Dean Lockwood knows what a "really good" women's basketball team looks like come February. The Tennessee assistant coach was specific and thorough on Sunday with his rendering.
"They have a focus and it doesn't matter who they're playing," he said. "There's a business-like approach. They approach everything the same way. They prepare the same way. They thoroughly prepare. They dial up their intensity in practice as well as in games. That's what we're looking for.
Based on that profile, No. 8 Tennessee (19-4, 8-2 SEC) is playing catch-up with the calendar heading into an SEC showdown with No. 18 Vanderbilt (17-5, 6-3) tonight at Thompson-Boling Arena. Instead of turning the page on January in the past two games, the Lady Vols revisited some of the lax play and foul trouble that characterized their earlier play.
"We have been erratic; there's no question," Lockwood conceded.
Still, they have come a long way since squandering a 10-point second half lead in the first meeting with Vanderbilt and losing 74-63 in Nashville on Jan. 12. The Commodores shot 62.5 percent from the floor after halftime and scored 45 points in that half. Eight of their 15 second-half baskets were layups.
"If you're looking for one simple answer, it would be our maturity," said Lockwood, regarding the progress that's been made. "Competitively and overall we've matured."
The difference is best quantified by defense. The Lady Vols allowed 73.5 points per game in their first four conference games. Since the Vanderbilt loss, they've allowed 61 points per game in winning six consecutive conference games. No league foe has scored more than 69 points against them.
UT coach Holly Warlick estimated using five different defensive sets last Sunday in rallying for a 64-54 victory at Alabama. Lockwood described improved defense as "exhibit A" regarding greater maturity.
"You can look at schemes and Xs and Os and game plans, but it starts with a commitment," he said. "I think our players have accepted and embraced a little further how valuable and important defense is."
No wonder Warlick had a hard time accepting what she saw last Thursday when UT meandered to a 77-65 victory over last-place Ole Miss in Oxford, Miss. She commended Rebels coach Matt Insell and his team for their effort, using the compliment to criticize her team's performance.
"He has a game plan and they stick to it," she said. "For us, we vary. We didn't play as hard as they did tonight."
In the same postmortem, Warlick gave her team a break, though, by saying, "We've been doing this without Ariel Massengale."
Tennessee's starting point guard hasn't played or practiced since being accidentally hit in the face Jan. 23 against Florida. Redshirt freshman Andraya Carter and freshman Jordan Reynolds have served as replacements.
Massengale's absence was compounded Thursday by foul trouble for Carter. She fell victim to hand-checking calls, suggesting a review was in order for how games are being officiated this season. Senior guard Meighan Simmons picked up two quick fouls in the same manner within the first three minutes last Sunday at Alabama.
"I think we've had a little relapse in that area," Lockwood said.
It brought to mind center Isabelle Harrison being limited by foul trouble and playing just 10 minutes against Vanderbilt as a result in the first meeting.
That was back in January. It's now February.