Thursday, April 10, 2008

Summitt focusing on new team at UT

TAMPA, Fla. — The records, the milestones, the numbers are starting to lose their notability in the memorable career of Pat Summitt.

She’s already the winningest college basketball coach, men’s or women’s, in the history of the game. Tennessee’s back-to-back titles the last two seasons pushed her a comfortable three championships ahead of rival Geno Auriemma of Connecticut. She topped the 100-win mark in NCAA tournament games this season, the first in college basketball to accomplish that feat.

But there’s one significant record she doesn’t hold, one mark that most college basketball fans thought would remain forever untouched — former UCLA coach John Wooden’s 10 national titles.

Summitt, as star Candace Parker signified with her fingers as she left the court for the final time late in Tennessee’s 64-48 win over Stanford on Tuesday, now owns eight championships.

“Do I have a desire to try to beat Coach Wooden’s record? No,” Summitt said. “I just want to help the next team get back to the Final Four. That’s always our goal every year.”

Her goal will be much more difficult to attain next season, a fact Summitt acknowledged as she sat next to five departing players during Wednesday morning’s national championship press conference. And not just any five players. She loses five selections in Wednesday’s WNBA draft, including four in the first 16 picks.

“I’m not going to be nearly as smart this next year,” Summitt said. “We’re going to have a young team, but we’re going to have talent.”

Once again, Summitt is welcoming the nation’s top recruiting class. The group is led by Knoxville’s Glory Johnson, a 6-foot-3 forward considered the best at her position in the country along with Alyssia Brewer out of Oklahoma.

Guards Amber Gray, Shekinna Stricklen and Alicia Manning of Etowah, Ga. — all ranked among the best nationally — are headed to Knoxville along with 5-foot-2 point guard Briana Bass, who reminds Summitt of Shannon Bobbitt.

But these players probably don’t comprehend the Tennessee style of basketball employed by Summitt. She’s obsessive about defense, an aspect of the game those five offensive stars on the podium Wednesday didn’t understand until last season following two early exits in the NCAA tournament.

“I think that’s why she has eight titles and is the leading coach in the world,” Parker said. “She knows what she’s talking about, and we bought into her system. Finally.”

The Lady Vols held Stanford to a season-low point total, limited LSU to 46 points and gave up just 48 points to Texas A&M in their last three tournament games. Summitt hopes the message was sent to the signees watching at the St. Pete Times Forum and on TV.

“We’re going to have to drill it into their heads because most of them come in as shooters and the best offensive players on their teams,” Summitt said. “I’m sure they were all watching. The returning players and the coaches have to sell it and talk about how we do it at Tennessee.”

Freshman Vicki Baugh gave Summitt a preview of her abilities against Stanford with eight points and four rebounds in just 13 minutes before leaving with a knee injury that has not been evaluated. As she was helped off the floor, Baugh also flashed some leadership by passionately screaming, “Let’s go!” to her shaken teammates on the bench.

“We said we were going to leave it all on the court. So I wanted to encourage my team to keep on going and get me out of their head,” Baugh said. “My confidence was up there. I want to be a leader on the team. I want to use that for next season because we’re going to be young.”

Baugh will join forward Alex Fuller and guards Angie Bjorklund — who faded late in the season — and Sydney Smallbone as returning players. Point guard Cait McMahan and center Kelley Cain will be back from injuries.

They are charged with helping Summitt catch Wooden, even if breaking one last record is not her intention. She just wants to keep coaching.

“As long as I can be effective as a teacher and a coach, that’s what I want to do,” Summitt said. “The day I walk in the gym and I don’t have the passion is the day I give it up.”

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