From previous experience, I guessed that the other media members present would ask plenty of questions about the upcoming opponents and the ever-popular controversial issue of higher seeds playing on lower seeds' home courts-- the situation that the Commodores will face Monday. So I thought about questions I'd like to have answered and that were unlikely to be asked by anyone else.
First, I wanted to know what the coaches and players do in the 48 hours after the first round game to prepare for the upcoming second round game on Monday night.
Second, after Vandy traveled to South Carolina at the end of the regular season, someone asked on the women's basketball message board about a plush toy that looked like "ALF" from the old TV series that she'd seen on the Vandy bench. No one, including me, knew anything about it. At Saturday's game, however, I saw "ALF" sitting on the Commodores' bench. So I thought I'd ask about that.
Head Coach Melanie Balcomb was joined at the press conference by senior forward Jenni Benningfield and junior guard Abi Ramsey. As expected, there were questions about the prospect of playing UTC on its home court and Vandy's thoughts on its opponent.
Coach Balcomb said that when you're a team that gets along well, both on and off the court, being on the road can be an advantage. When you're at home, everybody's doing their own thing, going their separate ways. On the road, there's more opportunity to be focused together as a team. That's why they treated the SEC tournament as a road game.
When I asked about how they are preparing for Monday night's game, Ramsey said that they had dinner together as a team on Saturday night and went to a movie, just had some down time together. Before Sunday's practice, they watched film together. Then after practice, they were planning to get another good meal and rest up for Monday night's game.
Balcomb said that after dinner Saturday night, the staff watched film of the Lady Mocs, then Sunday morning, she watched film of Vanderbilt. Then the stafff watched more film on UTC and decided what they wanted to show the players. Then at one o'clock they met with the team to watch film together and would work on what they'd decided on during practice. Afterwards, they were planned to get more mental time away from basketball.
The questions began to wind down, so I decided it was time to ask about "ALF". Jenni said that ALF was kind of a good luck charm for freshman post Carla Thomas when she was in high school. After the Commodores lost four straight games, she asked her parents to send him to her. Then, when Vandy traveled to LSU, ALF went along, Vandy won and the rest is history. ALF has been on the bench every game since then. One of the managers is assigned to take care of him.
I wasn't sure what to make of the expression on Coach's face, so I commented that the coach didn't look too thrilled.
On the contrary, she said. On Saturday she gave ALF her ID bracelet to be sure that he would be legal on the court. "Whatever works for them, I'm fine with," she said. After a moment she added, "You've got to let them have some fun. Everything can't be too serious."
Maurice Patton, the Tennessean beat writer covering the women's basketball team, asked slyly, "So he was legal and you weren't?", and everybody burst into laughter. "Yeah, I took the bracelet off," she said. "I think he might be a little more important to them right now than I am." Again, laughter.
Then her comments took a more serious turn. "I'll tell you one thing," she said. "At this time of year you become really superstitious, so whatever has worked, we kind of go with it. They went to a movie yesterday because we went to a movie after our first game last tournament. You really want to be in a comfort level, in a comfort zone and do the same things. It just makes you feel more comfortable, more confident. If it works, we go with it."
But the press wasn't quite ready to turn totally serious. "What's your superstition?" someone asked. "I don't know," she said. "I don't have any major one that needs to be discussed." Naturally everyone assumed that meant that she does indeed have a superstition, but it's one that she won't discuss in public, so once again everybody burst into laughter, and Jenni was heard to say, "Oh no!"
Jenni says that she doesn't have any superstitions, just a routine she's had since high school of knocking on the floor three times. Abi's superstition involves laundry, or rather lack thereof, and let's leave it at that.
Coach did come up with something she could talk about. At shootaround the day of a game, she said, they do some things "extremely the same" even shooting the first drill down at the same end of the basket. As long as the team keeps winning, they keep things the same, and that's on purpose. She didn't say so explicitly, but I understood her to mean that it isn't so much about sticking to a superstition, but rather trying to maintain a comfort zone.
That wrapped up the press conference, but just after the players and coach left the interview room, Charlie Mattos, Voice of the Commodores, suddenly ran into the room with ALF in hand and took him to the microphone so that he could answer a few questions from the press. My camera wasn't the only one snapping busily.
So I learned a couple of things. I learned that there's a pretty thin line between establishing a comfort zone and following a superstition. It doesn't make any difference to the play on the court whether or not I wear my special socks, but when you're talking about the people who actually play the game, anything that helps build confidence, that helps build a comfort zone, is a good thing.
And I learned that the next time I have an inside line on something, like a mysterious mascot sitting on the bench, I'll save it for one-on-interviews instead of bringing it up in a press conference.