This year's Lady Vols team can beat any team in the country. Of that, there is absolutely no doubt.
"We didn't pick them up early. We were lazy. That was the worst half of basketball that I've seen this season. That was a very immature team in the first half. They knew that Mississippi State hadn't won a game in conference this season and thought that this would be a cakewalk. I know Sharon Fanning, though, and I knew that it was not going to be a cakewalk. She does a great job, and her staff does a great job. We took them lightly. . .until halftime. And halftime wasn't lightly."
--Pat Summitt, Mississippi State postgame
At this point in the season, however, it's hard to argue that they have the mindset for it. For all the talent they have (and they may very well be the most talented and deepest team in the nation), there is a disturbing tendency to assume the talent alone is sufficient. The Mississippi game on Thursday night served as a good example; everybody knew that the Lady Vols had more talent at every position than the Lady Bulldogs. Even without Angie Bjorklund and Kelley Cain in the lineup, there was no reason that Tennessee couldn't run Mississippi State out of the gym. Yet Mississippi State held a two-point advantage at halftime because they Lady Vols weren't inclined to take the game seriously enough.
The counter-example of this year's team is the 1997-1998 Lady Vols team that went 39-0. Despite having four freshmen as the key players (Tamika Catchings, Semeka Randall, Teresa Geter, and Kristen Clement) to go along with Chamique Holdsclaw, the undefeated team took nobody lightly. They didn't show up to beat teams; they came to destroy teams. Out of the 39 games they played, the only really close game was a 67-63 contest to win the SEC tournament title over #20 Alabama. Other than that, they beat #2 Louisiana Tech 75-61, #3 UConn 84-69, #3 Old Dominion 85-61, and won the national title over #4 Louisiana Tech 93-75. But really, it wasn't the wins against top teams that gave proof to their determination, it was how they played the lesser teams on the schedule.
They gave no quarter.
A look through the record books shows games that are reminiscent of the UConn games last year that made people wonder if women's basketball had any balance. Here are a few:
- vs. Tennessee-Martin: 75-32
- vs. Texas: 98-64
- @ Manhattan (in a second-round preseason tournament game): 78-28
- vs. Arkansas, 2 days before UConn: 88-58
- vs. #17 Georgia: 102-43
- @ DePaul: 125-46
- @ Mississippi: 91-45
If they didn't beat you into submission by halftime, their job wasn't done. That team wasn't satisfied until the opponent was trying to run out the clock rather than to catch up.
I'm not suggesting that today's Tennessee has to run up scores, but they do need to approach each game with a purpose. Allowing an overmatched opponent to hang for a half - even if they're shooting unusually well from three - belies an on/off switch that they believe they can turn on as necessary. Certainly it was true; in the second half, Tennessee turned it on and destroyed Mississippi State. But that should have been the first half. Even without two starters, they had the horses to end the game before halftime. They just assumed it was over rather than insisted it be over.
I'm being critical because the team is talented enough to go as far as they want. But they, like all of us, are creatures of the habits they develop; if they play this on/off game against teams that can't find a win in the SEC, they'll lapse into it against the other top-5 teams during the NCAA tournament. (Heck, they already did against Georgetown.) 40-minute focus does not come to those who don't practice it, and this team chooses to practice it only about half of the time. Against Mississippi State, they reinforced 20 minutes of careless and 20 minutes of focus. There are two tournament games every weekend; at their rate, they'll play well for one and fall asleep at the wheel for the other. And if they give away a half to a team like Stanford or Baylor (two teams who always come out full force), they won't have a half left to make it up.
I really want to see this team live up to their potential and win it all, but if they don't start preparing their minds for it now, they won't have the focus needed to get there. I can respect them if they lose in the tournament - I just don't want to see them lose to themselves.