The players were upbeat Thursday afternoon. On their way from their locker room in the arena to Pratt Pavilion for practice, they chanted, clapped and shouted, and entered the adjoining building as a group.
"I think it just shows that it's an important time of the year but at the same time we can have fun," junior guard Angie Bjorklund said. "I think when practice started we were focused. We had a lot of energy, too."
Coach Pat Summitt agreed with that assessment and said the players "absolutely" accomplished what she asked them to do this week at practice.
The frivolity with the jerseys amused the coaches – Kelley Cain, who is 6'6, had to tug on the 5'2 Bass' jersey to loosen it a little, but it still fit like a snug tank top. Bass looked like she was wearing a Lady Vol player Halloween costume.
"Syd, how would you explain the jersey switching? Why did we do this?" Bjorklund said, asking fellow junior Sydney Smallbone for help in how the players ended up in different clothes.
"In the locker room Kelley put on Bree's uniform when Bree wasn't looking, so Bree was looking for hers and saw 52, so everyone switched," Smallbone said. "The more the merrier. Everyone started mismatching."
"And then we were acting like each other," said Bjorklund, who wore the No. 33 of Alyssia Brewer and imitated her gait. "We were just joking around."
Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood surveyed the group and smiled.
"It makes us happy if they're happy," Lockwood said.
The fun didn't impede their focus as even Summitt was pleased with the practice session. Bjorklund said the two weeks between the SEC and NCAA tourneys allowed the team some time to get better.
"Absolutely," Bjorklund said. "It's been a long couple of weeks, but it's been great because we've just been able to work on us until we found out who we were playing. Just working on our offenses, our defense and just getting ready for the tournament."
Tennessee had an addition to the practice team in Vicki Baugh, who was allowed to take part in some half-court drills on both sides of the ball.
Summitt just shook her head and said she can't think about it yet. Baugh, who is coming back from two ACL surgeries, took a redshirt year this season.
"I made that decision, along with the help of her family and Jenny (Moshak) and Heather (Mason) and everybody," Summitt said. "We put our heads together and we just think that this is the best thing for her, and we didn't want to take any risks."
But watching a half-speed Baugh be disruptive on defense and boxing out and ripping down rebounds was like seeing a much-desired present under the tree the day after Christmas, knowing what it is and still not being allowed to open it.
"That's a good analogy," Summitt said.
Baugh's presence on the floor – not just in post drills – was a boost for her teammates.
"I was excited just with her defense, with her energy," Bjorklund said. "That is what I've always loved about Vicki's game. I know she'll be ready next year. I'm excited. She's going to be an amazing add next year. I can't wait."
This season, Tennessee has five players scoring in double figures led by the 14.1 points per game by Bjorklund. When Bjorklund was a freshman, she played with go-to veteran Candace Parker, and the result was the 2008 national title. The 2010 version of the Lady Vols has compiled a 30-2 record with balanced scoring from Bjorklund and a bunch of young players.
"That's exactly what it is," Bjorklund said. "We have all five players. We're going to work the ball. We're going to share the ball. I think our main key is just getting the ball inside to start with and then if we have a shot open we're going to shoot it, too.
"It's tough to scout, too. You can't just go sit on one player. If they come double me Kelley is going to be open. If they come double Kelley, I'm going to be open. Vice versa or whoever's on the court. It's great having five players that can score."
Earlier this week, Bjorklund and Cain were selected for the Associated Press' First Team All-SEC honors while Shekinna Stricklen earned a Second Team nod. Yet, Stricklen is one of 22 finalists announced this week for the Women's 2010 Wooden Award All-American Team and Player of the Year honors.
Stricklen was considered one of the 22 best players in the country but second team in her own conference. The incongruent scenarios reflect how voters haven't got a handle on who leads the way at Tennessee because the answer is several players have at various times throughout the season.
"Exactly," Bjorklund said. "It's like take your pick. If one person's not having an on game, the next person is. So it's really tough to pick someone specific on our team because everyone is going to step up. It's just different times."
