Marquee matchup in Tampa for Lady Vols, Oklahoma
TAMPA, Fla. - To women's basketball, they are two of the nation's most celebrated players and a marquee matchup for the ESPNU Invitational.
To each other, Tennessee's Candace Parker and Oklahoma's Courtney Paris are pretty much just Candace and Courtney.
"She's really down to earth and humble," Paris said of Parker. "It's just cool to be around people like that."
Parker gets a kick out of Paris' sense of humor.
"She's constantly full of smart remarks,'' Parker said. "She's hilarious, a jokester."
These players, who will face each other when the top-ranked Lady Vols (1-0) and the No. 9 Sooners (0-1) square off at 9:30 tonight (TV: ESPNU) at the St. Pete Times Forum, were USA Basketball teammates and roommates. Parker indicated that they aren't inclined to compare resumes.
"We don't talk about anything serious,'' she said. "Our conversations are always funny."
Paris has her former roomie's back on that thought.
"It's not about oh Courtney Paris and Candace Parker,'' Paris said. "We're just normal kids like we were before all this happened."
What has happened on the court makes them anything but normal. Parker, a 6-foot-5 redshirt junior forward, won the Wade Trophy and the Women's Wooden Award last season and helped lead the Lady Vols to a national championship, averaging 19.6 points and 9.8 rebounds per game.
She completed her third extended stay with the U.S. national team this fall, helping the team clinch a berth for next year's Summer Olympics in Beijing, China.
Paris, a 6-4 junior center, was the Associated Press player of the year last season, averaging a stunning 23.5 points and 15.9 rebounds per game. She owns 10 NCAA records and is the only player in NCAA history to record 700 points, 500 rebounds and 100 blocks in a season. And she's accomplished that three-feat twice.
Paris played a reserve role for the U.S. team that clinched the Olympic berth at the FIBA Americas tournament in Valdivia, Chile, in late September.
In a Tuesday press conference, Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said Paris and Parker are destined to be "icons." She mentioned tonight's game, which follows Duke versus South Florida at the site of this season's Women's Final Four, in the same context as Magic Johnson meeting Larry Bird in the 1979 NCAA men's championship game.
The connection between Parker and Paris extends as far as their "CP" initials and the No. 3 jersey they both wear.
"I think everyone has been waiting for this match-up for a long time,'' UT coach Pat Summitt said. "I am glad that all of the women's basketball fans who have an interest in the match-up will be able to see it."
For all of their accomplishments, these legends-in-waiting aren't above grappling with obligations to which any Courtney or Candace could aspire.
Paris is trying to be a better practice player this season for a team that lost six seniors, who played a part in three Big 12 championships.
"When the lights are on, I'm all about it,'' she said. "In practice, that's where my mentality has really changed. Coach is always saying your best player has to be your hardest worker. Last year I would think , 'Oh, whatever.' Now I really understand because I've seen (U.S. national player) Diana Taurasi every day in practice going hard, slapping our hands hard.
"Off the court she's smiling and she's funny. On the court, it's all business and that's how I want to carry myself."
Summitt is looking for more defensive intensity from Parker, who matched her career high with five steals last Sunday against Chattanooga despite struggling with her shooting throughout the first half.
"She understands that it could be something that would inspire our team and also allow us to bring more size on the perimeter,'' Summitt said. "It is just a matter of time before we are able to play a big lineup and have Candace or Nicky (Anosike) on the perimeter and have Vicki Baugh or Kelley Cain in the paint."
Lady Vols assistant coach Dean Lockwood is more descriptive, not to mention ambitious, with his defensive hopes.
"I call it the Michael Jordan syndrome," Lockwood said. "Where it's like I don't care who I'm playing against, I want to cut you open and leave you for the buzzards."
He has a specific Candace in mind for that undertaking, not just any down-to-earth, normal kid.