Tennessee also has played well at home this season – of the six losses only one was in Knoxville and that was against Virginia on Nov. 17 in the second game of the regular season
"We're excited, especially to play in front of our crowd and hope they can get our confidence and buck us back up," freshman guard Shekinna Stricklen said.
That confidence took a hit last Sunday when Tennessee lost to Florida after holding a second-half lead. That led to two intense practice sessions and a change in the starting lineup that was much more about what was being added – the size and scoring of Kelley Cain and a true point guard in Briana Bass – than what was being subtracted. Glory Johnson, an explosive hand grenade of defense and rebounding, will come off the bench Thursday.
No. 15/18 Tennessee (17-6, 6-3) takes on Alabama (12-12, 0-9) at 7 p.m. Eastern (Lady Vol Radio Network; TV: SportSouth) at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Crimson Tide has yet to win a league contest, but it's unlikely a six-loss Lady Vol team would enter any game overconfident.
"We've had good practices leading up to this game so hopefully they'll be ready for the challenge," said Assistant Coach Daedra Charles-Furlow, who prepared the scouting report for the matchup. "This is a team that's 0-9 so guess what? They're hungry. They want to win. They want a win. They're 12 and 12 overall but they're 0-9 in the league so they're coming here to try and get a win and if they can get a steal here, that will make their season.
"We want to win this game. We want to win every game we play. We can't take time off. We can't take plays off. We can't take possessions off."
Bjorklund is one of just three returning players from last season on the active roster – the other two are graduate student Alex Fuller and sophomore Sydney Smallbone – so she understands the sense of urgency that February brings. With just six regular season games left, five of which are SEC ones, postseason seeding becomes an issue.
"Definitely," Bjorklund said. "We're playing for a lot with the SECs and then the tournament coming up. We're just trying to get through the SECs right now and every day counts – every practice, every game. It's important, especially practice. We need to treat every practice like it's a game and continue to improve. Every time we step on the court can be vital."
Bjorklund indicated it's a lesson the freshmen are still absorbing, as is the fact every opponent is out to get Tennessee this season. But she does not expect them to overlook Alabama.
"Oh my gosh, no," Bjorklund said. "If they don't know by now then they're never going to know. Because every team – they've told me, the freshmen are like, ‘Wow, every team is going for us.' We have a bullet on our back for sure. Everyone thinks it's their year to beat us. I think Coach engraved that into our brain. It really is that. Every team.
"We treat every game the same for sure. Coach really makes that a point."
Bjorklund meant the program has a bull's eye on its back but given the shots the team has taken this season it may feel like bullet holes so the malapropism is, in this case, appropriate.
The sophomore also senses that the calendar is close to flipping to March when Summitt's intensity really skyrockets – "We heard," Stricklen said with a grin – and Bjorklund has tried to impart that to the youngsters.
"Whatever it is we need to do it because it's coming down to the end," Bjorklund said. "These last few games in the SEC are what really counts. We need to finish strong because we kind of had a rocky start. I think just staying together and having each other's back and helping each other. Communication is real important."
Bjorklund has tried to make herself both available and anticipatory with the freshmen.
"A lot of times as a freshman you don't want to bother the upperclassmen so I think as a upperclassman it's my responsibility to go up to them and ask them," Bjorklund said. "If I see someone's head down, ask them how they're doing. Just talk to them and encourage them."
A few weeks ago Pat Summitt was calling for Bjorklund to raise her volume on the court. This week Summitt said, "In the course of a game you've got Alex talking. You've got Angie talking."
"I was thrown in there?" Bjorklund said. "Awesome."
Summitt also said, "But talking is one thing. Let your game do your talking."
Bjorklund just smiled about the bar being raised. The remarks came after Bjorklund had struggled with her overall floor game against Florida. Stricklen also had a tough game, and the guard play was a concern afterwards for the coaches. The guards agreed with them.
