- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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If there's any team that needs to just play this season -- and not feel the pressure to play for something -- it's Tennessee.
Sure, the Women's Final Four will be in Nashville, Tenn., three hours west of Tennessee's campus in Knoxville. And by the time the national semifinals tip off in Bridgestone Arena on April 6, 2014, it will have been six years since Tennessee last played in the final games of the season. The Candace Parker-led squad brought Tennessee its eighth national championship in April 2008.
Ever since, it's fair to say the subsequent Lady Vols teams felt a sometimes-debilitating weight of having something to prove, or the need to honor their legendary coach, or the responsibility to support their new coach … or all of the above.
But this season, perhaps the Lady Vols won't be carrying more emotionally than any other top program. Maybe their task will just be to play the best they can, with no larger -- and potentially distracting -- meaning attached to everything.
That doesn't mean the ultimate endgame is any different, however. Tennessee has lost in the Elite Eight the past three seasons: to Notre Dame in 2011, to Baylor in 2012, and to Louisville in 2013.
"If it doesn't bother any players on this team, then they don't need to have a Tennessee uniform on," coach Holly Warlick said at the team's media day in late October. "Our standards are more than that. I mean, [the Elite Eight] is a great accomplishment. But our history is competing for national championships, and we haven't had that opportunity in a while. That is our goal."
In the five seasons between the 2008 national title and Tennessee's 2013-14 tipoff, the Lady Vols have gone through a lot. A shocking first-round NCAA tournament loss. The dementia diagnosis of coach Pat Summitt. The final season for Summitt as head coach. The elevation of longtime assistant Warlick.
Plus the end of a separate women's athletic department at Tennessee, and the subsequent departure -- acrimoniously -- of support personnel who'd been fixtures for the program, in some cases for decades.
Even last year, with Summitt in an emeritus role and Warlick in her first season as head coach, the Lady Vols still seemed to be trying to regain an identity that for so long had been like second nature.
This season, that "old" Tennessee might really be back. The Lady Vols, who finished 27-8 last year, are picked to win the SEC and should have both the talent and depth to be a strong contender to finish the season in Nashville.
Meighan Simmons, the lone senior, was SEC co-player of the year last season, but she doesn't have to do it all for the Lady Vols. In fact, they'll be a better team if she doesn't try to do too much.
It should help Simmons and the rest of the squad that Andraya Carter -- who played seven games last year before being sidelined by shoulder surgery -- is healthy and can run the point along with junior Ariel Massengale.
"I love her energy and what she does for this team," Warlick said of Carter, a redshirt freshman.
Last year, Massengale -- who averaged 7.9 points and had 158 assists -- had to largely do it all at point guard. But that won't be the case this season.
Freshman Jordan Reynolds is another promising young guard who can help out at point guard. The Lady Vols should have a very solid and athletic backcourt in which everyone gets a fair amount of playing time.
The frontcourt looks a little more crowded, but that's certainly not a bad thing. Juniors Cierra Burdick and Isabelle Harrison both made big steps forward last season and should be very dependable in the post, which traditionally has been a Tennessee strength.
It definitely should be that this season. Bashaara Graves, last year's SEC freshman of the year, is back, as is fellow 6-foot-2 sophomore forward Jasmine Jones. Nia Moore, a 6-3 center, is a sophomore post, and 6-6 Mercedes Russell is one of the country's most anticipated freshman arrivals.
This is an interior group that has the potential to be as deep and talented as some of the best post crews in Tennessee history. That's a huge statement, but the ability and athleticism is there.
It will help a lot if the 6-3 Harrison, who battled injury issues her first two seasons that limited her playing time, can stay in good health. She is a natural leader who is good at motivating her teammates.
"Having her healthy has done wonders for this team," Warlick said of Harrison, who averaged 9.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in 25 games last year. "I think she's made Nia Moore better, made Mercedes better, and made Bashaara better as well. Thus far, they have been very competitive and they've put it all out there. And that's all I ask of them."
Tennessee had its really strong moments last season, but ultimately had trouble closing the deal for the biggest games. The Lady Vols lost to Texas A&M in the semifinals of the SEC tournament.
Then, after Louisville shockingly eliminated Baylor in the Sweet 16 at the Oklahoma City Regional, the Lady Vols seemed to have a better chance, frankly, of advancing than they might have had against the No. 1 seed.
But the Cardinals also upset the Lady Vols, and the Tennessee senior class of Taber Spani and Kamiko Williams finished their careers without a Final Four. It was a tough way for them to go out, but even that evening, the future of Tennessee looked promising.
Now, it's time for that future to begin. The team's slogan this season is "Grind for Nine," as the Lady Vols hope to add to the program's eight NCAA titles. Warlick wants her players to really embrace the mentality that while nothing will be easy, they are very prepared to handle that.
"It is a grind and our practices have been a lot more up-tempo," Warlick said. "We understand what we need to do."
13dBonnie D. Ford