That's where Pearl's Vols and Summitt's Lady Vols part ways
by Tony Basilio
Perhaps Tennessee Senior Dane Bradshaw said it best when he pronounced moments after UT's win over Virginia in the round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament: "Those of you who don't know where we've come from in trying to rebuild this program don't understand how sweet this is. At most programs the goal is the Final Four and that's ours as well, but at Tennessee a Sweet 16 appearance is a big deal. So, we're going to savor it."
This winter, Bruce Pearl and Pat Summitt played a friendly game of one-upmanship, which ended with Summitt's rendition of Rocky Top outpointing Pearl's Hulk Hogan impersonation. Score round one for Summitt. Round two, which is what happens with their respective programs in March, will be a tough one to top from the accomplishment of the Tennessee men. March basketball is completely a game of expectations. For Pearl's Vols, a Sweet 16 appearance is validation. "This is where this program needed to get this year. We had to take this step (in beating Virginia)," Pearl said.
Pat Summitt's quandary is that she must advance this year because time is ticking. Both on her and her program. Her last National Championship is coming up on a decade ago. Time flies when you're having fun. Now the sand is ticking through the hourglass on the career of junior Candace Parker. A sophomore in eligibility, reality says that Parker will be a Lady Vol through next spring until jumping to the WNBA and perhaps millions in future endorsement dollars. So, the future is now. Not wanting to squander the wondrous talents of Parker coupled with Candace's own need of a winning legacy in Lady Vol lore make Summitt's '07 edition the present All Saul Bellow's squad. They must seize the day!
Former UT assistant Al Brown has an interesting perspective in that he's served at both the men's and women's programs at UT during his three-plus decades in college basketball. Brown came to Knoxville to join Wade Houston in '91 but left his mark as an invaluable member of Summitt's three-time National Title machine that owned women's hoops during the mid- to late-'90s. Some UT Lady Vol insiders believe the Lady Vols program hasn't been the same since Brown left under odd circumstances for a lame-duck situation at Wisconsin.
During UT's three-peat, Brown was considered a scouting guru concocting intricate game plans to defense the UConn's and the Stanford's of the world. His Xs and Os coupled with the recruiting of Summitt, Holly Warlick and Mickey DeMoss brought a formula that was the envy of women's basketball during the Lady Vols heyday. I caught up with Coach Brown and asked the obvious question: Candace Parker or Chamique Holdsclaw? Candace Parker or Tameka Catchings? For that matter, Candace Parker or... anyone?
"Candace is a tremendously talented basketball player," he responded. "If you took all of her skills that she has on the floor, on both ends of the floor, including her rebounding, she has the ability to do things that the ladies you mentioned are not capable of doing. Candace can play out on the perimeter and play both guard spots very well. She can play inside. She blocks shots. She rebounds well. Her biggest detriment and weakness is an inability to consistently shoot foul shots. And she's really improved there.
"Her total game is as solid as any woman who's played since the great Nancy Lieberman. But the point of it is---and I go back to the men and Michael Jordan--Jordan possessed all kinds of talent; and I think you have to praise a player for that as you do Parker. But what have players like this with the great skill achieved as part of their team? What have they brought out in other players?"
So which is it, coach, as a determining factor of who's better: championships or physical skills?
"Holdsclaw's high school team never lost a state tournament. They won four straight state championships. She came to Tennessee and the Lady Vols won three straight National Championships and was a game away from playing in the fourth Final Four in her senior season. So, from my perspective, that's where you separate players. Not just Parker and Holdsclaw but Jordan and Barkley, and whoever else you want to talk about. It is a team game. And in the end it's about how well has the team done. And Candace has yet to be a part of a National Championship team, and I believe has only won two state championships in high school in Illinois," Brown said.
The sad reality for the Lady Vols is that this year as a No. 1 seed in their region, a Final Four appearance is only holding serve. While the Sweet 16 run for the men is reason for celebration, a National Championship is the only accomplishment that would satisfy most Lady Vol faithful while placing Candace Parker at the Summitt of her game perhaps once and for all.
Tune in and talk sports with Tony Basilio weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on ESPN Radio WVLZ 1180 AM. Visit www.tonybasilio.com for more information.