By Beth Rucker
KNOXVILLE -- One thing has changed for the Tennessee Lady Volunteers as they prepare for their 20th NCAA basketball tournament as a No. 1 seed. They're comfortable once again being the team to beat.
A season ago, the Lady Vols were loaded with freshmen and uncomfortable being favorites. It showed as they lost 71-55 in the opening round to 12th-seeded Ball State.
"We definitely have a big target on our backs," sophomore center Kelley Cain said. "That makes it more fun. We want to be sought after, and we want to be the team that everyone wants to beat."
The loss to Ball State was the Lady Vols' first-ever exit in the opening round of the tournament. They made a commitment to training and playing harder this season to keep from being embarrassed again. As a result, Tennessee is a top seed for a record 20th time to go with its NCAA-best eight women's national championships.
"Our basketball team has worked hard to put us in this position," coach Pat Summitt said. "We're real serious, and we'll be focused."
Austin Peay (15-17) will be Tennessee's opponent in the game starting just after noon today.
The Lady Govs, who are the eighth team in history to make the NCAA tournament with a losing record, closed their season on a four-game winning streak to take the Ohio Valley Conference tournament championship.
"In the tournament anybody can beat anybody. It's just a matter of who shows up and who is playing hard," Austin Peay junior guard Ashley Herring said. "It's just about going out there and playing hard and competing, and whoever is the best team at that time will win."
The Lady Govs' task isn't an easy one. They're playing in Tennessee's home arena on the court named "The Summitt" for the Hall of Fame coach.
Despite the struggles of last year, Tennessee has lost only three times in the past three seasons in Knoxville and is undefeated at home this season.
"We have the best fan support anywhere we go, but especially at home," junior guard Angie Bjorklund said. "We have a regular routine and we can sleep in our own beds. Having that kind of comfort will help us and give us an advantage."
Tennessee is bigger than Austin Peay at every position, but the Lady Govs have had some experience being undersized, having played Xavier and Pittsburgh during the regular season. They were routed by Xavier but lost by only a point to Pittsburgh.
"At one point or the other during the season, we played five teams that had been in the Top 25, so we have gone up against some top-caliber teams," Austin Peay coach Carrie Daniels said. "But I think the size is something our players are going to have to be aware of, and they can't back down to that."
The winner will face either 8 seed Dayton or 9 seed TCU, who square off in the second game today.
Dayton's Flyers (24-7) are making their NCAA tournament debut 15 years after moving to Division I.
"There's a lot of emotion that goes along with it, but at the same time it almost hasn't hit me that we are in the NCAA tournament," sophomore forward Justine Raterman said. "This is what we've dreamed of and have been working for all season, and now it's finally here."
TCU (22-8) has reached the second round of the tournament in five of their eight appearances, most recently winning in 2006 as an 11th seed.
Horned Frogs coach Jim Mittie downplayed talk that his team's tournament experience will make a difference against Dayton. He noted TCU's loss to NCAA newcomer South Dakota State 90-55 in last year's first round, where the Jackrabbits overcame any nerves by hitting 16 3-pointers.
"It's really about how your team is prepared coming in," Mittle said. "I think that can be an overrated part of this. For every time you see one of those teams be really nervous and not play well, you see another one play great. It really just depends on the makeup of your team."