When Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick approached the podium after the Lady Vols’ 89-67 loss to Syracuse, she was in a place not many predicted she would be:
Just one win away from the Final Four.
Was that a foreseeable possibility back in February after Tennessee returned to Knoxville fresh off two nightmarish losses to SEC cellar dwellars, Alabama and LSU?
The Lady Vols were subsequently bounced out of the AP Top 25 for the first time in 31 seasons, and as a result, fuel was added to an already raging “Fire Holly” campaign.
At Tennessee, the expectations are high, if not downright unreasonable, and it is all because of the accomplishments of coaching legend Pat Summitt.
Summitt turned Lady Vol basketball into an institution. An institution that became so impactful and dominant, that anything less than a Final Four appearance resulted in disappointment on Rocky Top.
From 1981 until Summitt’s departure in 2012, Tennessee earned an NCAA Tournament bid each season and only failed to reach the Sweet 16 once. With 18 Final Four appearances and eight national championships, Summitt’s successor received a double-edged sword: the honor of replacing the legend — and the pressure of performing up to arguably the highest-set bar in women’s college basketball.
By all intents and purposes, Warlick responded to the pressure nicely during her first three seasons, but this past season presented the biggest challenge of her young coaching career.
A preseason No. 4 ranking slowly crumbled. Losses mounted faster than ever. Players appeared disinterested in forming chemistry on the court. Turnovers and fourth-quarter collapses infuriated a demanding fan base.
Despite the whirlwind of outside frustration and negative opinions, the Lady Vols were just one win away from Indianapolis.
What did the 2015-16 season prove? It proved that Tennessee has become a victim of its own success, even when the program is still successful. Knoxville News Sentinel columnist John Adams called this past season a failure due to the win-loss record, but with all due respect, that claim only proves the aforementioned point.
Sure, the program set its worst marks in tournament seeding (No. 7), total losses (14), conference losses (8) and conference finish (T-7th), but whether fans of the Lady Vols like it or not, Tennessee is no longer a top-five program.
Women’s basketball is currently UConn’s kingdom. Throw in Notre Dame, Baylor, South Carolina, Maryland, Stanford and perhaps a few upstart programs, then it is clear as day that the expectations of the past are unfair because they no longer apply.
Sports, like anything else, revolves in cycles. Name a single team that has experienced similar sustained excellence like that of the Lady Vols.
The Pittsburgh Steelers won four Super Bowls in the 1970’s and did not recapture the Lombardi Trophy until the 2005 season. From 1923 to 1962, the New York Yankees won half of the World Series titles. Since 1963, they have won “only” seven.
Why did the Steelers and Yankees start winning less? Other teams began to emulate them and eventually caught up.
Is it reasonable to think that Geno Auriemma, during his early years at UConn, observed what Summitt was doing in Knoxville? Tennessee had three national championships before the Huskies had one, and added three more before Auriemma grabbed a second title.
Is it reasonable to think that UConn has an impact on Oregon State, Syracuse and Washington making their first-ever Final Four appearances? These programs are emulating Auriemma’s success because the Huskies will eventually no longer be the top dog.
Warlick has coached this program to three elite eight appearances in four seasons. If that is considered a “failure” or “disappointment,” then there is a perception issue, not a performance issue.
And that is not to say that Tennessee performed up to this particular team’s potential. Diamond DeShields, the former Freshman of the Year at North Carolina, played remarkably inconsistent during the regular season until finally finding her rhythm during postseason play.
Outside shooting was a major issue. Three-point specialist Kortney Dunbar was erratic from beyond the arc, and the team overall shot 25 percent from three-point range. Syracuse exposed the Lady Vols’ outside shooting woes during the Elite Eight by eliminating Mercedes Russell on the inside, forcing them to live on the perimeter.
There is no question that Warlick could have done a better job as a coach, but make no mistake about it, after the incredibly difficult regular season she and the team experienced, to put it all together and make an Elite Eight run took mental toughness.
Warlick repeated throughout the season that the root of the team’s issues stemmed from a lack of chemistry. It took longer than normal, but when the Lady Vols settled in and played as a unit, they won five of seven postseason games.
Losing seniors Bashaara Graves and Nia Moore will slash Tennessee’s depth in the post, but if the chemistry that developed at the end of the season carries into next season, who is to say this team can’t reach the Final Four?
This Tennessee team has taught valuable lessons in sports. Success in the past does not always equate to success in the future. Legends such as Pat Summitt cannot be replicated. If Summitt is a one-of-a-kind coach, then why is there an expectation that Warlick should replicate her success?
But perhaps most telling is that success takes numerous forms outside of winning championships.
It may not have been the smoothest season on Rocky Top, but after Warlick exited her postgame press conference and disappeared into the cold Sioux Falls night, she can proudly say that this team overcame adversity and finished strong.
By all accounts, the Lady Vols were successful.
Featured image by Donald Page, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics
Edited by Cody McClure