Coach Pat Summitt's phone rang just after she arrived home from the Lady Volunteers' dismal 82-65 loss to Stanford last December. The caller was Semeka Randall, a blue-chip recruit who had signed with Tennessee a month earlier. "I know you don't want to talk right now, Coach, but I wanted to ask you a question," she said. "Can I pick up the ball next year on defense?"
A high school star who not only wanted to play defense but was also begging to put full-court pressure on the ball handler? Sum-mitt could hardly contain her glee. In addition to Randall, Summitt had already signed Tamika Catchings, Kristen Clement and Teresa Geter, all highly decorated stars. The thought of having them all join the Lady Vols was enough to take Summitt's mind off the sad state of her team, which was then 7-3 and would be 10-6 by early January—an unacceptable start for Tennessee, which had won four national titles in the previous 10 years. "It was tough not to look ahead and say, Boy, the troops are on the way," Summitt admits.
Then a funny thing happened: Tennessee won the NCAA title after that unpromising start. So folks in Knoxville began dreaming about the prospect of the nation's top recruiting class joining the nation's strongest team.
But hold on. Over the summer Summitt dismissed senior center Tiffani Johnson for breaking team rules, leaving Tennessee without an experienced post player. Depth is a concern inside, as is width. "We've got thin bodies inside," says Summitt. At 6'3", Geter will be expected to step in for the 6'4" Johnson, although she's not as strong.
The other freshmen will contribute as well. Catchings, the daughter of former NBA center Harvey Catchings, is a versatile guard-forward who as a senior at Duncanville ( Texas) High once had a quintuple-double: 25 points, 18 rebounds, 11 assists, 10 steals and 10 blocks. She ranked among the top five recruits in the country, yet Summitt was recently moved to tell her, "You're better than I thought you were."
Clement scored 2,256 points at Cardinal O'Hara High, breaking the Philadelphia-area high school record, held by Wilt Chamberlain. A point guard and would-be model, she counts among her many titles both Parade All-America and Miss Hawaiian Tropic.
The freshmen need not worry about the spotlight being too bright, though. "You've got to think about how much people around here talk about Chamique Holdsclaw," Catchings says. Holdsclaw, Tennessee's 6'2" All-America junior forward, led the U.S. national team in points (19.0 per game) and rebounds (6.2) in the World Championship Qualifying Tournament in Brazil last summer, although she was the only collegian on a squad of pros. "Chamique is playing at the top of her game right now," Summitt says. That, by itself, should be almost enough to keep Tennessee near the top of the polls.