Despite being overshadowed by the Tennessee men's basketball team's on- and off-the-court troubles this season, Pat Summitt's No. 4-ranked Lady Volunteers are once again a contender for the national championship.
The Lady Vols capped off a perfect 16-0 conference season on Sunday, beating LSU 80-60. It marked the ninth time in Summitt's 37-year tenure in which UT has entered postseason play with an unblemished SEC record.
"We didn't set out for that, but you have to give this team a lot of credit," Summitt said. "We went on the road and won some games, we had some tough games. Overall, I think their focus and maturity has really helped us to be successful. This team has good chemistry. They don't get upset if they don't play or if they come out. They really want to win as a team and it shows."
Winning has seemingly come easy for the Lady Vols this year. Despite playing arguably the toughest non-conference schedule in country, UT's overall record sits at 28-2. The only blemishes came early in the season — a Nov. 27 69-58 loss to Georgetown in the Paradise Jam Tournament and a 65-54 loss at No. 3-ranked Baylor on Dec. 14.
Though the team is riding a 19-game winning streak, Summitt knows her squad won't simply be handed the SEC Tournament title this weekend in Nashvile, Tenn.
"What I don't want us to do is have a letdown," Summitt said. "We've got to stay focused. We've got to be a team on a mission. If they're satisfied with what they've already accomplished, then we are going to be going home early. We've got to keep reminding not about what they have done, but about how much more they can do."
But how much more will this team accomplish?
Tennessee fans have come to expect championships, both SEC and national, and both are certainty goals for this team.
Even given the team's success this season, how good the Lady Vols are is still unknown because of injuries throughout the year. Shekinna Stricklen, the SEC player of the year, is the only Lady Vol to have started every game.
Post players Kelley Cain, Vicki Baugh and Alyssia Brewer have seemingly never been able to be healthy at the same time. But all three are as healthy as they have been all year heading into this weekend.
Then there's Angie Bjorklund. The senior missed six games midway through the conference schedule but looked to be rounding back into form in the season finale against LSU, scoring 17 points, including going 4-of-4 from three-point range.
Given the team's depth — seven Lady Vols average more than seven points per game — Summitt doesn't have to rely on one or two players to have a good night offensively.
"You kind of just have to work through a game and see who has a hot hand," she said. "It's not like you can predetermine and it's going to be that way the whole game."
But as the confident Lady Vols embark on their quest for a ninth national championship, Summitt knows the road to the Final Four in Indianapolis won't be won on a player's hot hand.
"Our defense and our board play is where you win championships, so we have to get our mindset exactly where it needs to be for those two aspects of the game," she said.
— Matt Dixon is a senior in journalism and electronic media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @MattDixon3.