Commentary

Many Volunteers must step up in Tennessee's title defense

Updated: March 18, 2008, 7:13 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

It seems Candace Parker typically has only "now" and "the next thing" on her mind. A game ends, and she dissects her performance with an air of distraction. Because what's already over is never going to get her full attention. What she has to do at the moment and what's coming up are what matter to her.

But it's instructive for us to look back a little in order to gauge what we could see from Parker and defending national champion Tennessee in the Big Dance.

[+] EnlargeAlexis Hornbuckle
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireAlexis Hornbuckle played a big role in the Final Four last season. Her athleticism, defense and positive energy are contagious to her teammates and Tennessee fans. And the Lady Vols need it again to repeat as NCAA champs.

This is Parker's last NCAA tournament. It's her fourth year in college, and though she has a season of eligibility left, she isn't going to take it. Because of a redshirt injury year in 2004-05, she'll finish with three seasons of play, a slew of individual awards and, she hopes, two national championships.

To win that second one, though, Parker knows she needs some help. She got it last year throughout the course of the NCAA tournament, especially during the Final Four in Cleveland.

What kind of help are we talking about? Her teammates just have to concentrate on doing what they do best. Let's flash back to Cleveland last year and look at how Tennessee won.

In the semifinal, Tennessee beat North Carolina, 56-50. In the final, it was 59-46 over Rutgers. Very different opponents, but quite similar scores. Carolina always wants to outscore foes, Rutgers wants to out-defend them. Neither could do what they wanted against Tennessee.

It started with a very confident coaching staff. Sure, Pat Summitt was burning to get title No. 7, especially considering she had not won one since 1998. At the same time, what Summitt did best last year was keep the mood of the team right where it was supposed to be.

In the moments her players needed a kick in the shorts -- such as when they trailed Carolina deep into the second half -- she yelled at them that they were not leaving Cleveland without a national championship.

When they needed to feel fully prepared and in control -- such as before the title game -- she seemed calm and relaxed, saying she already had six titles. This one was for them. All they had to do was follow the game plan.

The task of limiting Carolina to 50 points was pretty intense, even for a group of players used to trying to please Summitt during grueling defensive drills in practice. But Tennessee was able to do that.

Against Rutgers, it was imperative to not let the Scarlet Knights ever feel they had their defensive clamps fully tightened, and for the Lady Vols to keep finding enough leaks and exploiting them.

Tennessee's Nicky Anosike and Alexis Hornbuckle, now seniors, both played very big roles in the Final Four last season. Anosike can disappear at times, but she was fully present in Cleveland. In the semis, she had 14 points and seven rebounds. And of course in the final, her statement on the boards -- 16 of them -- said everything.

Hornbuckle is one of the better rebounding guards in the nation, plus she has a knack for keeping possessions alive even if she just tips the ball instead of actually getting the rebound.

She's very active and athletic, with that hard-to-explain nose for the basketball and ability to be in the right place at the right time. Hornbuckle had eight rebounds against Carolina -- a program that annually is a rebounding monster -- and seven against Rutgers.

Hornbuckle also has much more of the happy-go-lucky, let's-enjoy-the-ride personality than a lot of players do. She can bring bursts of positive energy, fun and competitiveness to games that are contagious not just to her teammates but the Tennessee fans as well.

Shannon Bobbitt and Alberta Auguste had 13 and 10 points, respectively, in the title game last year. Both have to take advantage of the opportunities they have throughout this tournament.

While Tennessee's run to the title last year is important to review in terms of what this team has to do to repeat, let's also look at the main thing that's different this season: Sidney Spencer is gone, and she was a steadying influence and reliable perimeter scorer. Tennessee doesn't have another senior just like her to fill that role this season. Instead, a rookie like Angie Bjorklund has to try to do that.

There is not a sense of invulnerability about Tennessee this season, but there really wasn't last year, either. So that isn't necessarily needed. But each player filling in her role while Parker does the star turn -- that is what's necessary.

Parker is as reliable as it gets: She will get her points and rebounds by game's end. She might have some quiet stretches where she's figuring out the holes in the defense. She might seem like she's not taking as much control as she should at times. She might seem frustrated for stretches.

Yet it always seems to come down to her solving whatever problems she faces. And when games are on the line, she makes sure the ball is in her hands.

Tennessee has made it to at least the Sweet 16 in every NCAA tournament, and the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of that happening again. If seeds hold, Tennessee would have to beat two Big 12 teams -- Oklahoma and Texas A&M -- in the regional in Oklahoma City.

And if the conclusion in Tampa is Tennessee meeting UConn, then both teams would be facing an absolute media/fan circus. And we know that one coach in that rivalry loves circuses, and the other really doesn't.

Tennessee obviously won't look this far ahead -- nor will it look back -- in preparing for this tournament. Instead it will look hard at each task at hand, knowing that every step is one closer to another title -- and the end of Parker's collegiate career.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.