The coaches are ready to get those players back on the court in a game.
"This is like October 31 or November 1," Lockwood said. "You haven't played yet, but you've had two weeks of practice. I saw a quote by Coach (Derek) Dooley the other day prior to spring practice and he said, ‘You can only jump over bags and run through cones so many times.'
"I read that and we're exactly in the same place right now. Having played 32 games and then going through two weeks of practice you can only do so much and now you're ready to play. We're anxious to play."
Bjorklund will play her first career NCAA tourney game in Knoxville – the Lady Vols didn't host in her freshman and sophomore years – and she has admired the transformation of the arena to NCAA specifications in terms of paint, carpet, curtains and logos.
"It's exciting," Bjorklund said. "I went in there the other day and just kind of looked around. A lot of people put a lot of work in there to get it ready. I'm excited. It will be fun.
"We're very excited. We've been ready. It's been a long stretch. It's been a long time since we played. We're excited."
SEC COACHES: Six teams from the SEC made the field of 64, and the league's coaches held a media teleconference this week to discuss their teams. Here's a sampling of what they said.
"It's exciting for us to be in the NCAA Tournament, both exciting and challenging because we have a very fine Tulane team to compete against and prepare for as we open play," Coach Andy Landers said. "Our team is reasonably healthy, rested and anxious to get going."
The Lady Bulldogs seem to get sent west quite often and Landers laughed when asked if he should just pack and head that way after the conclusion of the SEC tourney and await Georgia's bracket placement.
"That might not be a bad idea," Landers said. "We've been out there a lot through the years. It isn't anything that we dread. I hate it for our fans and even those that watch on television have to stay up late. So it's an inconvenience in that regard, but otherwise we've had reasonably good success out there so we're looking forward to it."
Ole Miss, a long shot to make the field out of the SEC, finished the season at 17-14 and with a 7-9 conference record, and was left out of the tourney. North Carolina made the field as a 10 seed with a 19-11 overall record and 6-8 mark in ACC play but had the better RPI. Ole Miss likely was a victim of the SEC's expanded schedule.
"I'll be honest, I'm not one of those people that sit and try to build a bracket and think about (who should be where)," Landers said. "I've never really done that. On the surface probably the best answer that I can give you is I think that Ole Miss certainly has a basketball team that could compete in the NCAA Tournament. I think they wish they had gotten in, but I really didn't have a reaction to them not getting in."
Ole Miss did play in the WNIT and fell to Samford on Thursday evening in Birmingham, 66-65, after Samford scored on a layup with five seconds to play and ended the Rebels' season.
No. 4 seed Kentucky, 25-7, takes on No. 13 seed Liberty, 27-5, on Saturday at approximately 2:30 p.m. in Louisville, Ky.
"We've had a chance to look at Liberty for a couple of days, very impressed with their team," Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "They are a team that has NCAA Tournament experience, really good players, well coached. Carey (Green) is an excellent basketball coach, and we've got to work extremely hard to get ourselves prepared to play as close to our identity as we can.
"Our identity is to be a defensive basketball team that plays extremely hard. If we can do that, we think we have a chance to be successful."
"I think Mississippi State matches up well with them," Mitchell said. "One thing, State is so athletic and they are able to bring some size that we weren't with Alysha Clark. (Chanel) Mokango can bring some size that is difficult to score over and just the athleticism of their guards is so impressive. … Mississippi State is an extremely dangerous team in this tournament."
Mitchell was happy he just had to take his team up the road for tourney game.
Mitchell expressed sympathy for the job the Selection Committee has when deciding who's in and who's out.
"I think they have a hard job to figure out who all is getting in and especially when you are looking at at-large teams that are a little bit down the line, I think that's very difficult for the committee," Mitchell said. "(Ole Miss Coach) Renee (Ladner) is a great friend of mine. We've worked together. She's a great coach, and they've had a really good year, so I was sad to see them not included in the tournament, but I just wouldn't have the expertise whatsoever to say whether they should or shouldn't be in.
"We're just real happy Kentucky is in, and that's sort of what we've been focusing on."
