KNOXVILLE — Kellie Harper has spent the early portion of her first season as head coach of the Tennessee women's basketball team gathering information.
In recent years, it was obvious the Lady Volunteers had players with potential that was not always fulfilled. The program's brand name and history of success — including eight national titles won from 1987 to 2008 — always help them have a seat at the table when it comes to recruiting some of the most talented high school players in the country.
Those signees' recruiting ratings and accolades from lower levels of basketball, though, did not and will not help the Lady Vols win games.
So when Harper took over at her alma mater, she walked into a situation filled with players brimming with potential but perhaps not on par where their basketball knowledge was concerned. Simply put: Tennessee had a number of players who were good enough to dominate lesser teams on a basketball court but unable to do so against those of the caliber in the Southeastern Conference.
Harper has talked a lot about focusing on the process of the game and not necessarily the results. Tennessee has quite possibly the tallest basketball team in the country, so the Lady Vols should dominate on the glass. Better athletes? No reason they shouldn't force a ton of turnovers.
For the program to really return to the dominance of yesteryear, though, it's going to start with developing the players currently on the roster, bringing more talent in through recruiting and then developing those players, too.
So while Sunday's 81-54 win over Air Force looks good on paper (what 27-point win wouldn't?) Harper can point to the fact that 20th-ranked Tennessee (7-0) was outrebounded 40-39 by a team that dropped to 1-7. It's a small thing to look at in a game the Lady Vols dominated, but Harper knows it could easily be a sign of bad things to come.
"I think it's important that sometimes you have to have something to back you up," Harper said. "We go in, we talk to our team, and they hear you and they understand it, but I'm hoping that this tangible stat sheet is what it will take for them to understand they need to buy into another level. I hope it doesn't take a loss. Hopefully this will be a great opportunity to learn our lesson after a win and be able to correct it."
Defense has been and will be the Lady Vols' calling card this season. It's the one aspect in which they could be elite due to a roster on which all but one player — freshman Jessie Rennie — is at least 6 feet tall. So far it's worked: Opponents are shooting 28% and averaging just 51.6 points per game during the Lady Vols' strong start, but landmines lie ahead.
There's only one team on the schedule to date — Notre Dame — that has any level of name recognition, and the Fighting Irish lost all five of last season's starters to the WNBA. Tennessee's next two games are at home — Dec. 8 against Texas and Dec. 11 against Colorado State — and then the Lady Vols are at Stanford on Dec. 18 and at Portland State on Dec. 21 before hosting Howard on Dec. 29 and opening their SEC schedule when Missouri visits on Jan. 2.
The tougher games ahead are what Harper is working toward. Not 60-point wins against teams no one has heard of. So her hope and her belief is her message is resonating.
It appears it is.
"Little things has been a very focal point for Coach Kellie," said junior Rennia Davis, who had 18 points, nine rebounds and five assists Sunday. "Just little things like boxing out, which I think today kind of caught up with us because we did not win the rebounding battle, which is a little disappointing for us with our size especially. In that area, (what's important is) being disciplined with our box-out, holding them, then going to get the rebound instead of just trying to jump over everybody, which we can't do sometimes.
"Just doing the little things is something she's really focused on."
And eventually, those things could — and should — pay off.