The Underdog Vols

Top-seeded Tennessee not the favorites in own eyes

April 2, 2007

By Jeff Lippman


Jeff Lippman

Jeff is's lead women's basketball writer.
E-mail here!

CLEVELAND - Worst. Bullseye. Ever.


The Tennessee Lady Vols have ran through the NCAA Tournament and into the national championship game by routinely defeating the underdog.


All the hype before nearly every tourney game has been the opposing teams Cinderella magic carpet ride and Tennessee was just the big bad wolf ready to blow its house down.


Whether it was Pittsburgh on its home court, Marist after capturing the hearts of the nation or Ole Miss after making Oklahoma and Maryland look silly, Tennessee hasn't been the subject of pre-game media coverage.


But after every game, there they stood on the winner's podium. The bullseye on their backs still clean and without puncture.


The truth behind Tennessee's ability to weather the emotional tornados that come with playing underdogs with nothing to lose is that they themselves take that philosophy each time they step on the court.


"We go into the games like we are the underdogs," said Tennessee junior guard Alexis Hornbuckle, promising she isn't certifiably insane by saying such a thing. "Honestly, that is how you have to play. You have to come into the game feeling like you are 10 points down and nobody expects you to win. That is when your team pulls together and your coaches and fans believe harder.


"We play every team like they are the top seed and we are fighting for their position."


As crazy as that sounds, it is undeniable that it has worked. And yes, Tennessee is the major big-time program with basketball's next big thing in Candace Parker and the winningest collegiate coach in Pat Summitt.


The Lady Vols are still the team that everyone wants to beat. They are the best, the epitome of greatness, the storied program. They get the best recruits and they have a permanent aura about the word Tennessee written across their chest.


Many compare the Vols to Duke's men's team or the New York Yankees. Redshirting All-Americans and being the team that everyone loves to hate.


But the truth is this team is a solid bunch of individuals who don't consider themselves basketball elite. Not yet anyway, they haven't won anything yet.


Believe it or not, even Parker, the WBCA Player of the Year and the only women's player with enough swagger to dunk a basketball, cares less about her own accolades than getting Tennessee its seventh banner.


After watching Parker play it becomes painfully obvious that she could score 40 a night if she so pleased. If Tennessee fed her the ball every time, she'd score or be fouled, every time.


A Summitt-coached team is not a team that wields any singular superstar. And for all the pitter patter of talk that Parker might become the first woman to jump early to the WNBA, right now in her mind she is nothing but a Tennessee student-athlete.


"When I feel like we've had a great team effort and all the highlights are of me, I'm like dang!" said Parker. "That bothers me. Our team doesn't focus on that because they know that's not me and that's not what I'm about.


"I'm about winning a national championship because I feel like all the personal accolades can be disputed, but you can never take away a national championship." 


Summitt is perfection. She says all the right things, she has the most consistent program for the most number of years. She's been doing this song and dance for 33 seasons and counting and practice is still the most enjoyable part of her day.


Where many coaches who have been doing it at the highest level for so long begin to think of the daily grind as the rigors of an extremely tiresome profession, Summitt is still all about the passion for women's basketball.


And that it is what she instills in her team. She has built a program that is at such a level that she can get any prep star in the country to go to her school. And like Duke's men, they usually do pillage the incoming high school class of its best talent.


But once they get to Knoxville, it's buckle-down time. Skipping class means severe punishment and not giving 110 percent in practice means you'll be watching the games from the bench.


Summitt demands respect and that supercedes any superstar that may grace the Tennessee uniform. And without question, her players show her all the respect she deserves, because she is genuine and nice and always does the right thing by almost everyone she meets.


"That is why I love her so much as a person," said sole starting senior Sidney Spencer. "She is tough when she needs to be and the most loving and compassionate person in the world the rest of the time. I have been blessed to be a part of her program."


And so when Tennessee meets No. 4 seed Rutgers in Tuesday's championship game, they will again be the favorites and the opposition will again be the underdogs. Why not? Tennessee is 44-0 against teams seeded four or lower in tourney history.


But if you think for one second that any Lady Vols player so much as even is aware of that statistic you would be mistaken.


No, the reason for Summitt's and Tennessee's success is because no matter their opponent, no matter the consequences or the stakes, the Lady Vols take the attitude that nothing is given.


On Tuesday, with Rutgers and their legendary coach C. Vivian Stringer playing the us against the world card, there will be Summitt and her players, business as usual, taking nothing for granted as they attempt to strengthen their grasp on the sport they basically put on the map.


Love them or hate them as you will, but to not respect the program that Summitt has crafted in her own image is a mistake.


Of course, the Lady Vols could care less about what is said of them, as long as at the end of the day they are hoisting another national championship trophy.