A ‘Pollyanna’ convert

In talking to Joan Cronan two weeks ago, something struck me about my conversation with the former Tennessee women’s athletic director:

The interview probably would’ve played out in similar fashion at any point during her three-plus decade career.

At any other point, this observation wouldn’t have enhanced my view of her career, which came to a close last week. Glad she brought up the “Pollyanna” description commonly attached to her because I was as guilty as anyone of seeing her in that vein. I tended to think that she benefited from Pat Summitt and women’s basketball, which overshadowed the other sports not winning enough. I took that approach in an article written about her in 2000 entitled “The Woman in Charge”

I reread that article last week. It began in the aforementioned fashion. But it also proceeded to laud the department’s fund-raising and national reputation: two achievements that now sum up Cronan’s career.

The article quoted Susan Williams, the Lady Vols’ former associate athletic director for development, as saying Cronan dealt with “natural jealousies” within the department regarding women’s basketball.

“I think there was a lot of it when I was there,” Williams said in 2000. “It was wasn’t anything Joan was doing. I think Joan went out of her way to prevent that and balance the budgets.”

In keeping with her nature, Cronan then didn’t think a potentially corrosive undercurrent ran through the program. She thought women’s basketball presented a “positive challenge” to the other sports.

In the 14 years since, volleyball has won SEC championships and been to a Final Four. Soccer also had a run of SEC/NCAA success. And now softball is the program’s powerhouse. The latter two sports were created under Cronan’s watch.

In talking to Cronan’s associates and peers last month, their respect for her is as consistent as Cronan herself. And the fans continue to have their say in the robust attendance figures for basketball and now softball.

In being perpetually optimistic, Cronan was playing to her strengths as an administrator. The quality had some real staying power. Williams thinks the trait will recall Cronan long after she’s left UT.

“I think they’ll miss her a lot more than she will miss them,” Williams said last month. “They don’t know it yet, but they will find that out.”




Sounds of silence

Te’a Cooper said Tuesday that Tennessee placed a high value on her leadership while recruiting her.

A key dimension of  that quality is her ability to communicate. The 5-foot-8 women’s basketball point guard from Powder Springs, Ga., described herself as being vocal and someone who relishes motivating and helping others.

Cooper, who will be a senior this season at McEachern High School, committed to the Lady Vols last Thursday. Her natural disposition seems well-suited for convincing friend and workout partner Diamond DeShields to join her at Tennessee.

DeShields announced last month that she was transferring after one season at North Carolina. She has since visited UT, Georgia and South Carolina.

In this case, though, Cooper thinks it’s better to not be so vocal.

“She’s trying to decide where she’s going to be happy,” Cooper said. “We don’t talk about basketball. Of course, I’d love to play with her. But  it’s her decision. I want her to be happy.”

As it stands, Cooper’s decision is important for two reasons. She’s one of the top prospects in the Class of 2015, someone who just earned a spot on the 12-player U.S. women’s U-17 World Championship team. She already has played on two state championship teams at McEachern while scoring 1,570 career points and recording 500 assists.

By committing to UT, she also has endorsed head coach Holly Warlick and her staff as they enter their third season together.

“I just want to spend time with the coaches,” Cooper said, “get to know them. I want to watch them coach.”

Overall, Cooper believes that she’s made a “great decision” in choosing Tennessee. She offered only one thought regarding her friend’s impending choice.

“I don’t think (Diamond) is going to say anything,” Cooper said. “I  think she’s going to one day just up and commit (to a school).”


Not so sweet for SEC

Tennessee thought that SEC play prepared the Lady Vols for the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

When the brackets were unveiled on March 17, the tournament selection committee agreed, giving UT and South Carolina No. 1 seeds and putting eight conference teams in the 64-team field.

But only one league team — Texas A&M — survived the Sweet 16. Tennessee, South Carolina and LSU all were beaten on Sunday. Kentucky fell in the Round of 16 on Saturday.

League teams aren’t measuring up as expected. A reason why is covered from Tennessee’s perspective by News-Sentinel columnist John Adams in Tuesday’s editions and online at govolsxtra.com.

Tennessee fell victim to Maryland and All-American forward Alyssa Thomas, who scored a career-high 33 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. She scored six consecutive baskets at one point during the second half.

Louisville All-American guard Shoni Schimmel scored 19 against injury-depleted LSU. North Carolina freshman star Diamond DeShields had 19 against South Carolina.

On Saturday, Baylor All-American Odyssey Sims hit Kentucky with 25 points.

The Associated Press will announce its All-American teams this week. The SEC’s best hope is sneaking a player on to the third team. Until that changes, these NCAA results probably won’t.



Wilson to make decision in April

For those waiting and wondering about the recruiting decision of top prospect A’ja Wilson, you’re advised to be patient.

Wilson’s father, Roscoe, told Carl Adamec of snyUConn.com this weekend that the 6-foot-4 forward won’t think about the decision until after the McDonald’s High School All-America Game April 2 in Chicago. He said that his daughter will decide by the end of April.

The spring signing period begins April 16 and runs through May 21.

