Tennessee freshman Mercedes Russell shoots during practice Tuesday in Knoxville. (AP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel, Adam Lau)
KNOXVILLE — Tennessee considers the opportunity to play for a national title in its home state the perfect chance to end its Final Four drought.
The Lady Vols opened basketball practice this week with five of their top six scorers back from a team that went 27-8 last year and lost in a regional final for the third straight season. After overachieving in the first season of the post-Pat Summitt era, Tennessee believes it’s ready to start competing for national titles again.
Tennessee hasn’t reached a Final Four since its 2008 national championship, the Lady Vols’ longest absence from that event since the NCAA started running the tournament in 1982. This year’s Final Four takes place in Nashville, about a three-hour drive from the UT campus.
“It does feel a little bit different because our goal is just right up the street,” senior guard Meighan Simmons said Tuesday. “It’s one of those things where we have to pay attention to detail and not think too far ahead of ourselves.”
The high expectations represent a change from last year, when Southeastern Conference coaches picked Tennessee to finish fifth in the league. Tennessee instead won the SEC regular-season title.
“I think we have a great chance of winning the entire thing,” junior forward Cierra Burdick said. “I think we have an awesome opportunity to go to Nashville and compete in that Final Four and bring it on home to Knoxville.”
Tennessee coach Holly Warlick embraces these ambitious goals. She started talking to her players about the possibility of getting to Nashville almost as soon as their 2012-13 season ended with a surprising 86-78 loss to Louisville in the Oklahoma City Regional final.
The Lady Vols, who won eight national championships during Summitt’s 38-year tenure, adopted the slogan “Grind For Nine” as they began preseason practice Monday with a 6 a.m. workout.
“We’re not trying to hide it,” Warlick said. “We want to be there. We need to be there. You just talk about it. It’s part of this program. It’s part of the foundation Pat built. You don’t shy away from competition and you approach things. It is what it is. We’ve got to go out and compete and make sure that we have a chance to be in Nashville.”
The Lady Vols welcome back 2013 SEC newcomer of the year Bashaara Graves as well as Simmons, an Associated Press All-America third-team selection last season. Tennessee also adds one of the nation’s most highly touted freshmen in 6-foot-6 post player Mercedes Russell, who should team with Graves and 6-3 junior Isabelle Harrison to give Tennessee a formidable collection of post players.
“I think hands down we have the best frontcourt in the country,” Burdick said.
Tennessee’s backcourt returns Simmons and junior Ariel Massengale, last year’s starting point guard. Redshirt freshman Andraya Carter started five of Tennessee’s first seven games last year before a torn labrum in her right shoulder ended her season. The backcourt also adds freshman Jordan Reynolds.
Tennessee is spending the preseason working on its conditioning and defense. Conditioning could prove critical because the Lady Vols’ roster includes only 10 players. Warlick constantly stresses that rebounding and defense have been the hallmarks of Tennessee’s title winners.
Simmons, the lone senior, believes this group is capable of being Tennessee’s next championship team.
“For my senior year, this is the last go-around,” Simmons said. “I’ve got to grind it out for the ninth championship because I know I don’t want to leave without a championship.”