Wednesday, March 23, 2005

As game changes, so has Summitt

Early on, Pat Summitt played it simple: Put the ball inside for high-percentage shots. And at the other end, play man-to-man, in-your-face defense.

For years, it worked. But as the game evolved and players became more athletic, Summitt had to diversify the Lady Vols' strategy and her coaching style.

That was never more evident than on Tuesday in Tennessee's 75-54 win over Purdue, which gave Summitt 880 career wins to move past Dean Smith for the all-time Division I record. The Lady Vols still prefer trying to dominate inside, but Summitt gives them plenty of freedom. Tuesday that translated into 13 3-point attempts, and the Lady Vols' 4-for-9 effort from downtown in the first half paved the way for a seven-point edge at the break.

At one point in her career, Summitt refused to play a zone. But in mixing in some zone Tuesday, the Lady Vols had 15 steals and harassed Purdue into 26 turnovers, holding the Boilers to just 33 percent accuracy from the field.

Defense remains one of Tennessee's trademarks even 31 years into her career, but Summitt's willingness to learn and seek help from her peers -- whether they were NBA champions or coaches with no titles on their résumés -- rank among her most impressive traits as a coach.

From the start, Summitt sought advice from some of the legends of the game. She was fortunate to play for female coaching pioneers such as Cathy Rush, Sue Gunter and Billie Moore, the first coach in women's basketball history to lead two difference schools to national championships (Cal State-Fullerton and UCLA).

But even after winning her first few NCAA titles, Summitt knew she didn't have all the answers. There was more to learn, and though some coaches would be afraid to turn to their peers for help, Summitt wasn't. She put her ego in check and her pride aside and went to Phil Jackson to try to get a better understanding of the triangle offense.

It was a brilliant move. On one hand, Summitt learned another way to play. But she had an ulterior motive. Connecticut, running an offshoot of the triangle, had been getting the better of Tennessee. Summitt figured that if she could run it herself, she'd get a better understanding of how to defend it, too.

Summitt did the same thing years later, turning to Harry Perretta at Villanova to learn his spread offense.

Summitt won her 880th game Tuesday. There's no telling how far she'll push the record. At 52, she could conceivably coach for at least 15 more years and could have 1,000 victories by the time she's done. But one thing we know for sure is that no matter how long she stays on the sideline, Summitt will keep changing as the game continues to evolve.

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