All of the pre-season work put in by the Lady Vols' players and coaches will become apparent this weekend when the team kicks off the 2012 regular season with a two-game road stretch.
The first game is slotted for Friday evening at 7 p.m. ET as the Lady Vols travel south to take on in-state rival Chattanooga (UTC). Although just as important, the second game should prove to be more of a measuring stick for where the team stands when the Lady Vols take on their first ranked opponent of the season in #22 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. ET.
Away games are extremely difficult for teams in any situation. This difficulty is amplified, however, when the road team possesses as much youth as the Lady Vols do.
"We're young," head coach Holly Warlick said. "We're a majority of freshmen and sophomores, and we're going to play whoever I need to play to help us win the game."
Warlick does not see these young underclassmen as a liability, but instead a valuable asset. The young team members have worked together with their new coach to combat their inexperience with hard work and effort in order to best prepare for the unknown tests the regular season may bring.
"I'm very pleased with (the freshmen)," Warlick said. "I think they've worked hard. They're trying to understand, and I'm sure it's complicated to them. But every day I think they get better and better."
One of these freshmen who is poised to see some action in the game against Chattanooga is guard Andraya Carter, who has been filling in for that position in place of injured sophomore Ariel Massengale.
"She's been pushed in the fire kind of early," Warlick said.
Subsequently, the experience the young guard has gained from being on the floor during the team's exhibition games should prove to be valuable down the road.
"I saw a big difference between our first exhibition game to the second, and I anticipate (Carter getting better) the more she gets to play, and the more comfortable (she feels) she'll get much better at it."
Carter said the pre-season games have helped her get a feel for what she needs to do to continue progressing as a player.
"I just learned to play hard and we just have to keep getting in better shape. I realize that we've been running a lot, but I'm still tired out there," Carter said. "I just have to get used to making good decisions and pushing the ball and using my teammates and getting to know them more. I think we've learned a lot of things we need to work on, but I think we've done well."
Perhaps the greatest risk that the game Friday evening holds is its potential to lead to a "let down" from the young Lady Vols squad. With the game against ranked Georgia Tech looming just two days later, some team members' focus may be on that game instead of being in the moment. Warlick recognizes that this is going to be a difficult game.
"I don't care who we play, we have 'Tennesse' across our chest," Warlick said.
Head coach emeritus Pat Summitt built the program up to a level of very high respectability during her 38-year tenure.
This commitment to excellence instilled by Summitt causes other teams to plan more than adequately for their ensuing match-ups with the Lady Vols. As a result of this heightened sense of competitiveness, Warlick must treat every game equally serious from now to the end of the season.
"UTC is very well coached, (and) they play very well at home. So I think we're in for a battle, and I'm not going to shy away from that," Warlick said.