No. 7 seed LSU, 20-9, plays No. 10 seed Hartford, 27-4, at 12:06 p.m. Eastern on Saturday in Durham, N.C.
"It's always an exciting time when you're a part of the NCAA Tournament," Coach Van Chancellor said. "You're excited for the team. I am really pleased that we had six teams out of our league to make it and I think the SEC will do well in this tournament."
Chancellor was asked about Mississippi State's Congo connection in Chanel Mokango, Armelie Lumanu and Rima Kalonda, players he also had kept an eye on when they came stateside and played at Southeast Illinois College before transferring to Starkville.
"They have changed the Mississippi State program," Chancellor said. "Those three kids have come in with a mindset that's made State one of the best defensive teams in the country. They can score, and they're quick. I am glad they are graduating myself."
When the media affiliation – Rocky Top News – was announced before his next question, Chancellor said goodnaturedly, "I've heard that Rocky Top enough to suit me a lifetime."
When it was pointed out that he would hear it again if both LSU and Tennessee made it to Memphis, Chancellor said, "That's OK. This would be one time I'd like to hear it again."
When the SEC media last heard from Chancellor in Duluth, Ga., at the conference tourney, he was decrying his ability to coach since his team continued to foul jump shooters and loft ill-advised three-pointers. It was apparent Chancellor was using that approach to send a clear message to his team. So how did the break between tourneys go for the team?
"We practiced hard enough and long enough that I think that we've got them corrected," Chancellor said. "Our team, we're not a big team and we don't shoot the ball extremely well, so our margin of error is really small mentally. We had played six great basketball games and that's including the loss at Knoxville – we played really well up there I thought.
"We beat Vandy, we beat Mississippi State and then we go to the SEC Tournament, the most important games of the year, and we go brain dead."
Chancellor had the strongest remarks about Ole Miss' conference record in that he thought the expanded schedule torched the Rebels.
"Let me say this. I don't think the SEC has ever had but one team make the tournament that didn't finish .500 in the SEC," Chancellor said. "I hated that Ole Miss didn't make it and I pulled so bad for Renee – I coached her in high school basketball; that tells you a little bit of my age – but you've got to finish .500 basically, a minimum of that, and that doesn't guarantee you anything.
"I'll tell you what happened to Ole Miss. This is what I thought when we went to it. I think it's unfair. I think Ole Miss in my opinion had the toughest schedule in the SEC. If this whole deal was made because (certain teams) didn't want to play Tennessee twice – I'm just because frank about it – and then we went to this unbalanced schedule (this) is what I thought (would happen).
"Ole Miss drew LSU twice. They drew Tennessee twice. That's just tough. That is what hurt. They might have got in if they had played Tennessee once and a weak team once, they'd had been 8-8."
No. 7 seed Mississippi State, 19-12, plays No. 10 seed Middle Tennessee, 25-5, at approximately 2:30 p.m. Eastern on Sunday in Pittsburgh.
"We're excited for this opportunity," Coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. "At this time of year I think you can sort of throw the seedings out. It's just a matchup and play who you're going to play, where you're going to play and then be ready and that needs to be your finest hour, two and a half hours, whatever it takes. I hope our team is ready to play for 40 minutes.
"That's what we've really been focusing on and improving execution. It is going to take your very, very best effort. … The defensive effort, the rebounding effort, the shot selection, and those are the three things that we continue to talk about that's going to help us advance. The next step for our team is to win the game."
Middle Tennessee's Alysha Clark presents a formidable challenge in the post for every team she faces despite her undersized frame.
"She just knows how to score," Fanning-Otis said. "She shoots the three and even though she hasn't taken a great number from there, she's still hitting close to 33 percent. You do have to guard her there. Her ability to drive to the bucket either hand. She gets to the free throw line.
"I don't think any one person has really guarded her. She's hard to guard. The other thing she does well is rebound the basketball. She just has a knack for the game. She gets around a bigger player exceptionally well, because she's been playing against a lot taller players for a long time …
"We always talk about pressure on the ball. That is going to be important that we are alert defensively, we guard hard and we help each other really well."
