Why one of college basketball’s greatest streaks could be in peril Monday night

Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick watches the action in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against South Carolina on March 2. Warlick has been on the hot seat due to the Vols' declining performance. (AP)
Tennessee head coach Holly Warlick watches the action in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against South Carolina on March 2. Warlick has been on the hot seat due to the Vols' declining performance. (AP)

Thirty-seven years after she played in the first women's NCAA tournament, former Tennessee forward Tanya Haave chuckles at how the sport's showcase event has evolved.

There wasn't much media coverage or spectator interest back then, nor did the national champs even receive T-shirts or rings commemorating their achievement.

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It was March 1982, eight years after Pat Summitt accepted the head-coaching job at Tennessee, a position that paid a mere $250 per month and required her to drive the team van and wash her players' jerseys. Women's college basketball had emerged from its pre-Title IX intramural era, but the sport still scarcely resembled the big-budget enterprise it has since become.

The NCAA and AIWA were waging a power struggle to become the primary sponsor of women's college athletics, so both organizations held concurrent national tournaments and competed to attract the sport's strongest teams. No women's NCAA tournament games aired on national TV that year until the Final Four, and even that was only because the NCAA demanded it in return for awarding CBS exclusive rights to the men's tournament.

"It makes me laugh to see how big it is now," said Haave, now the coach of Division II Metro State in her native Colorado. "It didn't have nearly the visibility it does now. I think we may have gotten watches for getting to the Final Four, but I don't even remember getting any gear."

The women's NCAA tournament has grown in size and prestige since its humble beginnings, but one aspect has remained constant year after year. Tennessee has qualified for every NCAA tournament since the event's inception, a claim no other women's college basketball program can make.

That remarkable streak is in unprecedented peril this March after Tennessee endured its rockiest regular season in recent history. The Lady Vols continued their descent from perennial juggernaut, to sporadic title contender, to the fringes of national relevance, staggering to a 19-12 record that leaves them squarely on the bubble just days before this year's women's NCAA tournament bracket is unveiled.

ESPN's Charlie Creme projects Tennessee as the second-to-last at-large team in the field in the mock bracket he updated Thursday morning. The Vols have a 7-9 conference record, a bloated No. 57 RPI and a head-scratching loss to last-place Vanderbilt, but their six victories against the RPI top 50 is better than most fellow bubble teams.

"This Tennessee team would not be in the mix in a different year and in a different set of circumstances, but there's just not a lot else to pick from, quite honestly," Creme said Wednesday on a conference call with reporters.

"Losing to Vanderbilt, that's inexplicable. But they're staying in it largely because there's just nobody else there to grab the spot."

Not knowing whether it will appear on the NCAA tournament bracket is a wholly unfamiliar feeling for Tennessee.

Summitt's teams earned No. 1 seeds 21 times in 31 NCAA tournament appearances before her retirement in 2012. Never had the Lady Vols received worse than a No. 5 seed before 2016 when they slipped to a No. 7 in Holly Warlick's fourth season as head coach.

If Tennessee's string of NCAA tournament appearances ends Monday night, it will not be the first historic streak to end since early onset Alzheimer's disease prematurely forced Summitt from the sideline. The Lady Vols fell out of the AP Top 25 for the first time since 1985 in 2016 and then this past January suffered their first losing streak of three or more games in 33 years.

The Tennessee Volunteers' women's basketball program has been in steady decline since legendary coach Pat Summitt stepped down in 2012. (AP)
The Tennessee Volunteers' women's basketball program has been in steady decline since legendary coach Pat Summitt stepped down in 2012. (AP)

Tennessee's decline has ratcheted up the pressure on Warlick, the three-time All-American guard who starred for Summitt from 1976-1980, coached under her from 1985-2012 and then succeeded her after she fell ill. Warlick did a phenomenal job stewarding the Lady Vols through the transition with grace and enthusiasm, but even she would admit the program's win-loss record during her tenure hasn't always met expectations.

Athletic director Phillip Fulmer gave Warlick a $25,000 raise and a contract extension through the 2021-22 season last summer, but another disappointing campaign this winter has fans pushing for a coaching change. The Knoxville News-Sentinel even published a column before last week's SEC tournament bluntly titled, "How many Lady Vols fans are pulling against Tennessee hoping Holly Warlick will get fired?"

The awkward situation is especially hard on former Tennessee players, many of whom want to see the program ascend to its former level yet remain very close with Warlick. A half dozen former Lady Vols standouts either did not return messages from Yahoo Sports or declined comment, from Chamique Holdsclaw, to Tamika Catchings, to Michelle Brooke-Marciniak, to Kellie Harper (the former Kellie Jolly).

Since she is a member of the University of Tennessee board of trustees, former Lady Vols guard Kara Lawson respectfully declined to answer questions about Warlick, this year's team or the state of the program. The ESPN analyst offered only some brief thoughts on Tennessee's odds of snagging one of the last available at-large bids to the NCAA tournament on Monday.

"It's unsure going into Selection Monday for them," Lawson said. "Bubble teams are kind of all the same. They have some positives to their résumé and some negatives. That's pretty much where Tennessee is. So I think it's going to be close."

There are a number of reasons why it's unfair to place all the blame on Warlick for Tennessee's decline.

Not only had the Lady Vols already fallen behind the likes of UConn, Notre Dame and Baylor by the time Summitt retired, the landscape of the sport had also begun to change. Dynasties were already becoming harder to build and sustain because the sport's talent base had deepened and its elite prospects were no longer considering just a couple of schools.

Aided by the strength of the Tennessee brand in women's basketball, Warlick has recruited well throughout her tenure, luring the nation's top-ranked class in 2017 and backing that up with a pair of top-10 classes in 2018 and 2019. One of her biggest recruiting coups was persuading Zaay Green to reopen her recruitment and choose Tennessee after the Class of 2018's No. 10 prospect had previously committed to Kansas.

"If Tennessee is calling on the phone, kids are still going to stop and pay attention," said Dan Olson, owner of the Collegiate Girls Basketball Report. "The Tennessee name still resonates with kids. They're still pulling some of the top players year after year."

Where Warlick has sometimes struggled is molding elite talent into a cohesive, winning team. This year's Lady Vols are erratic shooting from the perimeter, sometimes turn the ball over too frequently and rank 252nd in field-goal percentage defense nationally.

Warlick has sometimes also lamented the sporadic effort and lack of toughness her players have displayed this season, something that could be a result of their youth. All but two of Tennessee's rotation players this season are freshmen and sophomores, suggesting better days could be ahead if the core group stays together.

Tennessee took a significant step toward salvaging this season in last week's SEC tournament when it defeated LSU in an opening round game that might have eliminated the loser from NCAA tournament contention. The Vols then showed fight in a quarterfinal loss to powerful Mississippi State, raising hopes that they can make a run in the NCAA tournament if they are fortunate enough to be selected.

"Do I think we deserve to be in the tournament? Absolutely," Warlick told reporters after the Mississippi State loss. "We played a tough schedule. We've grinded it out. We got on a six-game losing streak. We stepped up. We competed. This is a young group, and they continue to get better."

Among those who will be watching closely Monday night will be Haave, one of the stalwarts of Tennessee's first NCAA tournament team. Haave says she'll have her "fingers crossed" that the Lady Vols can extend the remarkable streak she helped start back when the women's NCAA tournament was still in its infancy.

"I was so happy when they named Holly the coach," Haave said. "There are not many people who can come in and replace Pat, and she wanted to do it. It was the right decision. I know the results haven't always been there, but I think she has done as good a job as anyone could have under the circumstances."

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