By Pat Summitt's count, the present Tennessee team is vying for a historical correlation with two past UT squads.
The Lady Vols coach has a rooting interest in how this all plays out. She'll get another batch of clues this afternoon when Tennessee (22-2, 8-1 SEC), a lame-duck No. 1, faces Vanderbilt (19-6, 8-2) in an SEC women's basketball game at sold-out Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville. (TV: FSN, 3:30).
UT is reeling from a 78-62 thrashing at the hands of LSU on Thursday night. After stumbling in the race for the conference lead, the Lady Vols will try to hold sole possession of second place against the Commodores, who have won six in a row since a 79-63 loss in Knoxville on Jan. 20.
"We can mope around and keep our heads down,'' Summitt said, "or we can obviously take it to heart, come back and fight and pull together."
Thursday's loss is reason enough for Summitt to hope this season's team resembles last season's in an important aspect. During her weekly teleconference last Wednesday, Summitt spoke of how last season's 63-54 loss to LSU in the SEC tournament was a pivotal motivation for a team that won the national championship.
"At that moment, we had a meeting after the game and a meeting the next day,'' Summitt said. "We basically gave everyone an opportunity to voice their concerns and to determine which direction they wanted to go in. They said right then that they wanted to come together, play together and win a national championship. ... That was a defining moment for our team in the road to the championship."
This season's loss sparked at least one known meeting, Friday afternoon. The timing of this setback, though, is different.
"They were headed right into the postseason,'' Summitt said of last season's team. "We've got some games still left to play."
Therefore, the 1998-99 Tennessee team remains in contention for the correlation distinction. That team, which was pursuing the program's fourth consecutive national championship, skated through the regular season in a manner comparable to this squad.
The 1998-99 season ended in despair with a 69-63 upset loss to Duke in the East Regional final. Semeka Randall playing injured, Tamika Catchings' illness and the worst shooting night of Chamique Holdsclaw's career conspired against Tennessee's chances that stunning night.
Summitt made the connection between the respective UT teams during her scalding recap of Thursday night's beating.
"They were really a pain to coach,'' Summitt said of the 1998-99 team. "This team has not been quite as bad in comparing it to (then) but in the last couple of games they've reminded me of that team.
"No great sense of urgency. They start out great, they get casual and then (Thursday) they get beat."
The urgency for this season ought to be peaking because UT's offense, heretofore its strength, is bottoming out. The Lady Vols have averaged 62.7 points per game in their last three games against top-10 teams (Duke, Rutgers and LSU). Against three of the nation's top defensive teams, they have shot a collective 34.8 percent from the floor. Furthermore, they've averaged about 10 assists per game, compared to 17 turnovers.
In the past two games, the Lady Vols' overall field-goal accuracy has plunged from nearly 47 percent to 45.7. Their scoring average has dropped from 80.5 points per game to 78.8.
The offensive breakdowns apparently have their origins in a disconnect between the strategy discussed in team huddles and halftime talks and what's actually happening on the court.
Senior guard Alexis Hornbuckle described the second half against LSU in this fashion: "Everything that we weren't doing, (Summitt) was telling us to do."
On Thursday, LSU coach Van Chancellor opted to double- and triple-team UT star Candace Parker as the game wore on and "just take a chance with the rest of them."
Four weeks ago, when UT was shooting 50 percent from the floor and had four double-figure scorers against the Commodores, Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb thought just the opposite.
"Their starting lineup makes it very difficult to leave any of those players (open) this year,'' she said. "That's what makes (Parker) so good. You can't double and triple her as much."
Sounds like a case of two different Tennessee teams battling over one identity. This contest is more relevant than any historical determination and all the Lady Vols are invested in the outcome.
Said Summitt: "We need each other."