The point guard yells "outlet!" and sprints up court. Her head coach, Pat Summitt, shouts, "Go! Go!" as Shannon Bobbitt blows by. At the other end, there are a few sharp passes, criss-crossing the court like laser beams in a security system. "Nice! Nice!" Summitt yells. "That's it!" Candace Parker finally flips the ball to the wing. "Shoot," she says softly, and Angie Bjorklund's shot is all net. "Yeah!" Parker says, high-fiving the smiling freshman.
You can tell it's March in the state of Tennessee. I only cut through the winding roads and smoky mountaintops of Eastern Tennessee a couple of hours earlier, but you can just tell.
Sure, with five men's teams and four women's teams from the state competing in the
tournaments, from Knoxville to Clarksville the excitement is certainly palpable. But it's the rack of basketballs on the sideline of practice in Thompson-Boling Arena that officially marks the start of March Madness each year. All season long, Tennessee's women's team plays with Baden balls. In March, they switch to Wilson, because that's what they'll see in tournament play.
Not that any of the Lady Vols needs a reminder that this weekend their quest for a second straight national championship begins. Even for the coach, after reaching every postseason tournament in 33 years and 16 Final Fours, it never becomes old hat.
"Oh, you feel different," Summitt says. "Absolutely."
There's plenty that's unique about the Lady Vols, from the Hall of Fame coach to Parker, that once-in-a-generation talent. But what interests me most is that at a place drunk with football fever year-round, Summitt and men's coach Bruce Pearl have formed as good a coaching tag team as you'll find anywhere.
At most schools, it's a tug-of-war between the programs, both coaches wanting more money, more gym time, more attention. Summitt has seen it, especially at successfully programs. Like "oil and water," she says.
In Knoxville, the two teams feed off each other. The men enter their tournament as a No. 2 seed, the women a No. 1. Their players hang out. The coaching staffs talk. They observe each others' practices, talk philosophy and even exchange notes. In fact, the Lady Vols run one play called the Pearl, a gift from the men's coach.
Throughout this season, Summitt has used the men's team as a motivator for her players. "This is the first time since I coached here that I felt we were getting outworked," she says.
Pearl, in his third year at Tennessee, is well aware of his place. He often jokes that he and Summitt have combined to bring seven national titles to Knoxville. The banners hanging in Thompson-Boling Arena make it clear that the score is Summitt 7, Pearl 0.
It wasn't always that way, so I ask Summitt if she remembers what it was like when she took over in 1974.
She says she remembers a time when tickets were free. When the team dined in all-you-can-eat cafeterias on the road. When there were no posh charter buses, just a couple of vans. She always drove the equipment van, her players racing into the other one. There was one drive, back from Mississippi, must've been nine hours, Summitt says, in the middle of the night. "I remember the last 30-45 minutes, I had my window rolled down with my head out, just trying to stay awake," she says.
Now, the Lady Vols average nearly 16,000 fans. They're the benchmark for other programs. As they take aim at defending their title, Parker and Co. are simply adding to a history book that requires a forklift to move.
On the court, the Lady Vols run a drill, dribbling the length of the court and hitting layups. Someone misses and the clock starts over. And then a second time. "Come on, this is as hard as you make it!" Parker yells.
And then a third miss. "Dayumm! Come on!" Parker yells. "It's a left-handed layup!"
Summitt says Parker is as focused as ever and it's too early to get sentimental about Parker's final games.
What about her legacy? I ask.
"I think that remains to be seen," Summitt says. "I think that this postseason obviously it's important to Candace and to her teammates. Winning back-to-back championships would be a big statement."