‘We will get better because we have to’

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

The Tennessee women’s basketball program has started 1-2, and fans are taking it well. Scratch that sarcasm. Some fans are in full throttle, and it’s only mid-November. After Monday’s loss to Indiana at home, coach Kellie Harper was blunt: “We will get better because we have to. You can’t keep doing what you are doing, or you will get the same result.”

The fan angst is understandable. The preseason chatter included Tennessee being top four or five in the country and a Final Four contender. The arrival of four talented transfers and the returning core of veterans gave fans plenty of reasons to be excited.

After the season opening loss at Ohio State, the head coach was straightforward with her media answers but struck a positive tone. She maintained that approach after the relatively close win over UMass and then could not disguise her annoyance after the second loss.

After a defeat, the late Pat Summitt could take a scorched earth approach in her pressers, which was quite entertaining for the media. It also satiated the fans who needed a pound of flesh to justify their anger. The players either knew it, didn’t read the newspaper or watch television or had already heard it in the locker room.

Harper, like nearly every coach now in college sports, doesn’t take that approach, which is probably best in the social media age when anything can be clipped and magnified well beyond the original intent. (Vols coach Rick Barnes is an exception, but he’s old school and can do what he wants at this point.) Harper’s criticism comes within private team settings. Summitt’s public words often came with that trademark half-grin, tilted head, slightly raised eyebrows and blue eyes that somehow managed to sparkle and shoot fire at the same time, so she both charmed and scared people.

It goes without saying that Harper is not Summitt. She would not even want to be. A statue of Summitt is a couple of fast breaks away from the court that bears her name. Anyone who coaches women’s basketball at Tennessee now and 100 years from now should not be compared to Summitt.

But Harper, then known as Kellie Jolly, played under Summitt. She won three national titles at Tennessee. Harper has the same Middle Tennessee accent that Summitt had and at times sounds almost exactly like her. After Monday’s loss, she channeled a bit of Summitt’s pointed post-game commentary.

“There was a loose ball, and I did see two players on the floor,” Harper said. “That was an improvement from our last game.”

Coach Kellie Harper talks to Jordan Horston during a home game last season. (Emma Corona/UT Athletics)

As Harper said in 2019 at her introductory press conference: “It is important to say, I am not here to try to be Pat Summitt; I am here to be Kellie, who learned from Pat Summitt.”

Those lessons will come into play, along with Harper’s 22 years of experience in coaching, as the team travels to the Bahamas this week and tries to get the USS Lady Vols back on course.

So, what are three things to know?

First, it is early. Tennessee has played three games against two top 15 teams in Ohio State and Indiana and another team in UMass that won the Atlantic 10 last season and went to the NCAA tourney. Harper intentionally added tough non-conference opponents to challenge her players, while other teams are playing programs ranked in the 200s and 300s that they can crush to pad wins and stats.

Second, while the roster has plenty of talent, the players and staff don’t seem to be on the same page yet. The first three games have been marked by sub-standard rebounding – that is a cardinal sin at Tennessee – and porous defense. The effort isn’t there and the players have to fix that.

Tennessee will benefit from the return of Jordan Horston, who missed most of the UMass game after getting clobbered on a drive to the basket and injured her left knee. The senior guard wasn’t cleared to play Monday but is likely to be ready to go Saturday against Rutgers, the third Big Ten opponent of the season, when Tennessee makes its debut in the Battle 4 Atlantis in Nassau.

Third, Harper needs to find the right combinations on the court. She wants to play a deep bench, but the Lady Vols are out of sync and can’t seem to get in any sustained flow. The coach is the only one who can fix that.

“We’ve got to re-evaluate that, reassess that … and figure out where we need to go and find a better solution,” Harper said.

It was clear that Tuesday’s practice wasn’t particularly pleasant. Watching film of the Indiana game would not improve anyone’s mood. The players will get a mandatory off day Wednesday, practice in Knoxville on Thursday and then fly to paradise.

Maybe some treasure awaits.

Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at Moxley Carmichael since 2013, started her journalism career at the Knoxville News Sentinel and began writing about the Lady Vols in 1998. In 2016, she published her first book, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt,” through The University of Tennessee Press.

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