"The posts have been doing well," Stricklen said. "The posts did their job (against Florida), and I don't think the guards really stepped up and that's what we really needed to do. Kelley, she's been playing awesome. I give her a lot of credit. She's stepped up and she's bringing it every game."
Cain will move into the starting lineup for the first time in her career. She has played in 17 games this season – she missed six because of an aching knee – and is shooting 61.0 percent in conference play.
"If Kelley is healthy and she's playing well she is unstoppable," Bjorklund said.
The team's overall health has been an issue all season as the full roster of 12 was available for just four games – DePaul, George Washington, Texas and Gonzaga. Tennessee's record in that stretch was 3-1 with the loss and two of the wins on the road.
The aches and pains have included concussions (Stricklen, Cain, Alicia Manning and Amber Gray); bulging back discs (Bjorklund, of which she said this week, "it's as good as it's going to get."); sore back (Alyssia Brewer); knees (Fuller, Cain, Stricklen); illness (Gray); groin pull (Stricklen); rib injury (Stricklen); broken nose (Stricklen); and quad contusions (Manning and Glory Johnson). During one stretch in the second half against Georgia only seven players were available.
But the two most brutal losses for the program were Cait McMahan, who ended her season because of chronically sore and unstable knees, and Vicki Baugh, who tore the ACL in her left knee for a second time in 10 months.
McMahan and Baugh were intended to be starters this season with McMahan holding down the point spot while grooming Bass and Stricklen, and Baugh anchoring the post with the kind of performance she uncorked in the postseason.
"That's really tough, especially losing Vicki, somebody like her," Stricklen said. "She's high tempo, she gets everyone going, she doesn't take a possession off. She has fun and she gets everybody else involved and having fun."
Baugh is now sidelined at practice and undergoing rehab to get her ready for another ACL surgery. McMahan has taken the role of student coach.
"Leadership, toughness and obviously a player that would really push the tempo for us," Summitt said when asked what the team lost when McMahan had to stop playing. "I thought we lost someone who had a knowledge and a feel for how we wanted to play at that position."
Summitt will move Bass back into the starting lineup at point – the freshman has started 11 games this season already – because she wants Stricklen free to score and create from the wing without the pressure of running the team.
Bass had been replaced by Manning for defensive reasons, but the freshman forward wasn't a significant enough upgrade for Summitt to continue to keep the team's one true point guard out of the opening lineup.
"With Alicia I wanted her to be someone that could get out and cover the ball, cover the point guard, bring a bigger body, an athletic body, but she wasn't ready to do that," Summitt said. "She opened up her stance."
The team went through defensive drills Tuesday specifically intended to address stance issues and closing out. Was Summitt surprised a refresher was needed in February?
"Yes, but no, because we are freshmen," Summitt said.
So another one of those freshmen – there are seven on the roster, 70 percent of the available players – will start tonight. Bass with the ball in her hand has not been Summitt's primary concern. It has been when the ball was in her opponent's hand.
"She was great in the Georgia game, and she didn't attack (defensively) in the Florida game," Summitt said. "Part of it is them attacking us and so it was a different situation. She's got to realize that even when somebody brings the quickness with the ball to hedge and try and limit touches some and play as aggressive as she can."
Florida's Sha Brooks erupted for 29 points against Tennessee during one bad stretch by the Lady Vols, though Bass wasn't the primary defender at that time.
"She wasn't bad (vs. Florida)," Summitt said after pondering that stretch. "I thought she did a pretty good job overall. Sha Brooks looked at us and saw our defense and said, ‘Give me the ball.' She's a player."
Summitt likes how Bass pushes tempo. Now, she wants her to distribute the ball more to her teammates.
"I think she needs to create for other people on our team," Summitt said. "A point guard that is always looking shot first can get in trouble as opposed to one that's getting other people open. I think in high school she was a scorer as opposed to a playmaker. Here she's got to be a playmaker and then look to score."
