Commentary

Tennessee ready to tip off tourney

Lady Vols help open the games at 11 a.m. ET Saturday (ESPN2/ESPN3.com)

Originally Published: March 18, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Tennessee coach Pat Summitt got a laugh as ESPN dug up old photos of her playing days at Tennessee-Martin in the 1970s to use during the NCAA tournament selection show. The Skyhawks are in the NCAA field for the first time this year, and their most famous women's basketball alum is very happy for them.

[+] EnlargePat Summitt
Tennessee-Martin AthleticsPat Summitt graduated from Tennessee-Martin in 1974. The last time the Skyhawks played in a national tournament was 1972.

She doesn't have to be concerned with making their stay a very short one; UT-Martin is the No. 15 seed in the Philadelphia Regional and faces No. 2 seed Duke in the first round.

Summitt, whose Lady Vols are in the Dayton Regional, spoke during her weekly teleconference about her memories of playing at UT-Martin.

"I wanted to go to Belmont, but my dad didn't want me living in Nashville," Summitt recalled of her college days. "He just dropped me off at UT-Martin. I didn't have a choice.

"Shortly after that, the Chi Omega sorority -- I didn't even know what a sorority was -- came and said, 'You are going to come with us, pledge our sorority, and we are going to have the best basketball team UT-Martin has ever had.' That's how it all happened."

Hmmm … imagine if recruiting were anything like that today.

One thing you can be sure no one ever had to coax from Summitt when she was playing ball at UT-Martin was how to get after it. And while she has been pleased overall with how her top-seeded Lady Vols have played this season, there's one lingering problem that still bothers her.

"I struggle when you have to coach effort," said Summitt, echoing a refrain we've heard about Tennessee the past couple of years. "Those days are probably the days that bring out the worst in me, but hopefully allows me to bring out the best in the team. I do know that my voice is strong and I have to be there."

Summitt has indeed "been there" an amazing amount of the time in the 30-season history of the NCAA tournament. She is seeking her 19th Final Four appearance. Tennessee is hosting early-round games and gets started Saturday with Stetson (ESPN2/ESPN3.com, 11 a.m. ET).

Also in Knoxville, Tenn., will be No. 8 seed Marquette versus No. 9 Texas (ESPN2/ESPN3.com, 1:30 p.m. ET Saturday), among the nine teams from the Big East and seven from the Big 12 that are in the NCAA tournament. However, there are only four SEC teams in the field, with Kentucky (No. 4 seed, Spokane), Vanderbilt (No. 10, Spokane) and Georgia (No. 6, Dallas) joining Tennessee.

Summitt didn't try to put any spin on the SEC's down season, which has one job open since Van Chancellor resigned at LSU.

[+] EnlargeGlory Johnson
Grant Halverson/US PresswireSwing player Glory Johnson and Tennessee's post play are critical if the Lady Vols are to make an extended NCAA tournament run.

"It hasn't been our best year by any means," Summitt said of the SEC. "I wish we could've gotten more teams in. That sends a message to this league. It's not that these teams didn't want to win, but for whatever reason -- injuries in some instances -- some teams were down."

That wasn't the case for Tennessee, however, as the Lady Vols won the SEC regular-season and tournament titles while losing just twice: to Georgetown, 69-58, in the Paradise Jam tournament in the Virgin Islands in November, and then at Baylor, 65-54, in December.

That loss to the Hoyas certainly had Tennessee fans worried that maybe this squad might not have the focus needed to make a run at the national championship. But it ended up being just an early-season hiccup, and nothing more.

This has been a perimeter-oriented Tennessee team, led by senior Angie Bjorklund (11.1 ppg), junior Shekinna Stricklen (12.6) and freshman Meighan Simmons (13.7). Simmons has played extremely well, but Bjorklund, in particular, has been very important as a steadying influence.

"She has a calmness effect on our team," Summitt said. "A lot of times, that's been good for Shekinna, Meighan and Kamiko [Williams] -- the people on the perimeter -- because of how she goes about getting open and how she doesn't get into that panic mode very frequently."

One team in Tennessee's region could have gone into panic mode full-throttle, but didn't: No. 4 seed Ohio State. The Buckeyes were struggling until things started to click Feb. 10 with a victory over Purdue that started a string of nine consecutive wins for Ohio State, which like Tennessee is hosting the early rounds. The Buckeyes open with Central Florida (ESPN2/ESPN3.com, 1:30 p.m. ET Saturday).

If seeds hold to the Sweet 16 in the Dayton Regional, Ohio State star center Jantel Lavender will go against a multi-faced Tennessee post attack that includes Kelley Cain, Vicki Baugh, Alyssia Brewer and swing player Glory Johnson.

Pat Summitt
Courtesy of Tennessee-Martin AthleticsMore than 35 years after playing for UT-Martin, Pat Summitt hopes to lead the Lady Vols to their 19th Final Four.

"The one thing that always concerns me is they take themselves out of the game early," Summitt said of her post players, who've dealt with various injuries all season. "So we are addressing that. A healthy Kelley Cain is going to give Tennessee one of the best post games in the country, along with Vicki Baugh and Lyssi Brewer.

"Taking those three players with the size they have, that opens up Glory Johnson to not just be an inside post player. I think those three players are the key to us continuing to win throughout this tournament."

The versatility from the 6-foot-3 Johnson has been highly valuable.

"This has been a year of great maturity for Glory and for her game," Summitt said. "She's a player that doesn't stop when practice ends; she's going to go get more reps in. She's going to do everything she can to improve her skill set, which obviously has had great improvement overall."

The Nos. 2 and 3 seeds in Dayton, Notre Dame and Miami, have very different NCAA histories. The Irish have been to the Final Four twice, winning the 2001 NCAA title, while the Hurricanes have gone as far as the Sweet 16 only once in their six previous appearances in the NCAA tournament.

None of the top teams in Dayton can quite match Tennessee in terms of depth, but that's because few in the country can. It's one of the Lady Vols' biggest assets as they begin a journey toward what they hope will be their ninth NCAA title.

"I think it really brings a lot of confidence throughout the team to know that we have a lot of options," Summitt said. "When they hold each other accountable -- which they've learned to do this year -- that gives us a chance as a coaching staff to see them take ownership and do something special day in and day out."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

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