Tennessee coach Pat Summitt is getting a head start on next season.
Summitt and her Lady Volunteers program didn't reach the Final Four for a third straight year, the longest drought in nearly two decades. To make sure her current junior class doesn't become the first in Tennessee history to never make a national semifinals appearance, Summitt has been making a few changes and imposing extra demands on her players.
"I'm still not over it," Summitt said on Wednesday, more than a week after Tennessee's 73-59 loss to Notre Dame in the regional finals in Dayton, Ohio. "I just felt like we didn't come ready to play at the highest level. You've got to bring your 'A' game."
Only those players who do bring their 'A' game will be playing next year, Summitt said, promising to shorten the deep rotation that was the hallmark of Tennessee's 34-3 season and undefeated Southeastern Conference run if necessary.
At the core of Summitt's disappointment was the team's lack of commitment to defense and some players' desire to improve their game. She's already named forwards Glory Johnson and Alicia Manning and guard Taber Spani as team captains for next season, hoping that their emphasis on defense and putting extra hours in the gym will inspire their teammates to do on the same.
"I think the thing that I've realized with this particular team is we have a lot of players that are very skilled offensively, but we just don't have the defensive mentality across the board, and I think the defense and board play is going to be without a question a point of emphasis for us."
Summitt has had them in the gym twice since their season ended on March 28 — once to watch film of their NCAA loss and once to practice their defense — but it's the extra time the players invest trying to rid their game of weaknesses during the offseason that will convince her they need to stay in the playing rotation.
The Lady Vols can also count on contending with a fresh set of faces in the fall. Summitt has signed top forward prospect Cierra Burdick, top point guard prospect Ariel Massengale and the state of Tennessee's top prospect, forward Isabelle Harrison.
But with the decisions of center Kelley Cain and point guard Lauren Avant to leave the program, Summitt has plans of adding even more new players, either by signing incoming freshmen or bringing in junior college players.
"We've been looking, you don't have to worry about that," Summitt said. "We'll just say everything's open right now, but we will have more players."
Massengale is all but guaranteed a starting role if she's healthy upon arrival, which could help Tennessee at a position that's been a sore spot for Summitt. Forward Shekinna Stricklen and shooting guard Meighan Simmons adjusted their play to fill in at the position for the past three seasons.
"I've watched (Massengale) play. I just think she's a real special guard. Cierra Burdick — the two of them played really well together (in the McDonald's high school all-American game). I feel good about that, but I also think we'll have some good guards coming in as well."
In the mean time, it's up to the current Lady Vols to decide how much they're willing to do to make sure next year's season outcome changes.
"I think they understand the sense of urgency for each individual to step up," Summitt said. "We all understand that we can get better in all aspects. That's why I keep going back and saying take ownership of your team, invest in this program, do the things you have to do on a daily basis to get better."