that has been true. Anybody could beat anybody on a given night except for Tennessee right now."

Balcomb was pleased with the locations of the SEC tourneys.

"Of course I am looking forward to it being in Nashville so our crowd can be there," Balcomb said. "I think they're both centrally located. I think they're both in cities that can draw people and what I was looking for and I think it helps us is to stop changing every season going to a different (site).

"If we want to do better with attendance, which I think we need to do, kind of establish over the next four or five years where it's going to be so those cities can do some work in helping our fan base."


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