Underdog and Tennessee are two words that don't usually go together in women's basketball circles. Pat Summitt could be the most well known coach in basketball, men or women. The 8 National champions the Lady Vols have won is a testament to their program's success. Yet hear they sit, in the familiar position of a number seed in the NCAA tournament, but they are the "fourth" number one seed, and some are looking past them.
Perhaps it's the fact there is no Candace Parker, Chamique Holdsclaw or Tamika Catchings this year. Perhaps it's the disappointment of recent tournament performances. Whatever the reason, those people that are looking past Tennessee and crowning another champion this year may be in for a surprise.
The 2010-11 edition of the Lady Vols is in fact, different from many prior Tennessee teams. There is no one "go to" person that you have to be concerned about at the end of the game. Many, including me in my pre-season predictions I admit, thought this would be their downfall. Things have changed though. It's not that there isn't a go to person, it's that there are now several.
The leading scorer on this year’s team is a surprise in itself – freshman guard Meighan Simmons. Simmons has burst onto the scene this year like electrical current through a wire, sparking this team with an energy and determination that was lacking in recent years. It is not common for a freshman to have this much impact on a Tennessee team. I spoke to Coach Summitt about her freshman standout.
Simmons has helped solidify the point guard position for this season. While the team still may not have a true point guard, between Simmons and Kamiko Williams, with some help from standout Shekinna Stricklen, the team is stronger with the ball than before. Coach Summitt knows the need for a strong point guard presence, and in addition to this group, looks forward to next year, when incoming freshman Ariel Massengale will join the Lady Vols.
Stricklen has been a difference maker this year. Last year she was forced to almost exclusively handle the ball, which took away from so many other skills she possesses. A special talent, playing off the ball more has allowed her to score over 12 ppg on almost 50% shooting, while also being second on the team in rebounds, assists, and steals. Leave her alone, she’ll also nail the three-pointer. Stricklen has done it all this season.
Still, what could separate this team from the other contenders is their inside post presence. They need to stay healthy, and have struggled with that all season, but Kelly Cain, Vicki Baugh and Alyssia Brewer are a trio of bigs that virtually no team can contend with. Then, you add in the super athleticism in the paint of Glory Johnson, and you have an incredibly strong frontline. Johnson for two years heard "wait until she puts it together" as she has athleticism that is beyond compare in the NCAA this season. It wasn’t until this year, that she DID put it together and the results have been impressive. Johnson is a double-double waiting to happen these days, and she finished the season averaging 11.9 ppg and 9.6 rpg, just under that double-double. Coach Summitt talked to me about her posts and Glory Johnson.
As Simmons was integrated into the system, and the posts recovered from their myriad of injuries, the Vols did start the season a bit slowly, dropping 2 of their first 11 games, to Georgetown and Baylor. Since then, they have been virtually unstoppable, winning now 23 in a row and yet another SEC title to go with that number one NCAA tourney seed. So what’s been the difference?
So are people overlooking Tennessee? ESPN.com’s Charlie Crème and Melanie Jackson each picked Tennessee as the first number one seed to be eliminated from the tourmament. If this is flying under the radar, Coach Summitt is perfectly happy with that position.
The entire interview with Coach Pat Summitt of the Tennessee Lady Vols can be heard here.