GAINESVILLE — Pat Summitt is taking very little credit for her Tennessee women's basketball team's impressive turnaround from last season. Most of it, she said, goes to the players.
Having lost every starter from the 2007-08 team, the Vols crumbled under the pressure of rebuilding with young talent, compiling a 22-11 record that was the worst in Summitt's legendary coaching career.
Tennessee ended the season with a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament to 12th-seeded Ball State, snapping a streak of 42 wins in first- and second-round games.
It was that humiliation, coupled with national talk about the fall of Tennessee, that led the players to rededicate themselves to improving.
"I think the offseason is what has made the difference," Summitt said. "They chose to put in more workouts than any team in the seven years that Heather Mason (strength and conditioning coach) has been here. She was amazed. They have to volunteer to do that, and she told me after the summer workouts, 'I think you and your coaching staff are going to be very, very pleased with how much they have been in the weight room, conditioning and just getting better.' The players did the work and I give them the credit for not wanting to have another year like they had gone through."
Tonight, the No. 4 Vols (14-1, 2-0 SEC) play Florida (9-7, 2-1) in the O'Connell Center at 7. Tennessee is averaging 79.3 points, and has allowed just one opponent to shoot 40 percent or better from the field.
Florida has been inconsistent on offense, and coach Amanda Butler said the worst thing it can do is get caught up in the Tennessee mystique. Her primary message this week has been that this game counts as just one — regardless of how big it seems.
"One of the things you have to address when you go into it is all of the fireworks and excitement that generally surround that game," Butler said. "You can't play intimidated, or scared, or let things get out of whack. We've got to get our third win in the SEC and that's all that matters."
Tennessee is returning to the O'Connell Center for the first time since last year's 66-57 loss to the Gators.
"I know Florida will be ready," Summitt said. "They were a lot more than we could handle last year."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.