"It's our job as the coaching staff to keep them fresh, we wanted to give them a day off and then go back to work," Coach Pat Summitt said.
Before the SEC tourney started in early March, the Tennessee coaches put in tweaks and wrinkles to its offensive sets that emphasized player and ball movement. After five wins – three in Duluth, Ga., to win the SEC Tournament and two in Knoxville to take the sub-regional – the Lady Vols still haven't had to show the plays to potential teams scouting the games.
The stakes are raised this weekend at the FedEx Forum in Memphis where No. 1 seed Tennessee, 32-2, will face No. 4 seed Baylor, 25-9, in a regional semifinal at 12:04 p.m. Eastern (ESPN). No. 2 seed Duke, 29-5, and No. 11 seed San Diego State, 23-10, will meet in the second semifinal with the winners playing Monday evening for a berth in the Final Four in San Antonio, Texas.
Tennessee will be out of the comfort zone of its home court and facing a formidable foe in the Bears, led by the 6'8 freshman, Brittney Griner. The two teams met in the season opener as part of the State Farm Classic in Knoxville, and Tennessee won, 74-65.
"Everybody is better," Summitt said. "They're going to be a lot better and obviously the fact that we beat them that's going to be great incentive for them. If you can't get fired up at this time of the year there's something wrong. I expect that we will be anxious to play, and I think we'll defend and we'll rebound."
Rebounding was on Summitt's mind after sub-par efforts in the first half against both Austin Peay and Dayton in the sub-regional wins in Knoxville.
"Rebounding is the biggest concern I have. Ball security and rebounding," Summitt said in her Wednesday media teleconference.
Kelley Cain blocked Dayton's first shot Monday, but the Flyers got the loose ball offensive board and scored.
Rebounding has become an issue for Summitt, "because everybody doesn't do it on a consistent basis," Cain said. "We just have to get it into our heads if we can't do anything else we need to rebound."
Tennessee had seven offensive boards in the first half Monday. Dayton tallied nine.
"I feel like our defense is solid, but we know that it's got to get a lot better, especially on the rebounding side," freshman forward Taber Spani said. "For Dayton, they're a great team, they hustle, and they work hard, but they should not have nine offensive boards in the first half against us.
"It's probably just a mindset of everybody boxing out at all times. They have size, and they worked hard and found ways to get the ball. I don't know if it was necessarily them or it was us not boxing out and making a conscious effort every play to get that board."
The board work was even at halftime with both teams grabbing 20, and Tennessee finished the game with a 44-37 edge on the glass.
"We have a size advantage, but we have to use that, and we have to dominate the boards on both ends," said Spani, who had three rebounds, two of them on the offensive end. "I feel like our defense, if it continues to improve, then we have the potential to be a great defensive team.
"Baylor is an athletic team that can pound the offensive glass. We're going to have to be conscientious every time to make sure we put a body on them."
Defense was very much on everyone's mind Wednesday as Tennessee next faces an opponent that can get to the basket and wants to score in the paint.
Warlick has prepared the scouting report for the Tennessee-Baylor game, and she went over parts of it Wednesday. In the first game, Tennessee played exclusively in its matchup zone, a first-ever for a Summitt-coached team.
"We're going to press, and we're going to mix it up," Warlick said. "What works is what we're going to stay with."
Since that season opener, Tennessee has gotten noticeably better in both its zone and man defenses.
"Watching tape on them they do a great job of getting paint points and taking you off the bounce," Summitt said. "Whatever alignment we're in now we're a lot better. They have bought into playing great defense. Why? Because they've been winning with it.
"We're doing a much better job of flooding the help line, crushing on the baseline, denying the high-low. As we extend our defense, there are more opportunities to get by us. We'll pick and choose when we want to press."
Defensive schemes got a lot of work Wednesday against a stout male practice team.
"Coaches always say, ‘Make them play in front of us,' " Spani said. "If we can keep people from beating us off the dribble and then with our length we can get hands in the faces of the shooters, so just finding that balance and if we can limit the penetration then it helps our defense as a whole."
The Lady Vols also went through assorted offensive packages. A portion of practice was spent in full court scrimmage-type situations with 11 players – Faith Dupree was able to practice – being used in rotations. Vicki Baugh participated in the half-court post drills. Both Dupree and Baugh are taking redshirt years this season. The coaches also reinforced the no talking rule during free throw practice.
Tennessee has more versatility in its offense with the emergence of Alicia Manning, who starts the game, and Spani, who comes off the bench. Both players can post up inside or play on the perimeter. Manning has a polished midrange game and can get to the basket. Spani has deep three-ball range to go with her game from the short corners and elbows.
"They just can't concentrate on one person," Cain said. "You need to guard everybody. You can shut down one person and then somebody else is going to step up. It's not just one person that teams can key on to stop our office.
"(The success of the perimeter game) takes a lot of attention off the posts. Teams can't just come out there and guard one person. They have to guard the whole team. When one person is off somebody else is going to be on. Our whole offense doesn't revolve around one person."
The Lady Vols reviewed their offensive sets – Angie Bjorklund and Spani shot well from behind the arc with Spani looking as comfortable with her step-back three as she did in preseason – and focused both on getting the ball inside and finding open looks for the team's assorted shooters, both long- and midrange.
