Tennessee prepares to host

Tennessee won't know its exact path in the NCAA Tournament until Monday evening when the brackets are revealed on ESPN, but the Lady Vols do know they will open at home for the first time since 2005. Pat Summitt is hoping to see Memphis on the screen – one of four regional sites – when Tennessee's name pops up on the bracket.

Tennessee, along with Connecticut, Stanford and Nebraska, are the presumptive number one seeds, and the other regional sites are Sacramento, Calif., Kansas City, Mo., and Dayton, Ohio.

UConn, the top overall seed, would be awarded the most eastern region, which is Dayton. Stanford should stay west in Sacramento, and Nebraska would be in Big 12 country in Kansas City. Common sense says that leaves the Lady Vols in Memphis. But Summitt wants to see it on her television screen to be sure.

"I am thinking Memphis but when they get in that room, who knows," Summitt said, referring to the NCAA's selection committee, which is meeting this weekend to create the brackets. "Only they know. In the past they've had good reasons not to put us where we want to be. We've had some interesting brackets. With this I just think it should happen for us."

Tennessee is 30-2, ranked number four in the country, and won the SEC regular season and the conference tournament for the first time since 2000. The two losses came on the road at No. 2 Stanford in December and at Georgia in January when the Lady Bulldogs were ranked No. 8. Since then, Tennessee has won 14 consecutive games.

The Lady Vols' SOS/RPI, regular season body of work and their play in the conference tourney – factors the committee examines – should add up to a number one seed and a favorable region on the state's western end.

"It's the second-best thing (to being on Tennessee's home floor)," Summitt said. "I do think we will draw well at Memphis. We've got a lot of fans in the Memphis area. We'll have people travel there as well. I would expect us to have the biggest crowd."

Before Tennessee arrives in The River City, the Lady Vols must first survive the first two rounds in Knoxville. Tennessee has never lost an NCAA postseason game on its home court.

"We don't plan on breaking that record," sophomore forward Alyssia Brewer said.

Last season, Brewer issued a guarantee that the Lady Vols would keep the Sweet 16 streak intact. Tennessee lost in the first round to Ball State.

"I know, I know, I know," Brewer said. "I am not saying anything about further than that. My goal is to get past first round. Then, my other goals will come."

Brewer is a big part of the team's success this year. Summitt moved her into the starting lineup on a regular basis in February, and Brewer responded by earning the MVP award in the SEC tourney in Duluth, Ga.

Despite last year's 22-11 record, the first round loss and a sputtering economy that affected attendance at events across the country in all sports, Tennessee's home attendance dipped only slightly from 13,999 in the 2008-09 season to 13,219 in the 2009-10 season. Tennessee played just three Sundays at home – an easier travel day for fans than Monday or Thursday – across the 16-game SEC schedule, and two of those were evening tips to accommodate television instead of an early afternoon one.

"I think they like our team," Summitt said. "You look at our post game. You look at our guard play. We've gotten a lot better. We've improved. I think our fans just really like this team and want to support them.

"I think our fans enjoy watching this team now that they're playing at a much higher level. The intensity is there. They've been there for us. We need them. We need our fans."

Brewer hopes a lot of those fans show up this weekend. The Knoxville sub-regional will be held March 20-22.

"I think our (local) fans are going to like it because they're not going to have to travel but down the street like they usually do for any other home game," Brewer said. "I know they're going to come support us knowing how big this is for us."

Summitt welcomes the opportunity to play at home, something the Lady Vols have not done in the NCAA tourney since 2005 when Summitt tied and then broke Dean Smith's all-time NCAA Division I basketball wins record of 879 at North Carolina. The court was officially named "The Summitt" after that game, and the Lady Vols went on to win the Philadelphia regional before falling in the Final Four in Indianapolis.

Tennessee has bid to host a sub-regional since 2005 but had not been selected until the 2010 event. The Lady Vols also will host in 2011.

"I think being able to sleep in your own bed and having the home court, I think that makes a big difference because we're going to be in TBA," Summitt said. "We hope to have a lot of fan support. It's a comfort zone being here and also being able to play here."

Brewer said the travel over the course of a season is a major adjustment for freshmen.

