Tennessee can win the NCAA title if: the starting five doesn't wear down
If Pat Summitt looks down the bench during this year's NCAA Tournament, she's most likely just waiting for the manager to get her a cup of water.
Given injuries and roster defections on her team, winning the NCAA Tournament this season might represent the greatest coaching achievement of Summitt's legendary coaching career. Then again, if you believe managing the bench is a big part of a coach's responsibilities during March, this might also be the easiest run of Summitt's career.
There are 200 total minutes of playing time available to a team during a regulation college basketball game. In beating Georgia and LSU in the final two games of the SEC Tournament, Tennessee's bench played a grand total of 38 out of a possible 400 minutes. Flipping the math around, that means Tennessee's five starters averaged 36.2 minutes per game in those wins.
There are Buddhist monks in mountaintop monasteries who are probably less familiar with their compatriots than Tennessee's starters are with each other on the court.
And that's the yin and yang of the outlook for the Lady Vols this year. When things are going right, the Vols play with a sense of cohesion and rhythm that few teams can match. But when one or more parts falter or get tired, there's very little even Summitt can do about it.
As a result of the demands on them, all five members of the starting lineup -- Nicky Anosike, Tye'sha Fluker, Candace Parker, Sidney Spencer and Shanna Zolman -- are integral to the team's title aspirations. Anosike and Fluker have hit the boards relentlessly in recent games while playing tough defense on the likes of Tasha Humphrey and Sylvia Fowles. And Spencer, who hit five 3-pointers and led the team with 21 points against LSU in the SEC title game, continues to exhibit her skills as the most underrated shooter in the nation.
But there's no getting around the extra pressure on Parker and Zolman to lead the way.
One of singer Edie Carey's songs opens with the line, "This all started with our hands," and that wouldn't be a bad motto for both this team's difficult season and its postseason prospects.
Problems first arose when starting point guard Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood elected to transfer early in the season. Things got worse when Alexis Hornbuckle, a combo guard asked to play the point full time, suffered a broken wrist against Vanderbilt in February. With those two out of the picture, the ball and playmaking duties rest largely in the hands of Zolman, a natural shooting guard, and Parker, a natural at everything but probably best suited to playing on the wing or inside.
The early results weren't pretty but displayed a mental toughness that might have been overlooked in all the doom-and-gloom analysis. In the team's first game without Hornbuckle, Zolman was eaten alive by Georgia's defensive pressure but persevered to help lead Tennessee to a win with her shooting. Barely two weeks later, Zolman helped bury the Lady Bulldogs in the SEC semifinals with seven assists and four 3-pointers. In three SEC Tournament games, she totaled 21 assists and 12 3-pointers.
If Zolman can continue living up to the pressure of running a team for 40 minutes a game against the defense being thrown her way, and Parker (who chipped in 11 assists during the SEC Tournament) can relieve the playmaking pressure just enough to get Zolman some looks of her own, the Lady Vols will regain their preseason place as a legitimate title favorite.
Assuming their legs don't fall off on the way to Boston.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.