"The kids were focused, and we did what we needed to do on the offensive end, and we did what we needed to do offensively," Warlick said. "I was kind of pleased."
The whole team was pleased to be in the arena at practice. A year ago, both the Vols and the Lady Vols had bowed out early in the NCAA tourney. The court at the arena had been removed. Wednesday was March 24, 2010, one year to the day when a morose Tennessee team filed into Pratt Pavilion to begin one-hour of court time with the coaches and conditioning sessions with Heather Mason since the Lady Vols were no longer playing.
"It's another game," Cain said. "We're glad that we're not working out right now, that we get to play instead. That's a huge deal."
Tennessee has been joined in the Sweet 16 by three other SEC teams, Kentucky, Georgia and Mississippi State. Vanderbilt nearly made it a fifth team but the Commodores had a last-second game-winning shot roll out against Xavier. Warlick, a native Tennessean and former Lady Vol point guard, has been a part of the bitter in-state rivalry for more than three decades, but she was all-SEC for that game.
"I hated it for Vanderbilt," Warlick said.
Summitt and Andy Landers of Georgia are accustomed to appearances in the Sweet 16, but it's the first trip for Kentucky since 1982 and the first in program history for Mississippi State. Coach Sharon Fanning-Otis delivered emphatic high fives to the bench after the 20-point win over No. 2 seed Ohio State.
"How about that game," Summitt said. "I called Sharon right after the game and told her how happy I was for her."
"Matthew (Mitchell), his team really, you know from watching them play us, they've got real toughness," Summitt said. "They may be undersized, but they have overachieved. It starts with their defense and I think their defense is really, really solid."
Summitt was able to reach Fanning-Otis and Landers and had a congratulatory call in to Mitchell.
"We have a lot to cheer about in our conference, and I think our coaches have done a great job," Summitt said. "I think it was good for us to have that many teams. I think our teams have had a toughness in postseason. I think the SEC has proven they can play in big games and be successful against opponents who are very talented. Everybody is trying to win and it comes down to the late seconds, the intensity our teams have been playing with has enabled us to close out games."
Summitt said the success of the teams could benefit recruiting for the entire league.
"I think so," Summitt said. "I think it will definitely get the attention of a lot of these high school players that want to go to that next level. Now, they're seeing our league, the coaches in our league and the success we're having. That's what players want, they want to be successful, they want to be on TV and they want to have a chance to make it to the next level, and I think this is very favorable."
Summitt also was pleased that the four teams were spread across the four regions – Tennessee in Memphis, Georgia in Sacramento, Kentucky in Kansas City and Mississippi State in Dayton.
"I like it," Summitt said. "I certainly like the look of this bracket – the fact that we're not facing another SEC opponent (in regional play) because we all know each other, everybody knows everybody's warts, and everybody knows who's going to be the go-to player. There just aren't any surprises. I prefer to play someone outside of our league."
Cain said the players had been talking about the SEC's success right before practice started Wednesday.
"It definitely shows how tough the SEC is and that we're not a pushover conference," Cain said. "You can see how tough our conference is because everybody has been beaten at least once."
Tennessee went 15-1 in conference play and needed a few escapes, especially on the road against South Carolina and Ole Miss, two teams that didn't make the field of 64, which speaks to the overall depth of the league. Kentucky was 11-5 in conference play and finished in second place. Georgia and Mississippi State both finished 9-7.
"That says a lot about those teams, too," Cain said. "It's just a tough conference. This is our conference every day, every game."
The SEC is an athletic and physical conference with no quarter given or asked.
"That is definitely what we think," Cain said. "We have to go through that every SEC game. We have to play up to 200 percent, and I feel like no other conference can compare to ours."
BATMAN: Dean Lockwood, postseason and baseball bats go together. He has smashed mannequins in the locker room in 2007 and 2008, and on Monday he obliterated the coach's copy of the 2009 NCAA tourney loss to Ball State to finally bury that game.
"He was right on target," Kelley Cain said. "The thing busted in pieces all over the place. Everybody backed up (beforehand), because the pieces started flying. He is pretty accurate with that baseball bat. He is full of energy. Sometimes I wonder where all that energy comes from – how do you get it? He is definitely full of energy, and he's funny. He smashes stuff."
Lockwood wields a bat the best among the three assistants.
"There is no contest," Summitt said. "They loved it. They were cheering."
Summitt did think of her team's safety when she saw Lockwood approach with the bat. The smashing occurred in the film room area of the locker room, and Summitt had her players retreat one row.
"I said, ‘Y'all move back,' " Summitt said. "Pieces went everywhere."
MIQUE MYSTIQUE: Former Lady Vol legend Chamique Holdsclaw slipped into town for Monday's game against Dayton and surprised Pat Summitt in the locker room.
"I didn't know she was here," Summitt said. "I opened up the door and said, ‘Mique!' "
The current players were in middle school when Holdsclaw led Tennessee to three consecutive national titles, and Shekinna Stricklen, who grew up idolizing the All-American from Astoria, N.Y., didn't even try to hide her awe.
"They were real giddy," Summitt said. "It was neat. I think it inspired them."