- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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It's something of an understatement to suggest the University of Tennessee casts a wide shadow over women's basketball in the SEC. In fact, Knoxville's city limits might better be described as the event horizon of a black hole from which there is no escape.
No program feels the gravitational pull of the eight-time national champions more intensely than Vanderbilt, the Lady Vols' in-state neighbor a mere three hours to the west in Nashville. A successful program in its own right by almost any standard, having accrued 20-win seasons by the dozens and 13 trips to the Sweet 16, Vanderbilt has nonetheless long seemed destined to spend hardcourt eternity as the "other" school in the Volunteer State.
But the next step toward equal footing might come, at least in part, courtesy of two players for whom the program originally wasn't even that high-profile.
"I'd actually never heard of Vanderbilt growing up," admitted Commodores senior and Arizona native Christina Wirth.
Echoed classmate and fellow left-coaster Jennifer Risper, "Actually, I'd never even heard about Vanderbilt while I was in California."
Years later, Wirth and Risper have learned all about life in the SEC, and the league has learned enough about them to mark the Commodores as preseason favorites to win the conference title and end more than a decade of dominance for Tennessee and LSU.
In a league going through a changing of the guard following the departures of Candace Parker and Sylvia Fowles -- the top two picks in the WNBA draft and two of 10 SEC players among the 43 selections -- Vanderbilt has the benefit of experience on its side. The team lost just one rotation player, center Liz Sherwood, from a lineup that went 25-9 and advanced to the Sweet 16 last season. Age and experience are not always synonyms for players who suddenly find themselves asked to lead as seniors, but after playing last season as de facto elder stateswomen, Wirth and Risper have both age and wisdom.
"I think that just kind of helped us to mature as leaders faster than most," Wirth said of last season. "Usually, at other schools, you have that one extra year as a grace period to figure it out before you're seniors. But last year, we were kind of, I guess, forced to step up in that role, which I think is going to help us tremendously this year."
Vanderbilt notched quality wins against Duke and Iowa State early last season, but it also dropped an overtime decision at Indiana State and home games against Colorado and Old Dominion before the calendar hit January. It was those early losses, Risper said, that forced the players to reevaluate why the results weren't matching what they felt they were capable of accomplishing. And with that came a renewed focus on practice habits.
"You can earn your voice by just being that hard worker or having a good attitude," Risper said. "As a leader, last year and this year, there may be times -- there's always times -- where somebody doesn't want to be at practice or is going through something or is stressed out from work or whatever it is. And you have to maintain and you have to have a good attitude, because that's what everybody sees."
The truth is the Commodores don't have the luxury of taking things for granted. Like Hannibal crossing the Alps, their Final Four aspirations rest on strategy and preparation. Last year's Final Four offered four ideal examples of the fact that championship-caliber teams are the ones with both athleticism and execution, but almost every team skews at least slightly toward one end or the other. And for Vanderbilt, it's toward the latter.
"We pride ourselves on doing the little things right," Wirth said. "We don't take shortcuts. We're not always the most athletic team -- I think that since I've been here, our team has become a lot more athletic in terms of the players we're recruiting now. But even without that, we're just going to be fundamental and do things right and play together. And I think we win a lot of games because of that."
A star within a team framework, Wirth embodies all of that. She shot 41.5 percent from 3-point range last season (on a prolific 171 attempts), averaged five rebounds per game and 1.7 assists for every turnover she committed. Iowa's Wendy Ausdemore, Florida State's Mara Freshour and Villanova's Lisa Karcic are the only returning players in BCS conferences who shot a better percentage from behind the arc.
With Wirth, Merideth Marsh (67-for-179) and Lauren Lueders (42-for-111), Vanderbilt ranked 10th nationally in 3-point field goal percentage last season. Playing in significantly less demanding conferences, Utah and Wisconsin-Green Bay were the only other teams to rank in the top 10 in both 3-point field goal percentage and overall field goal percentage. Throw in Risper's all-around efforts and an emerging point guard in sophomore Jence Rhoads (nearly a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio as a freshman) and coach Melanie Balcomb's perimeter options will exploit any mistakes opposing defenses make.
But it's the glass -- where the 5-foot-9 Risper led the team with 6.3 rebounds per game (she also led the team in steals and free-throw attempts) -- that has Wirth's attention. Without Sherwood, the 6-foot-1 Wirth and 6-foot sophomore Hannah Tuomi represent the extent of the projected starting lineup's interior size.
"We're going to be very undersized this year," Wirth conceded. "And I think people will look at our lineup and say, 'Oh gosh, [they] don't have any post players.' I don't really think that's true. We do have undersized post players, but our post coach, Vicky Picott, just does an awesome job of showing you how to use your body.
"Some of the hardest post players I've had to play against are the mid-sized post players that can't just get away with getting the ball lobbed up to them and putting it in. You have to work for it. You have to use your quickness, or get lower than other post players and things like that. It's all the little things that sometimes people don't want to do, I think our team is willing to do. And because of that, I think we're going to be OK."
The early schedule is relatively soft, save for games against Notre Dame and at Iowa State in a five-day span around New Year's Day, but after opening conference play at Alabama, Vanderbilt faces Tennessee, LSU and Georgia in quick succession. With the Commodores just 6-51 all-time against the Lady Volunteers, including 16 losses in a row, that first meeting in Nashville will likely determine how seriously a lot of people take Vanderbilt this season.
But led by the West Coast transplants, these Commodores are less interested in living up to their neighbor's legacy than in creating one of their own in March and April.
"Personally, I try not to listen to it that much or care about [the Tennessee rivalry] that much -- not that I don't care, but you get that question constantly," Wirth said. "They're a great team. They have more tradition than just about any other program in the country, and they've earned that. I think Pat Summitt does a great job there. But I think that Vanderbilt's image -- old image -- was, 'Oh, they're soft; they're going to get pushed around by bigger, stronger Tennessee.' And I think that's changing. And I think the team that we have now doesn't care about that at all, doesn't really care who is on the other side of the floor we're playing against."
Which means it may become significantly more difficult to keep word of Vanderbilt's success from leaking out well beyond the boundaries of the state of Tennessee.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
Vanderbilt has long lived in the shadow of in-state rival Tennessee. But Christina Wirth, Jennifer Risper and the Commodores are less interested in living up to their neighbor's legacy than creating one of their own.