Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Hornbuckle's intangibles carry Tennessee as much as Parker

When you have a player as great as Candace Parker -- someone who doesn't just do everything, but does it all incredibly well -- it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking it doesn't matter who surrounds her.

Parker could have won a national championship and be trying for another Final Four no matter who she had as a supporting cast, right?

Nope … and she would be the first one to say that. Or maybe, before she even could say it, Pat Summitt would emphatically state, "You've gotta be kidding."

Because there's one player without whom Tennessee simply would not be Tennessee. The Orange Crush has always seemed to have at least one inextinguishable energy source on all its championship teams. And this group has Alexis Hornbuckle.

Here's how Summitt, whose program goes for its 18th Final Four on Tuesday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) against Texas A&M, described Hornbuckle during Monday's news conference in Oklahoma City: "I think her game starts with defense, and just her commitment to get in the passing lanes. She's great on the ball. She is even more dangerous off the ball because she does have great awareness, great anticipation, and she is a risk taker.

"She'll gamble, but for the most part, she's so heady in making those reads and one of the best all around guards I've coached at Tennessee."

That's the thing -- Hornbuckle is so smart about when she gambles that she's almost always right. And so it doesn't even seem a lot of the time as if she's gambling. She typically makes it look like she made the exact right play.

You can't gamble and wreak havoc in the passing lanes the way Hornbuckle does without considerable quickness. But there are quick players who run all over the court and expend considerable energy … and yet never get done what Hornbuckle does.

It goes back to basketball IQ. Really successful gamblers are never just "lucky;" they become experts on playing the percentages.

Of course, the NCAA will get very nervous with all these gambling references … so let's go to other things that Hornbuckle has always brought to Tennessee: fantastic rebounding from the guard spot, a knack for keeping possessions alive with her active hands, the ability to penetrate and get the ball to teammates in the best position for them to score, and a fun-loving personality.

That latter thing might sound unimportant, but it isn't. Playing the kind of high-pressure games Tennessee does every year, it matters to have that player who can keep everyone loose while not playing loosely.

Hornbuckle has a good time with her teammates, with opponents, with fans … even with taunting fans the way Duke's student section was to her in Tennessee's two visits to Cameron Indoor Stadium in her career.

Hornbuckle was rattled the first time she went there in 2006, and I really can't imagine any player who wouldn't have been shaken up in that setting. When she went back this season, instead of getting angry, she smiled at the Duke fans and just said, "Hey, it's all cool."

"The thing about Alexis is, she's going to do the dirty work," Summitt said. "And it's hard to get sometimes great athletes, high-profile players that say, 'Hey, Coach, let me guard the best player,' or 'I'll get to the glass.' "

But it has never been hard for Hornbuckle to not just say those things, but do them for four years.

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