"I am used to doing both, but it is very comforting to play at home," Brewer said. "It's something you're so used to."

Fans attending at Thompson-Boling Arena will certainly see familiar trappings, but the arena layout will undergo some minor modifications to comply with NCAA requirements. The media moves from the baseline to the sideline. Advertisements on scoreboards that are not official NCAA sponsors will be covered, and NCAA logos will be placed on the court. The arena also underwent a wireless upgrade to ensure that media members could file reports from the workroom site and the sidelines. The Ray Mears Room will be used for press conferences.

"When we got the manual this summer it's as thick as what I remember hosting a Final Four for (in 1990)," said Debby Jennings, the longtime media relations chief for the Lady Vols. "You'll see a uniform look across the country, from everything to the blue carpet that we have to put down to the pipe and (blue) draping to the width of the tables that the media writes on to the Jumbotron on the scoreboard and the LED boards, everything is choreographed.

"What fans will see is a definite Final Four experience in terms of what the look is going to be like. One of the biggest things that I think they try to do is make it as neutral as it can be. We'll be wearing NCAA-type gear. You won't see the (administrative) staff making it look like a Tennessee home staff with orange."

Jennings said the NCAA seeks both a uniform and neutral look as much as possible.

"I think they go hand in hand," Jennings said. "I think they want it to be an NCAA event in all shapes and forms and fashions from everything we do in this arena. That's our goal and how we welcome the teams and the services we provide."

Host schools used to have to travel to the NCAA's headquarters in Indianapolis for meetings about all the requirements and deadlines. Now, it was all done via video conferencing starting last August.

The 16 schools that host the sub-regionals are guaranteed by the NCAA to be assigned to that site if they make the field of 64, so Tennessee knows where it will be next weekend. The NCAA now uses neutral courts for the regional sites and the Final Four, which will be held in San Antonio, Texas, this year.

Tennessee has played regionals in its home state with perhaps the most memorable being in 1998 in Nashville when the Lady Vols had to come back from 12 points down in the second half against North Carolina to keep its perfect season intact. Tennessee went on to win the national title in Kansas City, the program's sixth at that time.

"Lordy, lordy, totally" Summitt said when asked if she had vivid memories of that game. "(Teresa) Geter pulled us out. That place was loud. I just kept thinking, ‘We cannot lose this game.' I can remember it as if it was yesterday. It was almost like deer in highlights. Many, many times it was like we almost froze. But we found a way to win."

Summitt's family was in attendance at Memorial Gym with its odd layout of having the benches on the baselines and baskets with support poles instead of the weighted supports behind them. Summitt's older sister yelled at her that she needed to quit leaning on the pole and start coaching because she had bought nonrefundable plane tickets to Kansas City.

Tennessee last played in a Memphis regional in 2000 and went on to beat Virginia and Texas Tech to advance to the Final Four.

Summitt has reminded her current team throughout the season of the importance of seeding, and she hammered them with the notion in Duluth. She hoped that the Lady Vols had done enough to warrant a top seed before the SEC tourney, but she wanted to see how her players reacted to a demand that they needed to win the tourney outright to secure it.

"I wanted to put the pressure on them, ‘We've got to win this thing,' and see how they respond to it because it's going to be more now," Summitt said. "I just felt like that was the way to approach it."

Summitt said she might even sing "Rocky Top" again – as she did in Duluth – if the team were to win its sub-regional and then regional. Assistant Coach Daedra Charles-Furlow might even make "The Electric Slide" line dance a new tradition after winning NCAA segments.

Tennessee enters this postseason with a collection of talented and more experienced players. At various times throughout the season, different players have stepped up to score, and the Lady Vols have five players averaging double figures – Brewer (10.3); Angie Bjorklund (14.1); Shekinna Stricklen (12.8); Glory Johnson (10.4); and Kelley Cain (10.2)

"I think it's a big advantage," Brewer said. "We don't have a star player. We play as a team. I think a lot of teams would rather have they can pick anybody out of their team to be a great player rather than having to rely on one player the whole entire time. I think that's what makes it so good.

"Sometimes you might have a person that they're not playing their best but then the thing is we have another person that steps up. We pick up each other in different areas. We do whatever comes to us in the game. I think that's what makes us good. It's not like we're waiting to see what somebody else is going to do. We're all going out there to do something."

