UConn's 'work in progress' heads to Knoxville

Connecticut senior Barbara Turner said she and the other experienced players will give the younger Huskies some advice on how to handle playing in the Orange Palace of Doom. For whatever good it will do.

"You can say as much as you want -- but until you're in it, it's really hard to talk about," Turner said. "I know my sophomore year when we played down there, the older guys talked to me a lot about going into Knoxville: 'There are 25,000 people, all orange, it's going to be crazy. You may be overwhelmed.'

"You can hear about that a million times. But when you're in it, that's going to determine how you respond to it."

On Saturday, the Huskies will be "in it" -- a 2 p.m. ET game at Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena, to be televised by CBS. UConn holds a 13-7 edge in this marquee rivalry, but Tennessee won last season and goes into this edition as a rather large favorite.

First, a flashback to last year -- a memory Huskies fans would like to block. Then-Tennessee freshman Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood hit a 3-pointer in the final minute that cut UConn's lead to one. Soon after, Wiley-Gatewood converted a three-point play, giving Tennessee a 68-66 lead.

But UConn's Ann Strother was fouled behind the arc with 3.9 seconds left. If there was a collective thought bubbling over all the UConn fans, you'd guess it would have said, "We don't have Diana, and we still beat you!"

Unfortunately for them, though, Strother hit only one free throw. Tennessee won 68-67, ending a six-game losing streak against UConn.

One of the things that's amusing about this rivalry is how the two Evil Empires have sometimes (involuntarily) taken turns being the one that's less odious to the rest of the women's hoops world.

Both programs are so excellent, with so much championship hardware, it's impossible for either to ever be an underdog in the true sense of that term. However, when one has -- or seems to have -- an upper hand on the other, then the more neutral folks tend to cheer for the contrived "underdog."

Certainly, UConn did have Tennessee's number for the opening part of this century, winning nine of 11 from 2000 to 2004. With Diana Taurasi gone from UConn last season and the blockbuster freshman class coming into Tennessee, the balance among the superpowers seemed to shift.

Of course, not all the Tennessee freshmen ended up playing last year because there were some injuries, including to Candace Parker. And the teams' meeting in the Hartford Civic Center suggested the programs were pretty evenly matched.

This year, though, Parker is on court, averaging 14.3 points and 8.9 rebounds. Senior Shanna Zolman leads the team at 15.9 points per game and is shooting 48.7 percent from behind the arc.

Wiley-Gatewood recently left the program, fulfilling the expectation many observers had: That at least one player from that recruiting class was going to feel sufficiently limelight-deprived to exit Knoxville.

But Tennessee remains undefeated and ranked No. 1. UConn is 12-1, with that one yucky 23-point loss in Hartford to North Carolina.

So the Huskies go into Knoxville knowing the external expectation is that Tennessee probably will keep rolling. But they are also smart enough to understand that doesn't make any difference -- not for Saturday and certainly not for their season.

Huskies coach Geno Auriemma has talked about how the Tennessee matchup gives him a gauge of how good his team can be. The potential at UConn is not just with its young players -- such as freshman guards Renee Montgomery and Kalana Greene -- getting lessons from these games and applying them in the January-to-March growth spurt that's expected of kids at elite programs.

UConn's upperclass players -- Turner, Strother, Willnett Crockett and Nicole Wolff -- all have their own goals they hope to fulfill, and that also will determine just how far this team goes.

Strother and Turner are playing with the urgency and commitment you often see from seniors. This is really their program this year, and certainly they'd like to leave their own mark on it.

Crockett has the ability to be a big factor for this team in any game. Whether she will do so has always been the mystery. Wolff has been hobbled significantly by injuries while at UConn, but she also can have impact moments.

Then you have the players in between. Things seemed to have clicked for Mel Thomas, who is second on the team at 14.8 points per game. But fellow sophomore Charde Houston has been Auriemma's biggest source of frustration this season. Yes, she has had to deal with injuries, too. But that's not her biggest issue.

Auriemma knows Houston is one of the country's best players. Whether she'll consistently -- or even semi-consistently -- be mentally committed to performing like that is something he can't even guess.

It pretty much is driving him crazy. And although he can be typically hilarious describing it, Auriemma is bluntly honest in saying that if Houston doesn't bring the goods, UConn is not going to be what it can be this season. If she does, though, …

Those were the high-stakes expectations a player such as Taurasi thrived on. Whether Houston can embrace a similar mind-set remains to be seen.

And whatever happens against Tennessee on Saturday, UConn has a lot of unknown left to discover this season.

"People are pretty much putting us as a 'dark horse' and not sure how good we're going to be," Turner said. "Until we show otherwise, they're going to continue to think that.

"We have the potential and talent to be a Final Four team. But right now, we're a work in progress."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.