Stricklen also is the backup at point guard and will get repetitions at the position. Bjorklund envisions a scenario on the floor where the two guards complement each other – whether both are on the wing or one is at the point.
"I think, number one, is just pushing the ball," Bjorklund said. "I think we have that advantage over a lot of teams. We have a team that can run the floor, especially our inside game. I think our first look is not even setting up an offense. If Strick can take it coast to coast, take it coast to coast. She's a scorer. She's a creator. That's an advantage having a point guard that can score."
Bjorklund said the guards also have to learn each other's games better and that comes with time and repetition.
"We just need to start clicking, especially the guards, (and) even the inside-outside game," Bjorklund said. "It's kind of knowing who you're playing with and understanding playing off of each other a lot better – knowing Kelley likes the ball inside, she likes it here or Strick on the drive and kick to get an open shot, knowing each other strengths and obviously taking care of the ball. Coach has been getting on us about that. Getting open for each other on the wings. Little stuff.
"I think it's within the game," she said. "We need to play off of each other and get together and learn each other's games more. I think that will come with time, just playing with each other more."
Bjorklund said there is a bigger picture, too – learning the Tennessee way, which she has said took her a year to fully absorb.
"We're learning how to connect within Coach's system, little things off of plays within her system," Bjorklund said. "We need to really learn how to do that. We should have the plays down now, and I think that was an issue at the beginning but once that becomes second nature now it's kind of like, ‘All right, what's secondary? What can we do now? What's another option off this play?' "
When Summitt heard about Bjorklund's remarks, she smiled.
"Good, take the iPods," Summitt said.
Summitt has been on her soapbox this week about players immersing themselves in their electronic world of music and texting instead of interacting with each other.
With so many freshmen it especially becomes vital. Bjorklund also was thrust into a huge role as a first-year player, but she shook her head when asked to compare her situation to Stricklen's.
"I'm not even close," Bjorklund said. "I had five seniors. We have some sophomores and Alex, which Alex is doing an awesome job across the board."
Fuller has kept the team on task on and off the court this season and will likely need a long rest at season's end.
"Exactly, I know," Bjorklund said.
Stricklen has learned three positions this year – point, wing guard and small forward – and has started 22 games. She missed one game because of stomach illness.
"I think Strick has had a much bigger role than I did last year," Bjorklund said. "I think Coach puts a lot of pressure on her and I'll go up to her and tell her little things here and there to try and take some of that pressure off. And like I said playing all of each other, once we learn to do that, we'll take pressure off each other. Once we start getting it together and connecting on offense and playing as a team it'll be a lot easier."
Summitt, of course, wants that click to occur soon. Her goals for the team are to compete in the SEC and get to the Final Four, where anything could happen. She wants her team to earn a first-round bye in the SEC tourney so that means holding on to fourth place, though Summitt would prefer to see her team move up in the standings. Of the three teams above them, Auburn, Florida and Vandy, one will play the Lady Vols again when the Commodores come to Knoxville to close out the regular season.
"Don't think we haven't talked about playing on the first day and how important these next games are," Summitt said. "We've got to step up and think about the things that you can control. I also tell them there are so many things out of your control. The officiating is out of your control. The fans are out of your control.
"But when you're on that court you think about taking care of the basketball, you think about executing on offense. It's all about having a commitment to our system and what we want to do and I think sometimes they just don't have that narrow focus. We'll run a play, four people will run it, and one is confused. How can you be confused in February? Only if you haven't been paying attention."
Stricklen was aware of Summitt's expectations.
"She's really trying to get us to get it down pat," Stricklen said. "Once we learn the system like we should have already learned I think we'll be on the same track."
Summitt has been in speech mode most of this week and has issued a series of challenges to her team.
"I was very frustrated that we didn't play great defense (against Florida), and when you're turning the ball over you've got to make stops and we didn't do that," Summitt said. "But there wasn't a sense of urgency to do it. That's the real issue. How many does it take? It takes five. It doesn't take two. It takes five people committed to playing great defense and we may get two or three. Are we getting five? No. They don't have that passion in here that, ‘I'm going to make a stop.'