Tennessee, along with Connecticut, South Carolina and North Carolina, remain in the running for Wilson, who led Heathwood Hall to the South Carolina Independent Schools Association Class AAA state championship. She averaged 34.4 points, 14.5 rebounds, 5.4 blocks, 3.2 steals and 2.3 assists per game this season.

Wilson already has been named player of the year by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, the Atlanta Tipoff Club and Parade Magazine.

Meanwhile, Tennessee signee Jaime Nared has joined Wilson as a Parade All-American. The 6-1 forward averaged 29 points, 14 rebounds and four steals a game this season for Westview High in Portland, Ore. She also will play in the McDonald’s game.

Of Nared, Oregon City High coach Kurt Guelsdorf said: “She’s the best player this side of the Rocky Mountains.”


No RPI gain for Lady Vols

The NCAA’s “nitty gritty” report regarding women’s basketball RPI  is largely unchanged for Tennessee despite its SEC tournament championship.

The Lady Vols’ RPI ranked fifth and their strength of schedule was fourth last Monday.  Victories over LSU, Texas A&M and Kentucky in Duluth, Ga., didn’t change their RPi. Their strength of schedule, oddly enough, dropped one spot to fifth. These rankings are more important to Tennessee’s NCAA tournament seeding than its jump of two spots to No. 4 in the weekly Associated Press Top 25.

Pending the outcome of Monday night’s Connecticut-Louisville game,  Tennessee still has a good shot at one of the four top seeds, however. Duke ranks one spot ahead of UT in the “nitty gritty” report but shouldn’t get a No. 1 seed.

At this point, my guess is Tennessee will be put in the regional bracket hosted by Louisville as either the one or two seed.



SEC keeps backing Pat

The SEC is extending its “We Back Pat” initiative to the SEC women’s basketball tournament.

On Friday, fans are asked to wear purple to The Arena at Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Ga., to support the Pat Summitt Foundation, which makes grants to advance research and provide support services in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease.

The first 1,500 fans wearing purple to the evening session will receive a Fierce Courage bracelet courtesy of the foundation. Tennessee plays at 6 p.m.



Good advice for Burdick

Count John Lucas among the many people offering advice to Tennessee’s Cierra Burdick as she tried to shake off an extended shooting slump  this season and revive her outlook on basketball.

Lucas is a former NBA player and coach based in Houston. He conducts camps and clinics and has developed drug treatment programs tailored for athletes.

“A family friend played tennis and basketball with him in high school,” Burdick said. “I got connected with him this summer and went down to Houston to work out with him. He’s just a great guy. I think he helped me a lot on the court but even more so off the court.”


Burdick’s helping hand

Tennessee’s Cierra Burdick scored 16 points, grabbed seven rebounds and dished out four assists Thursday night against Arkansas, leading the Lady Vols to a 70-60 victory.

Yet it was a single act of kindness by the junior forward that drew as much attention as any of the aforementioned acts. When teammate Andraya Carter slipped to the floor in the second half, Burdick didn’t just retrieve the loose basketball with Arkansas defender Keira Peak lurking. Burdick also helped Carter to her feet before handing the ball back to her.

Burdick linked a YouTube clip of the play Friday on Twitter and tweeted: “This has definitely been the joke of the day. I wasn’t going anywhere without @DrayaNichole!”


Another view of Lady Vols schedule

An NCAA statistical breakdown of women’s basketball schedules ranks Tennessee’s schedule tougher than many might think.

Based on the collective records of their opponents, the Lady Vols schedule was ranked third overall through games of Jan. 26. Tennessee’s opposition through last Sunday’s game at Texas A&M had a combined record of 252-118 and a winning percentage of .681. By this formula, Ohio State (.716) and LSU (.698) were the only schools whose schedules were ranked tougher than Tennessee’s.

Tennessee’s future opponents might enhance the ranking. Their combined records were 123-55 (.691).

For those who prefer RPI, the Lady Vols were ranked seventh by RealTimeRPI.com before Thursday night’s game against Arkansas with a score of .6756.


Russell reaches for spotlight

Hard for any Tennessee Lady Vol to wrest Sunday’s storyline away from guards Meighan Simmons and Andraya Carter.

Mercedes Russell tried anyway.

UT’s 6-foot-6 freshman center arguably had the best game of her young career in a 76-55 SEC women’s basketball victory at Texas A&M.

The case wasn’t made solely with statistics. Her only significant achievement was a season-high 11 rebounds. She’s had better scoring games than the eight points she had. And her 3-for-8 shooting from the floor was a far cry from her usual  59 percent accuracy.

What distinguished Russell’s play was her competitiveness, particularly considering her competition. She was up against A&M’s Karla Gilbert, a 6-5 senior who scored 14 points and grabbed 11 rebounds against Tennessee, eight of which were offensive boards.

Russell went right at Gilbert and achieved the best play of her rookie season early in the second half, when she grabbed an offensive rebound against Gilbert, drew her fourth foul and scored a conventional 3-point play.

Seven of Russell’s rebounds were offensive boards.