When you’re one of the most successful women’s basketball programs in the history of the NCAA and have the winningest coach in NCAA basketball history (men's or women's), expectations will always be high.
Thus, last season’s run to the Elite Eight was widely branded as a disappointment, as the Volunteers had entered the tournament as a No. 1 seed before losing to Notre Dame, who would end as runners-up to national champions Texas A&M.
In fact, the legacy of the Lady Vols under Head Coach Pat Summitt is so prestigious that it comes as a surprise that the Lady Vols haven’t reached the Final Four before this year's senior class were enrolled at Tennessee.
During Lady Vol Basketball Media Day on Halloween, Coach Summitt noted that her players will use this drought as motivation entering the season.
“I think they have their eyes on it,” Coach Summitt said. “Great focus, great leadership. Across the board, I know that they’re aware that they haven’t cut down nets and obviously we don’t want to put pressure on them because of it. They just need to come in everyday and work the way they are working in practice now. If they continue that, we’ll see what happens. I like their chances.”
Coach Summitt knows talent when she sees it. During her tenure at UT, Summitt's program has produced 12 U.S. basketball Olympians, 20 Kodak All-Americans receiving 26 citations, over 40 international performers, and 21 professional players representing the ABL, WNBA or overseas teams.
One of the key returning players for the Lady Vols this season who will play a key role is Meighan Simmons. Last season, Simmons led the Lady Vols with 13.5 PPG and 500 total points, while starting in 36 of 37 games as a true freshman.
“There weren’t any confidence issues [last season],” Simmons said. “No matter what circumstances came my way, I always stuck to my confidence and made sure I prayed before every game; I made sure I thought about what I needed to do. If I knew I could do something well and I could be the best at it in the game, that’s what I did best.”
Similar to last season, the Lady Vols boost a strong incoming freshmen class. Ariel Massengale, Cierra Burdick and Isabelle Harrison are entering their first season at the collegiate level and are already garnering praise from their coaching staff, including associate head coach Holly Warlick.
“Ariel Massengale, [we're] looking forward to her for leadership on the court,” Warlick said. “Her ability to distribute the ball, her knowledge of the game is just outstanding. Cierra Burdick can play multiple positions. She’s really come around and being a great leader off the floor. Isabelle Harrison, is very active, she is really, really understanding the post play and her position. She is just an energized player. A lot of energy and that is what we need.”
The coaching staff aren’t the only one’s impressed by the freshmen class. The sophomore sensation Simmons is also impressed with the newest Lady Vols.
“They’re amazing basketball players,” Simmons said. “I think that a veteran team—I really feel like we have a veteran team. We have so many veterans that I don’t feel like there’s any excuse as to why we shouldn't make it to the Final Four”