"When I got beat as a player, did I like it? No. It was like, ‘We've got to do something about this.' With this team, no. They get beat, ‘Oh, we get the ball back.' They're ball magnets. They want the ball. That's all they want. Well, go get the ball with your defensive intensity."
Summitt is evaluating her team now with an eye on postseason and the change in the starting lineup – a true point and a classic center – reflect that.
"If we've got a chance to avoid playing on the first day of the conference play, this could help us, if our guard play is better and we've got an anchor on the inside," Summitt said.
Summitt also is thinking about defense and the uber-athletic Johnson can guard on the perimeter. At 6'3, rangy and quick Johnson can disrupt guards.
"I would not hesitate to put her out there and eventually I would like for her to defend more on the perimeter," Summitt said. "The one thing is that Alex's game is so much better when she's working in the paint, from a defensive standpoint. Of course she can step out and have good range when she does but as far as playing Kelley, for example, and Alex and Glory, Glory would defend on the perimeter. That would be a possibility of us seeing more and more of that."
The message to the guards, who combined for 40 shots against Florida while making 10 of them, is to look first for the posts Thursday.
"Ball security. Post feeds. And obviously looking to score but looking to get the ball inside right away," Summitt said.
The players welcome the chance to get back on track at home.
"I think that will help us a lot to get us all back on track and get some rest," Stricklen said. "I'm just glad to be home, especially in front of your crowd. We've got to make ourselves better. We've got to get everyone's confidence and pick our game back up."
Stricklen also is one of the players on the team whose body has taken a beating this season. She has injured her elbow, suffered a concussion, broken her nose, injured her groin and also has a sore knee that needs regular treatment.
"This is way physical," Stricklen said. "In high school it really wasn't that physical but in college it's a different level. There're just some things you've got to play through."
Fatigue also becomes a factor, especially in the month of February. Freshmen are playing longer seasons than they're accustomed to, adjusting to travel and making sure they're in an 8 a.m. class even if the plane touched down in Knoxville just a few hours earlier.
"I think it will be rough this month, but you really have just got to push through it," Stricklen said. "You're getting back late, don't get much sleep, going to class at eight o'clock in the morning and then coming to practice for two or three hours, you're learning and like I said you've just got to work through it."
The players aren't the only ones happy to stay in Knoxville for two games in a row.
"Let me tell you I am extremely happy because in between traveling I've been recruiting, doing scouts and doing academics," said Charles-Furlow, who helps to monitor the student-athletes' progress in the classroom. "It's going to be good that I can stay home and have some good home-cooked meals. I will cook and my husband and my mom (who visits often), she'll cook. I am looking forward to that."
Charles-Furlow also knows the players need to make up for missed time in class because of travel.
"This will give them the opportunity to get caught up in school and meet with their professors," she said.
When Summitt was asked when the team last played back-to-back home games – it was Nov. 25 and Nov. 30 vs. Western Carolina and DePaul – she had no idea.
"I don't know," Summitt said. "I'm living one day at a time. I couldn't tell you what I did yesterday or what I need to do tomorrow. It's just like go in and let's see what we've got today."
Summitt will get a look at what her team learned in practice this week on Thursday against Alabama. The home crowd should help a team that needs a boost.
"Playing at home that makes our kids feel good," Charles-Furlow said. "The atmosphere is totally different."
PROBABLE STARTERS: Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Briana Bass, 5'2 freshman guard, No. 1 (4.3 points per game, 2.1 assists per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 sophomore guard, No. 5 (11.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 freshman guard/forward, No. 40 (13.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg); Alex Fuller, 6'3 redshirt senior forward, No. 2 (7.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg); and Kelley Cain, 6'6 redshirt freshman center, No. 52 (6.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg).