Fanning-Otis lauded her three players from the Congo for their commitment to basketball and also their pursuit of college degrees.
"Their passion for the game, any young person who would leave their country and their family that would come to the States, they're very excited, too, about getting their degree in May," Fanning-Otis said. "The commitment that they've made, the sacrifice that they made. They're good-hearted. They're just good kids that care about their team and want to win and accept responsibility. They're all about team, and that's very special."
She also cited Ole Miss' sub-.500 conference record to explain the omission from the brackets.
"I think there was probably that cutoff, and that's how it fell," Fanning-Otis said. "All of us we wanted as many teams in our league to get into the tournament as possible but maybe that was where the divider was."
No. 1 seed Tennessee, 30-2, will play No. 16 seed Austin Peay, 15-17, at 12:16 p.m. Eastern on Saturday in Knoxville.
"We've had a lot of good practices, and I think our team is very, very focused," Coach Pat Summitt said. "Obviously having the first/second round here gives us more of a comfort zone, not having to travel, and they can sleep in their own beds. It's a situation where we want them every day to come in and really focus on what we have to do to get better, and I think we've gotten better with our practices.
"In particular I think that our defense has gotten a lot better, and we put a lot of emphasis on defense and board play. They've worked hard at that and the communication I think is really key at this time of year and getting a team to take ownership. This group has done that. The leadership of Angie Bjorklund and Shekinna Stricklen with the guards and then Lyssi Brewer and Kelley Cain have just been really vocal and played very, very well in the paint for us. I think their skills are getting a little bit better. We've worked a lot on our weak hand and just improve the little things that make a big difference."
Summitt also was asked about Clark since the Lady Vols played Middle Tennessee.
"She's a great player," Summitt said. "You're talking about someone that just can knock down shots and get shots off even when you crowd her. I think she's a great player. She can score inside, outside. She brings so much confidence to her team. She is going to be hard for people to defend.
"When we played them it took us a while to do what we needed to do and defend the way we needed to defend. People who haven't played them beforehand it's a team that can really be very, very successful."
Tennessee is one of six schools from the state of Tennessee to make the field. The others are Vanderbilt, Middle Tennessee, Austin Peay, East Tennessee State and Chattanooga. What does that say about the state of women's basketball in the state of Tennessee?
"It says we're pretty darn good," Summitt said. "I think it speaks volumes throughout our state. Women's basketball has been very popular in this state for many, many years. I think we have great coaches. They know how to get out and recruit players, and because of the talent in our state that really shows at this time of the year with as many teams as we have in the tournament."
Summitt said Ole Miss' record hurt their chances to make the field as an at-large team.
"I thought it was going to be difficult for them because of the number of losses," Summitt said. "It's like Van said earlier if they hadn't played us three times and played us, as you know, very close, we had a hard time winning down there, I thought they could get in. But I understand the numbers games."
Tennessee's first opponent is one Summitt is very familiar with, as two of her brothers played sports at the Clarksville, Tenn., school.
"I'm excited about it," Summitt said. "I think it's going to be, for us, we've just got to get focused. Ashley (Herring) is a tough guard. They've got three good players that concern me.
"I think this time of the year if you're not focused you don't need to be on the court and I think our team has very narrow focus. They know the only thing that matters right now is playing Austin Peay and getting ready. They've done a great job throughout the year with scouting report defense. Every game they have to know every player, the number, the name, they have to know our game plan. We don't want to leave a stone unturned."
Lady Vol freshman guard Kamiko Williams is from Clarksville, Tenn., and played pickup games on the campus of Austin Peay during the summer while in high school.
"I'll tell you one thing about Kamiko, she is getting better," Summitt said. "She is getting better daily. The thing about freshmen – there are only two freshmen and Taber Spani didn't come in like a freshman – Kamiko her biggest area coming in was not having to play hard all the time. She gave in to fatigue.
