There are two very important things to know about this Lady Vol basketball team:
One, they have the longest streak of any women’s basketball team for making the postseason NCAA tournament. And two, they have appeared in all 39 tournaments since its inception in 1982.
This is Kellie Harper’s third year coaching at Tennessee. She was a player for the Lady Vols from 1995-99 under legendary head coach Pat Summit, where she helped win three national titles.
This will be Harper’s second “normal” season on Rocky Top since the COVID-19 pandemic created a strange 2020-21 campaign for everyone.
Harper knows how to win championships, stemming from her time in college. She also won two conference championships as the head coach at Missouri State.
Harper has instilled a “trust the process” mantra on her team, and her experience winning has been nothing but beneficial for the Lady Vols.
“Coming from the point guard perspective, being coached by a point guard who won a national championship three times is an amazing thing in itself,” graduate guard Jordan Walker said. “To be able to learn from her and just trust that she knows what she's talking about because she's done this, makes it easy to trust the process.”
Tennessee has multiple players this year expected to find their footing and step into a leadership position. Harper has been tremendously helpful in that regard.
“I can call her at any time and talk to her about anything,” junior guard Jordan Horston said about Harper. “She’s always there pushing me, and she believes in me. I feel like that has really helped me. When things are not going particularly my way or I’m having a bad day, she’s always there to pick me up. She's there. Just play my hardest, she constantly instills that confidence in me to help lead this team to something greater.”
Harper’s philosophy within the program is certainly helped by the number of returners the Lady Vols have this season. Tennessee had a major hole from Rennia Davis’ departure in the WNBA Draft, but the majority of the team and starters are still here.
“I think when you look at consistent teams, I think that you see veterans,” Harper said. “And they don't have to be the biggest super star veterans, but veterans make a difference. They've been there done that, they understand the system, they can make changes on the fly and they play with a little bit more poise at times.”
“I am excited about all of our returners and I know we talk about Rae and Jordan and Tamari, but Jordan Walker, Keyen Green and Tess Darby, Jessie (Rennie) and Emily (Saunders) are players that have been here. They know drills, they know plays, they know philosophy and they know the opponents. There is just a confidence and a poise that a veteran team has.”
While many teams struggle to find their identity, Tennessee is already on a path to finding its own. The Lady Vols figure is to be a fast-paced, physical team with a focus on winning and being able to play the game the right way.
“We’re just really excited when we step on the court just for the opportunity,” junior Tamari Key said. “We’re looking forward to the season and not just one team in particular.”
One of the biggest factors when establishing a team’s culture is how veteran players get on board, and how newcomers adjust. The Lady Vols feel that they are off on the right step.
“I would say we're meshing really well,” senior Rae Burrell said. “They came in and I feel like we got comfortable pretty easily. They really help us when we're playing by telling us little comments or trying to help with anything individually that we need help on. They're also just really fun people to be around. I think we meshed really well when they came in."
There are many things to watch out for this season. How will leadership play a factor? How long will it take for players find their footing? How will this team react to a difficult strength of schedule?
Only time will tell, but for now, Harper is focused on instilling that winning mentality on her players. Everything else will take care of itself.
“We have great chemistry and really play for each other,” Harper said. “I think we are really progressing and moving in the right direction ... The prospects of this year are really exciting and the style of play that I think we can put on the court. I'm really looking forward to getting going.”