KNOXVILLE – Tennessee has traveled to Europe on a women’s basketball summer trip with an entirely new coaching staff for the first time in more than four decades.
Think about that for a second. The Lady Vols haven’t changed more than one assistant in a given year since 2012, when coaching legend Pat Summitt stepped down. The whole staff hasn’t turned over since Summitt assumed command in 1974.
New head coach Kellie Harper has given the unusual circumstances more than a passing thought. She’s inclined to think of all 12 Lady Vols on the roster as freshmen. Five of them – four freshmen and a junior college transfer – actually are in their first year.
Amid this seismic change, the group is traveling through three countries in 10 days with a priority as old as some of the sights they will see. Or so it seems.
Team chemistry will be part of UT’s daily routine, a common thread linking three games with visits to such places as Amsterdam, the Eiffel Tower and the D-Day beaches of Normandy. It likely will be reviewed along with the play of the Lady Vols, who won 106-64 on Saturday and have won their first two games by average margin of 47 points.
Anyone having a casual familiarity with the team will recognize this refrain and note that Harper sounds a lot like her predecessor, Holly Warlick, in preaching its importance to overall harmony.
“I think that’s a big part of winning and losing, I really do,” Harper said last week. “I think you’ve got to have great team chemistry to be a great team.”
Being in three foreign countries – the Netherlands, Belgium and France – will be like a form of lab work. Given the difference in language and culture, the players will depend on each other in a new way.
“It’s going to kind of force us to be close,” junior forward Rennia Davis said. “You don’t really have a choice.”
Taking a fresh approach otherwise will be more of a challenge.
At least Davis sounded more honest about UT’s struggles with the issue. They’ve adversely effected the past four seasons. Davis played a part in two of them and has developed an appreciation for the consequences.
“There were times, prior to this year, where the team chemistry wasn’t all there,” she said. “Maybe certain games we weren’t supposed to lose, we lost.”
The Lady Vols lost several games of that variety last season in going 19-13 and barely qualifying for the NCAA tournament. It led to Warlick and her staff being replaced.
For starters, Harper has broached the topic with a different sounding emphasis than previous seasons at UT.
“She’s really big about being a good teammate,” Davis said. “Not about how good of a player you are or you have the potential to be but how good of a teammate that you can be, that we can be for each other.”
The concept accounts for body language and interactive exchanges like high-fives and pats on the back. It stresses communication in terms of both tone and content.
Harper will critique a single spoken word if it helps the cause. She also will call attention to players when they exhibit what she calls “good teammate-isms”
“We have a lot of players that are just good kids,” she said. “They want to do it right. We’re just working on what we want that to look like.”
The intent is for something seemingly foreign to the Lady Vols to become familiar.
* * *
Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri who covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1988-2019. He can be reached at email@example.com