This will be the ninth different starting lineup that Summitt has used this season. For comparison purposes, the coach used five different lineups in 2008, four in 2007, seven in 2006 and 10 in 2005.
Alabama Coach Wendell Hudson is expected to start: Dedrea Magee, 5'7 junior guard, No. 2 (6.5 ppg, 4.1 apg), hails from Picayune, Miss., had a career-high five 3-pointers against Florida last season, started every game last season, was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Mississippi in high school; Ericka Russell, 5'7 freshman guard, No. 23 (9.6 ppg, 2.3 rpg), hails from Tuscaloosa, Ala., has hit 43 three-pointers this season, first female basketball player at Northridge High School to sign a Division I scholarship; Varisia Raffington, 5'11 sophomore guard, No. 20 (9.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg), hails from Tallahassee, Fla., averaging 15.1 ppg and shooting 48.6 percent behind the arc in SEC play, hit 7-8 three-pointers against Vandy, won back-to-back state titles in Florida in Class 3A as a junior and senior; Tierney Jenkins, 6'0 sophomore forward, No. 21 (11.8 ppg, 7.6 rpg), hails from Mt. Juliet, Tenn., scored 13 points against Auburn, ranks fourth in SEC play in rebounding at 8.3 per game, was named to the All-SEC Freshman Team last season, won the Tennessee Class AAA title in 2006 at Wilson Central High School; and Courtney Strauthers, 6'4 junior forward/center, No. 22 (5.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg), hails from Snellville, Ga., is shooting 47.5 percent this season and 51.9 percent for her career, father Thomas Strauthers was a defensive end in the NFL for eight seasons, mother Jennifer Strauthers played basketball at Arkansas College, now Arkansas State.
Alyson Butler, a 5'10 sophomore guard from Cleveland, Tenn., comes off the bench for the Crimson Tide. She has played in all 24 games this season and has hit 37 three-pointers. Butler played at Walker Valley and earned AAA All-State first team honors as a senior in high school.
SCOUTING REPORT: Daedra Charles-Furlow handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Alabama game. Here is her assessment.
When Alabama has the ball: "They are a team that really loves to push the ball and they do a lot of screening off the ball to get their wings open," Charles-Furlow said. "They'll cross wings. They do a lot of things to get open. They never stand. This is going to be a really good test for us because they're constantly moving, constantly, constantly, constantly.
"That's going to make us have to want to talk, make sure that we're in position to see the ball and be in help side. And also it hopefully will give us an advantage to rebound. They do a lot of motion – pass and cut, screen away (from the ball), things off the ball. They will do some on-ball screens, particularly high on ball screens, but I see them really trying to push the tempo on us as much as they can. I was watching them play against Auburn and that's an in-state rivalry game and in the first half they were only down by three points, 36-39, Auburn, and they played extremely well."
Defensively the Crimson Tide has used man and zone looks, but Charles-Furlow expects to see more zone in Thursday's game.
"I think they're going to mix it up a little bit," she said. "I think they probably will start off in man or show man and then go zone. I know they played Auburn in a lot of zone and even against Vanderbilt they were in zone to try and prevent the dribble penetration. I see them doing that on us. I haven't seen them press. I think they'll definitely run some zone, in particular a 2-3 against us, a standard 2-3."
When Tennessee has the ball: It is the same with Tennessee – get the ball inside.
"That emphasis has always been there," Charles-Furlow said. "We don't always do it, but definitely with Kelley present and her coming off the type of game she had against Florida clearly it states that she needs to get the basketball.
"Now, does that mean force it to her? No. I feel like they probably will double-team Kelley so Kelley has to be strong with the basketball, we have to be ready for inside-outside, back inside and look for our sweet spots and our buddy pass (post and guard playing catch with the ball with the guard moving to the open spot), if that happens. Because I foresee them doubling her. I would double her. I would make it difficult. I would dig down. I would even swarm her, which brings a post player over and digs from the guard position ball-side, so that she can't score."
