With the SEC women's basketball tournament over and the NCAA tournament on the horizon, there are a few thoughts and observations that I'd like to clear out of my head.
THE REGULAR SEASON
This has certainly been one of the wildest seasons even for the Lady Vols. We knew the year would be one of Pat Summitt's most difficult coaching challenges ever; replacing all five of one of the most dominant starting lineups in women's basktball history is not normally a recipe for success. Throw into the pile that the replacements are majority freshmen, with only one senior and zero juniors to provide in-team guidance and leadership, and you have a time bomb just waiting to explode and leave a mess everywhere.
In the early goings, things seemed to be business as usual for the Lady vols. In their second game, they did suffer a home loss to a veteran Virginia squad, but they also managed one of the most spectacular road wins ever against Rutgers (aside: "spectacular" means saving their hind ends after a horrific first half) and also beat a phenomenally good Stanford team at home in overtime - a Stanford squad that must have been thinking revenge after last year's tournament.
The first real warning sign came against Texas. In Austin, the Lady Vols appeared to be in over their heads - a sight that hasn't been seen for a long, long time. It was the first game where you really appreciated the difference between a group of freshmen and a group of seniors as your team's primary bullet point of discussion. But still, the Lady Vols entered conference play with an 11-2 record - not bad at all for a young team with a tough slate. In fact, it rather looked like a usual Summitt-esque record.
Then conference play came around. They got the first win at home against Kentucky, but were then beat in Nashville by a mature Vanderbilt squad. From the day they played Kentucky, the Lady Vols finished the regular season with an 8-6 (8-4 conference) record - not at all Summitt-esque. The difference? In a word, familiarity. Conference foes are familiar with Pat Summitt teams. After all, they've been spending the last three decades trying to figure out how to beat them. There's a decided difference between playing a team you've watched on film and playing a team you've played for several years in a row, and that advantage came to bear against the Lady Vols. It's not that Summitt was outcoached, but the opposing coaches (many of whom are top-flight coaches living in Pat's very long shadow) knew what adjustments Pat would have to make and how she would approach the team.
It was also during conference play that the players began to show their youth. In high school ball, a good team in a good district might play 20ish games in the course of a season. If there are tournaments involved, that number might even get close to 30. However, the college game adds about 10 more games on top of that, and the players must also deal with a new living environment and a far more intense schedule of classwork, practices, conditioning, and day-to-day living. Throughout the back half of the season, the Lady Vols appeared to have the deer-in-the-headlights look and became susceptible to long stretches of inept play. (I fully believe that they would have beat Oklahoma if it weren't for this.)
In the regular season, we saw everything we hoped to see and everything we feared. Summitt did a fabulous job coaching; even with all the talent on the team, getting such good play out of such a brand-new team is really remarkable. Yet the players buckled, and the Lady Vols ended with 9 losses on the season for the first time this millenium. (It sounds more impressive when you say "millenium" rather than "century" or "decade" or "since 1997".)
The Lady Vols entered SEC tournament play as the #5 seed, which forced them to play on the opening day of the tournament. Depending on your view, the tournament can be considered either a success or a failure, and the answer is probably square in the middle.
One question we had about the Lady Vols - especially after conference play - was whether they could handle sustained tournament pressure over multiple days. The first game against 12th-seeded Alabama went very well with a 68-49 victory. That was to be expected; Alabama just doesn't have the luxury of talent that Tennessee has, and they were a 12th seed for a reason. Even so, the Vols didn't take the Tide for granted and played a full 40-minute game against them. It wasn't without weakness (Bjorklund didn't score a single point - a real oddity for a team's supposed sharpshooter), but it was a solid game where the players exploited their advantages throught both halves.
The biggest question for the Lady Vols was game #2. Florida was the 4th seed int he tournament and had beaten the Lady Vols earlier in the season. They were also coming off a bye and were fully refreshed. The Lady Gators were also the kind of team that can unravel a big, athletic, inexperienced group - they were smaller, faster and well-coordinated. Like the he-Vols, the Lady Vols had a tendency to give up unforced turnovers, particularly from poor passing decisions.
