Never mind if defending national champion Baylor is looming at the high end of the Oklahoma City regional. Or that her Lady Vols might have been more favorably positioned for a Final Four run if they had been sent West, where Stanford is a No. 1 seed and Cal a No. 2.
She didn’t dwell on the regional challenge in the distance. She embraced her team’s status, as designated by the tournament selection committee, as if it were an award.
“It’s a great honor for these kids,” the first-year coach declared with heartfelt enthusiasm. “We were a preseason (No. 20), And we’re a No. 2 seed. That’s awesome.”
Her response put the season and seeding in perspective.
This was supposed to be a transitional season. Coach Pat Summitt had retired. Last season’s starting lineup had departed en masse. The team that followed was predicted to finish closer to the middle of the SEC than the top.
But it won the regular-season conference championship, is ranked 10th nationally, and is scheduled to play the first two games of the NCAA tournament on its home court as a No. 2 seed. Even if this season ends before or against Baylor, it has been a success.
It also has been fun for the coach, despite what you might have heard from more distant vantage points.
Other coaches and national media have praised Warlick repeatedly — not just for winning at a high level, but for winning while succeeding a coaching legend. However, their appraisals can sometimes sound so grim — as though Warlick struggles through each day, burdened by the weight of the program and the reputation of the coach who preceded her.
She doesn’t look burdened. She looks happy.
And she looks a lot more at ease than last season when she assumed a head coach’s responsibilities without the title as Summitt struggled valiantly to keep coaching while battling Alzheimer’s.
“Last year, it was so hard for her,” UT assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. “She didn’t know from day to day what
our team needed through Pat. Now, she is the head coach. She has gone from suggestion maker and partial decision maker to full-time decision maker.
“Nothing prepares you for going through what she did last year. It had never been done. There was nobody she could call. She can call lots of coaches about being a first-year head coach.”
Warlick’s team is easier, too. She said as much way back in preseason and has confirmed it again and again throughout the season.
“We haven’t had too many bad practices or too many days that we had to get on (the players),” Warlick said.
And recent practices, like the seeding, have been “awesome,” Warlick said as she welcomed media and athletic department employees to the tournament get-together at the Neyland Stadium East Club.
Then, she added, “We’re not finished.” And her players nodded approvingly.
The players and coaches seem in accord on another matter as well. For whatever success they’ve had, they also have been jolted by unsuspecting losses to the likes of Chattanooga and Missouri.
“I would be very shocked and surprised if this team would take anything for granted right now,” Lockwood said. “We are guaranteed 40 minutes, and that’s all we’re guaranteed.
“We have tentative travel plans. But we know there’s no guarantee we will ever leave Knoxville as a 2012-2013 team.”
Senior forward Taber Spani understands that as well as anyone. As appealing as it might be to open the tournament on her home court Saturday against Oral Roberts, she isn’t concerned about the team being too comfortable.
“We can’t go there,” she said. “We’ve lost to those type of teams. Anyone can get hot on a given night.”
And maybe, when it matters most, Tennessee can be that hot team. That would make a happy coach even happier.