REDSHIRT UPDATES: Three Lady Vols have been out all season to recover from injury: Vicki Baugh, 6'4 junior forward, left knee ACL rehab; Amber Gray, 6'1 sophomore forward, shoulder surgery, stroke/aneurysm; and Faith Dupree, 6'3 freshman forward, back rehab and strengthening.

Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine, provided an update this week about the trio, who are at practice on a regular basis and spend the time in the weight room or undergoing sideline rehab.

Baugh had a long road back after two ACL surgeries on her left knee within one calendar year. Baugh came back last season after a May 2008 surgery and re-tore the ACL in February 2009. She opted to take a complete year off the court and Moshak expects that Baugh will be released for summer workouts. It will be her first true off-season in college to work on basketball skills. The previous two summers were spent in extensive rehab.

"I feel good about where she's at," Moshak said. "We are trying to focus a lot on her single leg balancing, her single leg jumping because that's how she hurt it both times, so you're dealing with a little apprehension, and you're dealing with on-balance technique. We're also trying to look at her gait as far as proper heel strike, toe off, etc. when she runs."

Baugh's upper body has undergone a transformation since the injuries. It is not uncommon to see Baugh doing hundreds of sit-ups at practice, often with weighted objects held between her hands, such as a medicine ball.

"That's all she could do for a long time, so that's developed," Moshak said.

The key for ACL rehab is quad strength, so her lower body also has gotten a lot of work now, especially her left leg.

"The leg has almost caught up to the other one," Moshak said. "Got a little ways to go, but it's getting there."

Moshak also has repeatedly drilled Baugh in taking off and landing on two legs as much as possible, as Kelley Cain does.

"Her style of play, habitually what she is used to doing is a lot of single leg," Moshak said. "Kelley goes up on two legs and comes down on two legs. Vicki takes off on one and lands on one. Trying to change her style of play is a little more difficult. I don't necessarily know if we can even do that, so now we need to give her the best opportunity we can with her style of play."

Moshak senses that Baugh is ready to return to the court, so she has tried to set a realistic foundation for the athletic forward.

"I think she's anxious, but I also think she expects there to be no pain, no discomfort, no swelling," Moshak said. "That's not realistic. I've explained to her and she seems to understand that she's going to move up and have a little down and then a move up and a little down. As long as she swells one day and it's gone the next, that's par for the course for a year-plus.

"Candace (Parker) went through it, Alex (Fuller) went through it, Sid (Spencer) went through it. They all go through it. That's par for the course. The key is that it calms down right away and then you move on. I can't assimilate that pounding" so the swelling won't become an issue until a player returns to full basketball activity.

Gray injured her shoulder in practice last spring and underwent surgery in July 2009 after a complete recovery could not be reached with rehab. Unknown to surgeons, Gray had a brain aneurysm and suffered a stroke. She later underwent extensive brain surgery and spent time in a rehabilitation center in Ohio to recover from the stroke.

Gray returned to campus last October and enrolled full-time in school in January.

"She's doing very well," Moshak said. "Her balance is very good. Her jumping is very good. We're working on her fitness level. We're working on getting her to where she needs to be so that we can truly evaluate."

Moshak wants Gray to be able to return to the court but her fitness and conditioning must be brought back to basketball levels before she can be tested in that setting.

"That's the ultimate goal, but I'm trying to have her not focus on that," Moshak said. "I'm having her focus on daily things. (Wednesday) she did an hour of cardio, and now she's going to go lift with the team. Those are the types of things we work on.

"She is incorporating some of the basketball things and isn't having any troubles at this point. The shoulder is great."

Dupree began the 2009-10 season with the team but was pulled in November because of chronic back pain. Moshak has worked Dupree into practice for the past two months to see how the back responds and then made adjustments. It's not uncommon for Dupree to get her back adjusted and then return to the court.

"She has been practicing a good bit," Moshak said. "She has been completing full practices. Her core strength is improving, her fitness level is improving and hopefully by (next) October she'll be exactly where she needs to be. We still have time, but we're making the progress we need to make. Core strength, flexibility and fitness."

Inside Tennessee Top Stories