Tennessee's Taber Spani doesn't have the nerve to suddenly expect that her pregame routine tonight will be totally serene.
"Sure, I still get nervous a little bit before games,'' the Lady Vols senior guard said Wednesday. "I think a little bit of nerves is a good thing because it means you're getting your adrenaline going."
Good to know for No. 20 Tennessee as it prepares for its women's basketball season opener at Chattanooga. If an experienced player like Spani expects to be shooing away butterflies, then nobody needs to be kidding themselves, coaches included. Tipoff is 7 p.m. The game is not televised.
This isn't just any opener for Tennessee. Longtime assistant Holly Warlick will direct her first official game as UT's coach, replacing coaching legend Pat Summitt. The starting lineup essentially has been revamped. Four freshmen will make their debut and some of them will be counted on for an immediate impact.
And this first act of a new season takes place at McKenzie Arena, where a Tennessee team of similar composition scrambled to erase a five-point deficit in the final 5:37 and somehow escape with a 66-63 victory on Nov. 21, 2008.
"I'm not going to shy away from that,'' said Warlick of sharing this nerve-wracking bit of history with her players. "We're going to tell them you have to bring your best."
Small wonder then that Spani, among her many responsibilities, plans to play the role of on-court psychologist tonight.
"Watching to see how everyone responds,'' she said. "Just the attitude of the whole team ... just kind of hone in on these things, not necessarily the play on the floor but kind of like the mental side."
The "best" Warlick has in mind revolves around energy and effort. In that sense, her marching orders aren't any different than those laid out during the preseason and through UT's two exhibition tune-ups. For the occasion, she's also stressing communication as a catalyst for good play.
"Our thing is communicating and making sure there's no confusion,'' Warlick said. "When we don't have any confusion, we play pretty good basketball and we play pretty good defense."
Warlick wants the Lady Vols to sweat the details of their team identity, which presently is conflicted in nature.
For example, UT is replacing the entire starting lineup with which it ended last season. But three of the replacements — Spani, Meighan Simmons and Ariel Massengale — have started at least 24 games. Spani and Simmons have a combined 115 starts.
The Lady Vols have lost last season's leading scorers — Shekinna Stricklen and Glory Johnson — who combined for nearly 30 points per game on average. Still, they return 53 percent of last season's scoring. Simmons and Spani have career scoring highs of 28 and 22 points respectively.
Losing the top three rebounders from last season has stripped UT of 62 percent of its production. Yet they amassed big advantages in both exhibitions and freshman forward Bashaara Graves averaged a team-high 10.5 rebounds for the two games.
Warlick has a particular mortar in mind for building this new lineup into a sturdy whole. She wants the mix to be thick with defense.
"What kind of defense are we going to establish?" she asked. "Are we going to be able to try to control the game with our defense? That's going to be so important for us."