"I've been tough on her, and she has responded. I think she'll be ready to help this team. She's the most athletic guard on the floor, and so we just need her to have the mindset of play as hard as you can for as long as you can and then pull yourself. At this time of the year I will let them pull themselves and then get them right back in."
Summitt also was asked about her position as both a icon of the game and a host for the tourney.
"I want to meet the players from all the teams," Summitt said. "I always meet and greet the other coaches and the other teams because I do know it's a big deal for them to be here and to play on our court and to be a part of this tournament. I always welcome and embrace people that come in. Whether we win or lose, we're going to be very cordial."
No. 6 seed Vanderbilt, 22-10, takes on No. 11 seed DePaul, 21-11, at 12:11 p.m. Eastern on Sunday in Cincinnati, Ohio.
"I think like a lot of the coaches today you're in the tournament, your kids are excited, I think practices are going really well with us," Coach Melanie Balcomb said. "We just had spring break, and we were off classes so at Vanderbilt that helps us to (focus) just on basketball and get better. That is one of the things we really concentrate on is being the best team we can be in March and continuing to get better in March and looking forward to other game."
Vanderbilt, like Georgia, also has often headed west, but this year the Commodores go north.
"What was nice to go west the last two years, we played on a neutral court," Balcomb said. "We never played anybody on their home floor."
Vandy faces the possibility of that if both the Commodores and Xavier advance to Tuesday's game. Playing a NCAA tourney game on another team's home floor is a challenge, and Tennessee did it in the second round in its last two national title years – 2007 against Pittsburgh and 2008 against Purdue.
. "Absolutely, you're always hoping for the neutral site if you don't have the home site yourself," Balcomb said.
Balcomb thought Ole Miss deserved a slot in the field of 64 but wasn't surprised that the Rebels were left out.
"Do I think they were worthy of it?" Balcomb said. "Yes. I think they were a great opponent. I think their schedule was really strong. They played us twice, Tennessee three times, they had a very tough schedule. The way we rotate with our schedules some teams had a lot easier schedules than others, and I thought Ole Miss may have had the toughest schedule in the conference."
Balcomb, like Summitt, appreciated the state of basketball in the state of Tennessee.
"I think that's something that has been very consistent," Balcomb said. "The state, with Tennessee here over the years and the tradition of their basketball, and girls basketball has been tremendous. It's one of the reasons a lot of kids stay in-state and play because of the excitement and the following the high school state tournament gets and the commitment to it to the young ladies in our sport.
"That is one of the reasons I wanted the job at Vanderbilt was to be down in a state that loves girls' high school basketball. I think that really helps you in recruiting."
Balcomb said the effect of the Congo connection for Missisippi State was consistency this season, the players' second year in the SEC.
"I think consistency was something we didn't see from Mississippi State last year that you saw more of and that's just out of maturity and comfort level," Balcomb said. "I think they're a lot more comfortable. … I think as you get more comfortable you get more confident and your confidence translates into consistency. We saw that this year with them. They were a tough opponent for us so if there is any coach out there that thinks a lot of them it would be me."
Mississippi State presents a formidable inside-outside defensive duo in Lumanu, the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year, and Mokango.
"(Lumanu) can change the game on the perimeter, and she can get offense off her defense," Balcomb said. "She'll be aggressive and you attack the basket and then you've got a shot blocker behind her. That makes it a very tough duo."
If Vandy and Xavier do face off Tuesday, it will be with mixed emotions for Balcomb, who coached at Xavier – and beat Tennessee in the 2001 NCAA tourney while there – before taking the job of Vanderbilt.
"I was there seven years. I've been here eight years, so this is officially home, but I have great memories there," Balcomb said. "We helped build that arena. Being in the opponent's locker room, all those things, will be very odd for me.
"But at the same time the opportunity to have a lot of fans and former players and we have two players from Cincinnati on our team – we got sent out west the last two years and some of our players' families have never been able to come (to a NCAA tourney game) – so I do like that our players are from there and we're going to have a crowd up there, which we are not used to having the first two rounds."
The full audio of the press conference can be heard here: SEC Coaches.