Just how good is Tennessee? Let's forget for the moment that the Lady Vols have played most of their tough games at home and that the SEC is not as powerful as it was in the past. Let's put aside the fact that Tennessee still has a whole postseason to go before it can claim an undefeated year and its third consecutive national title. This team has superlative written all over it.
Consider: The Lady Vols have the best coach in Pat Summitt, who has won championships in five of the last 11 years, and the best player in two-time All-America Chamique Holdsclaw, who has won a title in each of the last six years, including four New York State championships with Christ the King High in Queens. And surrounding Holdsclaw at Tennessee is a collection of vets with one or two NCAA rings on their fingers and a quartet of athletic freshmen who make up the best recruiting class in history.
Now consider what that combination has wrought thus far: Among the 30 wins the Lady Vols have collected this season, by an average of 31.3 points, 12 are against Top 25 teams. Does that average disguise squeakers against the game's elite? Hardly. When Tennessee faced other Top 5 teams, it beat Louisiana Tech by 14, Connecticut by 15 and Old Dominion, the 1997 national runner-up, by 24. And against No. 17 Georgia, the Lady Vols won by a whopping 59 points. No other team in history has so easily disposed of a schedule like that. But does that alone qualify the Lady Vols for preeminence? "There's no way I'm gonna say they're the greatest team ever just because they've won a few games," says Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore. "But potentially? My word! It's all there."
It was all there too on the undefeated 1985-86 Texas team, which had five eventual All-Americas and crushed its 34 opponents—including II from the Top 20—by an average of 26.6 points. And it was all there on the two All-America-studded USC teams that Cheryl Miller led to titles in 1983 and '84. But being a dominant team in that era, when fewer women played and fewer schools had quality programs, isn't the same as dominating today, when there is a proliferation of both good players and strong programs.
Likewise, being the best player of all time is a much taller order today. Just as Miller was in her day, Holdsclaw is the most versatile, consistent and graceful player the women's game has ever seen. But the skill level that she has transcended is much higher. Now girls are dedicating their lives to basketball because there is a financial future in it. That wasn't true 15 years ago.
But Holdsclaw's value to Tennessee goes beyond her skill and versatility. Her self-assurance, leadership and refusal to lose are Jordanesque. When the chips are down—in Tennessee's case, when a 20-point lead has shrunk to nine—Holdsclaw responds with a breakaway layup here, a deft theft there and a cool three from anywhere. "She gives everyone confidence: players, coaches, trainers, fans," says Summitt. "You just know she's going to make it happen." How do we know? Going into the NCAA tournament last year the Lady Vols were only 23-10, but with Holdsclaw running the show, they won the title.
Tennessee's string of championships could continue for a while. Unlike Miller, who reigned as the greatest collegian ever for a good 10 years after she graduated in 1986, Holdsclaw is playing alongside her heir apparent. Tamika Catchings, a lightning-quick 6'2" freshman forward, is shooting better, defending better, averaging more points and recording more blocks, more assists, more steals and fewer turnovers than Holdsclaw did in her freshman year. In fact, the only thing Holdsclaw did better as a rookie was rebound. And when Holdsclaw was a freshman, she wasn't playing second fiddle to the greatest player ever to grace the game, nor was she playing with another superb freshman like Semeka Randall, whose 16.0 points a game give the Lady Vols a third consistent weapon.
Tennessee, which has no seniors playing, is expecting another wave of talented freshmen—including two post players—next year. Which leads us to this final, scary thought: As great as it is now, this team can still get a lot better.