If that happens, Cain has the ability to pass out of double teams and kick the back to a guard.
"Absolutely," Charles-Furlow said. "If there's a shot that she doesn't like or if she doesn't feel like this is the right move for her Kelley very seldom forces things. Very, very seldom does she force so I feel very confident in her ability to make the right decision.
"The thing I want her to do is I want her to go to the basket hard and I want her to go thinking score. Not I'm going to take a shot. You've got to think, ‘I'm going to get fouled. I'm going to score. I want an and-one every time I go to the basket.' I think her presence needs to be enforced right from tipoff."
Defensively, the Lady Vols want to play man but the zone has to be ready, too.
"We definitely need to work on our zone because it's something that we will need to have in our back pocket," Charles-Furlow said. "But our staple has always been our man defense, but we've had some problems with our man defense, so when we're getting beat off the dribble we say, ‘OK, whoa, wait a minute. Now we need to go to a zone.'
"But I feel real confident that the majority of the game we probably will play man unless their penetration is really, really hurting us. I think the other challenge for us is boxing out and getting to the free throw line. We have to be aggressive."
Charles-Furlow emphasized that the young team has to be ready for the opponent's best shot, as has been the case all season.
"Again, we're the team with the target on our back so every game is a game that we have to play very hard, very intense, be committed to defense," she said. "Hopefully we'll come out from the beginning and show in the first four minutes that we're in control and that we're going to stay in control, and we know how to close out a game. That is what I am hoping we will do."
ON TAP: Eight other SEC teams are in action tonight in the following matchups: South Carolina at Arkansas; Kentucky at Auburn; Florida at Vanderbilt; and Mississippi State at Ole Miss.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Alabama, 40-2. The Lady Vols have a 17-0 record against the Crimson Tide in Knoxville. The two wins for Alabama were at neutral sites in 1981 and 1984. Tennessee has won the last 33 matchups. … Tennessee is 14-2 in games played on February 12. The last win on this date was against Vanderbilt, 70-67, in 2006. The two losses on this date were to Knoxville High School, 6-4, in 1910; and to East Tennessee, 62-56, in 1971. … Alabama will be trying to win its first game in February in three years. The last time the Crimson Tide got a win this month was Feb. 16, 2006, at Mississippi State, 61-59. Alabama has already improved on last season's eight-win record with 12 wins to date and is scoring nearly 10 more points per game. … Alabama Coach Wendell Hudson spent the last six years in administration and took over the basketball program this season. Hudson, who has 26 years of coaching experience, was the first African-American scholarship athlete at Alabama while playing under C.M. Newton. Former Tide players Joni Crenshaw and Stacey Franklin are assistants, along with Ty Evans. … The Lady Vols' WBCA "Pink Zone" campaign is Monday night, Feb. 16, when Tennessee takes on Duke at 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2). UT's "Live Pink - Bleed Orange" activities will include a mobile mammogram unit and the distribution of 13,000 T-shirts to fans, alternating pink and white. The Lady Vols will wear white uniforms with pink accents; UT's staff will wear pink polos; and ushers and police will wear pink ribbons. The Lady Vols have also partnered with the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the event. ... BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee is averaging 71.6 points per game and allowing 63.1 points. Alabama is averaging 64.7 points and allowing 65.8. The Lady Vols are shooting 40.9 percent overall, 33.0 percent from behind the arc and 67.1 percent from the free throw line. The Crimson Tide is shooting 38.1 percent overall, 27.3 percent from long range and 66.9 percent from the line. Tennessee averages 44.0 rebounds per game for a +7.9 margin. Alabama averages 42.2 boards for a +1.6 margin. The Lady Vols average 13.0 assists and 17.2 turnovers per game. The Crimson Tide averages 13.4 assists and 18.7 turnovers. Tennessee averages 8.7 steals and 4.6 blocks per game. Alabama averages 7.4 steals and 3.9 blocks.