- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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In her previous 36 years at Tennessee's helm, coach Pat Summitt observed, diagnosed and attempted to remedy every possible ailment to befall a basketball team. But when you've been doing something for so long, you're bound to perhaps lose track just a little of everything you've gone through before.
So, yes, by Tennessee's standards, two seasons in a row without going to the Final Four is supposedly a big deal. Crisis-intervention time, huh? Except
Of course, it isn't. Tennessee once went three whole seasons away from the Final Four: 1992, '93 and '94. The Orange Crush have won five of their eight NCAA titles since then.
And there's no reason to think Tennessee won't be back in that mix again this season. Starting the season Friday before a sellout crowd at Louisville's new arena, Tennessee will add to its list of "big events" -- remember the outdoor game in Phoenix against Arizona State in December 2000? -- and begin what Summitt hopes will be a journey ending with a 19th NCAA Final Four appearance.
Summitt likes what she sees so far. And she knew exactly what she was looking for from this team.
"They are taking ownership and holding people accountable in practice and as well as in our exhibition games," Summitt said. "I feel like they really are mindful if someone is not sprinting the floor hard, if they are not boxing out. It is amazing how quickly our players are going to call people out because of that."
Senior Angie Bjorklund, who at times during her sophomore season of 2008-09 felt overwhelmed by the leadership void among the players, improved a lot in that regard last season. And she'll carry that into her final year. But as Summitt pointed out, Bjorklund won't be alone in establishing that necessary sense of peer pressure that good teams need.
"I think you have to have that: when they start policing each other and respond," Summitt said. "After the Ball State game, I realized how young we were, and we didn't have the leadership or maturity. But now we have leadership, and we are identifying that."
Ah, yes, the Ball State game. That 2009 NCAA tournament first-round loss -- the first in Tennessee's history coming before the NCAA Sweet 16 -- is two years in the rearview mirror now. But it was so cataclysmic at the time that some Tennessee fans might still feel as if it's tailgating them.
Most, though, probably have relegated it into the very small (especially compared to the majority of programs) nightmare file for Tennessee. Last season, Summitt was back atop the SEC again, winning both the regular season and tournament titles. The fact that Baylor ousted Tennessee in the NCAA Sweet 16 was classified as an upset, but certainly not as a stunner.
And this season, everything that was good about Tennessee last season should be better. Plus add in Vicki Baugh, a talented 6-foot-4 post player who had to redshirt last season as she fully recovered from knee surgery.
Baugh's initial injury was sadly juxtaposed with Tennessee's victory in the 2008 NCAA title game. Some night that was for Baugh, huh? Everyone else around her was celebrating, and she had to think about a summer/fall of rehab.
She was back for the next season, though until she reinjured her knee in February 2009. There was talk she'd return for last season, but it made more sense for her to heal fully.
Tennessee currently is without Alyssia Brewer, who is recovering from a nonbasketball injury, but overall this is a very strong and versatile interior game. The initial starting lineup is expected not to include Baugh or 6-6 center Kelley Cain, but both should be significant presences for Tennessee.
"We should be much better in the post game," Summitt said. "[Cain and Baugh] are going to see quality playing time. They are both very invested. Coach [Dean] Lockwood works primarily with our post players, and I spend a lot of time with the posts as well. I think they are finally getting it: how much you have to invest and how hard you have to work. With Kelley's size and Vicki's quickness and mobility, those two can really help us tremendously."
So much of Tennessee's success throughout the years has come from relentless on-the-ball defense. But to do that, you have to have athletes capable of playing that way game after game through a full season.
When Summitt talks about leadership and ownership, they aren't just vague terms. She is most definitely referring to things like having the mentality that you are a defensive stopper, and that there are no off nights from doing that.
Junior forward Glory Johnson, with her length and athleticism, stands out as a player physically gifted enough to do anything defensively. Summitt wants to see Johnson embrace that role.
"She is an amazing athlete. She can get up and down the floor," Summitt said. "She can defend on the perimeter as well as on the inside. Her versatility just goes on and on.
"We can put her out to guard a point guard -- as a matter of fact, that is something we are going to be working on."
Speaking of point guards, though, that has been an area that has troubled Summitt to some degree for a few years. Even in the back-to-back championship seasons of 2007 and '08, that spot had its issues for Tennessee. And it was most definitely a problem in the 2008-09 season.
It improved last season, and 6-2 Shekinna Stricklen has become more comfortable knowing she can be in that role without it having to adversely affect the other aspects of her game that she has always felt more confident about. Still, the sooner that promising freshmen Meighan Simmons -- whom Summitt says might be the quickest guard she has ever had at Tennessee -- and Lauren Avant come along, the better the perimeter will look.
Summitt loves the resolve and toughness of players such as Alicia Manning and Taber Spani, both 6-1 workhorses with run-through-a-wall attitudes. Spani was slowed by foot ailments last season as a freshman. But if she's fully healthy and hits her stride, she will be one of the best shooters in the country. Manning is more of a natural interior scorer, one who's able to play bigger than she actually is.
"She may be undersized, but dynamite comes in small packages," Summitt said. "I think she is a gutsy player, and I like that about her."
That mentality might in fact be what Summitt likes best about this whole team. The players look, act and sound like Tennessee. And she has a lot of confidence they're going to truly play like Tennessee, too.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.