The answer to the big question was very positive. The Lady Vols played a solid game; Bjorklund seemed determined to atone for her previous night's silence as she led all UT scorers with an array of 3-point bombs that put UT ahead early and for good. The 17-point halftime lead was whittled down as Florida used the press to confuse the Lady Vols, but the final score held in favor of Tennessee. It wasn't the full-throttle 40-minute efffort you'd like - the first 10 minutes of the second half were painful at times - but the overall work was very good against a team that was built to beat these Ladies.
Then came Auburn. What Tennessee was last year, Auburn is this year. Their starting lineup features 4 seniors and one sophomore - an outfit that is eminently familiar with each other. They had a feature senior shooter in Bonner that had just set a school record for career points scored, and she showed up against the Lady Vols. Despite earning her 3rd foul earlier than desired in the second half, Bonner led all scorers as Auburn obliterated Tennessee's halftime lead, outscoring UT by a 2-1 margin in the second half (54-27 points, respectively). The inexperience came back to haunt the Lady Vols; as Auburn turned up the intensity, UT shriveled.
So we now know that they can play about 100 minutes worth of quality ball within 3 days, and they can play against a favored team and win. We also know they're still susceptible to withering in the heat of the moment. It should make for a very interesting NCAA tournament run. Tennessee is the only team to make the Sweet Sixteen every year of the tournament's existence - a record that the school places an intense amount of pride upon. With a likely 5 seed in the tournament (possibly 6, possibly 4, but most likely 5), the Lady Vols will play a 12ish seed and (probably) a 4ish seed in the opening weekend. The 12 should be a better quality team than SEC #12 Alabama, but the second game will be against a team roughly of Florida's quality. We've seen the Lady Vols succeed in those circumstances already; this time, it'll be with a day of rest against a team on equal fatigue/rest footing. We've also seen them fail when the spotlight was on - a spotlight that will certainly be present when they play the second game against a foe that is likely to be favored over them.
If the Lady Vols, simply make the Sweet Sixteen, I'll consider the NCAA tournament a success for them; anything more will be gravy to me. (Pat Summitt thinks my standards are too low, which is why I'm not a coach.) It's not just because of the tournament streak; winning the opening two games would verify that they have the poise necessary to win the crucial second game of the tournament. From there forward, it's a matter of beating progressively more talented teams under the same conditions. I actually expect them to make the Elite Eight, though that'll likely mean beating a #1 seed. The only #1 seed that I think is too much of a matchup for the Lady Vols is UConn, but I think Tennessee will be in the Raleigh regionals while UConn will be in the Trenton regionals.
It's often awkward to consider the future when the present season is still in play, but you have to think that the future is terribly bright for the Lady Vols. Defensively, this squad has been looking very good for the last few weeks. In particular, Kelley Cain has figured out how to shut down the interior without drawing fouls - and on a bad knee. Brianna Bass is settling into the same defensive role as Shannon Bobbitt: short, but extremely quick and capable of cutting off all dribbling lanes and stealing any lazy passes or unprotected dribbles. Fuller will be gone, but Johnson, Baugh and Brewer have shown the skills necessary to assist and replace Cain to maintain interior lockdown.
Offensively, the team shows promise as well. Bjorklund hasn't appeared comfortable in the leadership role yet, and probably got too comfortable in the shadow of The Five last year, but she's still a deadly-accurate sniper. Kelley Cain is also a remarkably good interior shooter and passer, and the question now is whether she'll miss a single shot in the course of a game. Glory Johnson is now learning that her athletic advantages aren't sufficient to win every game and will undoubtedly spend the offseason working on her head fakes and ball fakes. In fact, the biggest problem on offense was the passing - a problem we can expect to be fixed during the offseason. Even during the coaching blackout periods when Summitt can't be hands-on, this team will likely spend a lot of time on passing drills.
Having watched the Lady Vols play over the last few weeks, I'm confident that fixing the passing will fix the entire offense. Their scoring droughts were always initiated by a string of bad passes that turned to cheap turnovers. The defense is there. The shooting is there (when they don't get caught by the shotclock). The rebounding is there. The hustle is there.
IT'S GREAT TO BE A TENNESSEE (LADY) VOL!