Not that this is a news flash … but it’s looking even more likely these days that the two titans of women’s hoops, Tennessee and Connecticut, won’t meet for the second year in a row.
Not unless they’re in the same NCAA Tournament region, that is, and are slated to meet no later than the Sweet 16. At least, for now, that’s how it appears. In fact, even normally optimistic-minded Tennessee fans are talking about the unthinkable: That for the first time in NCAA Tournament history, the Orange Crush might not even make the Sweet 16.
And you probably don’t even want to know what pessimistic-minded Tennessee fans are thinking. It’s so bleak it makes “Revolutionary Road” look like a breezy comedy.
Thursday, Tennessee lost its eighth game of the season, falling 66-56 at Kentucky. Afterward, coach Pat Summitt said, “I will tell you, and I will tell them, that in 35 years of coaching this group has probably the lowest energy, game in and game out, of any team that I have coached. I am not really good at coaching effort, and I am very disappointed in just a lack of competitiveness in a number of our players.”
She wasn’t done.
“Totally a lack of passion,” she said. “That is probably the biggest thing that our coaching staff struggles with. You are talking about four coaches that have just a competitive drive in everything that we do _ and the fact that (the players) don’t have it. I don’t know that you can give that to a player. They have to decide who they are and what they are willing to invest in their game and in this program.
“I think that when you have players that aren’t invested in your program, it is hard to arrive at an identity for the team.”
Summitt has won 1,001 games, so you gotta figure she knows what she’s talking about. But I’ll say the same thing I’ve been saying _ not that it means anything _ for a while now this season: Summitt’s expectations are not exactly realistic. But I also wouldn’t have expected anything different. It’s not in her nature to temper expectations.
Summitt is allowed to get mad and frustrated and keep demanding; that’s what coaches do as they’re trying to fix things.
However, I’d like to take the opportunity to say to any Tennessee fans who are freaking out: Chill. Welcome to your very brief sojourn into how the other 95 percent (or more) lives. Buy Debby Jennings’ terrific “Basketball Vault” book to get you through this trying time. You’ll notice it has EIGHT national championship trophies on the cover.
Not all of Orange Nation is loosing its grip, of course. Some fans are being very reasonable, even good-humored. They saw a lot of this coming in the “Season of the Rocky Top Rookies,” although perhaps not the additional blows of losing Cait McMahan and Vicki Baugh to injury.
Others, though, have lost perspective or never really had any – because Tennessee has been so freaking good for so long, fans didn’t have to develop it. Vol expert writer Maria Cornelius jokingly said when I was in Knoxville last month that she stays fairly busy just trying to (figuratively) talk fans down from ledges.
The reality? Tennessee is a team of teeny-boppers, including 19-year-old sophomore Angie Bjorklund, whose game-face expression is starting to resemble that of somebody who just woke up and is gradually realizing she’s in one of those “Saw” movies.
Summitt was mic’ed up during the loss to Duke on Monday, and we heard her say something like, “Why are you pressing?” to Bjorklund. I laughed out loud.
Gee, why would Bjorklund be pressing? Just possibly because she’s heard, “We need you to make shots!” for what probably feels like the 8 millionth time (this week). Or maybe because she was usually on the floor with seniors last season, while this year she’s out there with kids now likely all hoping to be the one who screws up the least.
And amidst this collection of teen-aged angst is 22-year-old Alex Fuller, who may have wondered during low points how she got the crummy luck to have had this redshirt season left, rather than being finished last year.
She’s the lone senior while there are six freshmen and one redshirt freshman. It’s a ratio made in coaching hell.
We writers can be abysmal hacks with our cliches, but our TV colleagues can hold their own in that department, too. My dog has to listen to me gripe every time I hear this one, “You know, by this time in the season, freshmen aren’t freshmen anymore.”
Really? What are they then? Is it suddenly not still their first season? Have they magically moved ahead in time and have already played a full year in college? If they’re “not freshmen” are we supposed to call them something different?
Announcers say these things because coaches say these things. And coaches say these things, of course, because they want freshmen to get out of the mindset of being freshmen. They want this because by February, they are often completely sick of freshmen (unless they are super-good or great).
Which is all fine, except it doesn’t change the fact that they really are freshmen the WHOLE DAMN SEASON, like it or not. They haven’t played a Division I schedule before, nor a conference tournament, nor an NCAA Tournament.
Put aside, for now, Tennessee’s four non-conference losses to ranked teams. (How many other programs face four ranked non-conference opponents in a season? At Tennessee, it’s normal.) Let’s just look at the SEC losses: to Vanderbilt, Auburn, Florida and Kentucky. All were on the road. Those four opponents all start at least two seniors; none of them starts a freshman. Tennessee did beat Kentucky in Knoxville, and still has a rematch coming up with Vandy in Thompson-Boling Arena.
So is this really about Tennessee’s players not being invested in their program? Give me a break. It was time for these other programs to beat Tennessee. The Orange Crush’s record against the combined group of Vandy, Auburn, Florida and Kentucky coming into this season was 164-22. The fact that it’s 1-4 so far this season makes sense. I don’t even need my calculator to figure out that means it’s still a landslide-like 165-26 in Tennessee’s favor.
And, yes, yes, yes … I know that folks will say Summitt’s not really mad at the losses, per se, so much as she is the way her team is playing in these losses. Uh-huh. She’s mad about both.
Now, meanwhile … UConn is cruising along undefeated at No. 1, and I’m sure the Huskies fans are just about as broken up over Tennessee’s struggles as I was when the Cubs got swept in the MLB playoffs last season.
OK, actually, Geno Auriemma and UConn nation might be just a little bummed that they may not get the chance to run over Tennessee along their potential path to a national championship. Since the regular-season series was cancelled _ and until Summitt has some unforeseen change of heart, it’s not coming back _ the only chance for the two “Evil Empires” to meet is in the NCAA Tournament, of course.
It could have happened in the national championship game last year, but Stanford prevented it. Now, it’s going to be harder for the bracket to work out to provide UConn vs. Tennessee.
But that’s perfectly OK. Really, it is. There was a Final Four in 2006 without either one, and that didn’t turn out too badly from an excitement standpoint. And it’s not like we don’t envision another UConn-Tennessee showdown in the NCAA Tournament sometime soon.
One last thought on Tennessee’s “tribulations” … a couple of nights ago, I watched the 1991 national-championship game on DVR. It had been re-broadcast on ESPN Classic the day after Summitt’s 1,000th win, along with Tennessee’s other title-game victories.
The 1991 game is especially intriguing to me because of all the plot lines that season – Tennessee wanting revenge on Virginia (which it got) for the Cavs’ East Regional victory the year before; No. 1 seed Penn State coming into the tournament with a big head of steam, only to be upset by No. 8 James Madison; Southwest Missouri State giving Tennessee a scare the year before the Bears would make the Final Four; UConn officially “arriving” at elite status by making the program’s first Final Four and then facing the team Auriemma had previously been with: Virginia.
I’m going to have to do a whole other blog entry on watching the 1991 title game again because it brought back so many memories – including how bad I felt for Dawn Staley. But suffice to say it was fascinating to see one more time how Tennessee managed to win that title even when Virginia looked like it was almost at the finish line: up by five with 1:21 to play.
Tennessee has broken a whole lot of hearts over the years. The program will survive just fine getting its ego a little bruised this season.
And, hey, the season’s not over yet. Maybe the bruising will “heal” sooner than we think.