KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Pat Summitt isn't planning on making any excuses for her young Lady Volunteers this season. They're too talented.
The Hall of Fame coach will lead one of her youngest teams ever this season after losing 2008 player of the year Candace Parker and four other key players from last season's national championship squad that finished 36-2.
"The big thing right now is that we are trying to teach six true freshmen how we do things here at Tennessee,'' Summitt said.
Tennessee, ranked 7th, is always expected to make a run at the NCAA title - Summitt has won two straight and eight overall - but hardly anyone expects the Lady Vols to win a third straight with so much youth on the floor.
They weren't even picked to win the Southeastern Conference this season during the league's annual preseason media days. Instead, they were pegged to place second behind rival Vanderbilt.
A national title three-peat might be just out of reach, but there is one landmark to achieve this season. Summitt is only 17 wins away from amassing 1,000 in her career and could reach the mark as soon as mid-January.
"When I think about a thousand wins ... I can't believe I've been doing it this long and we've had the success we've had. But there's a correlation there to winning. The success comes from having the best talent,'' Summitt said.
She prefers talent over experience.
Forward Alex Fuller is Tennessee's only senior, and sophomore guard Angie Bjorklund is its only player with significant starting experience. Bjorklund's 8.4 average points per game and 68 3-point shots last season make her the most productive returning player.
Summitt is looking to both Fuller and Bjorklund to be more vocal team leaders, a role that isn't completely natural for them.
"This year is definitely going to be different - a reloading year - but I'm looking forward to taking that role on,'' Bjorklund said.
Aside from Fuller and Bjorklund, sophomore forward Vicki Baugh and sophomore guard Sydney Smallbone are the only other two players who saw significant playing time last season.
Summitt brought in the top 2008 recruiting class, chock full of McDonald's All-Americans, to fill the gigantic hole left by Parker, Alexis Hornbuckle, Nicky Anosike, Shannon Bobbitt and Alberta Auguste. The quintet combined to average 55.2 points last season.
For Summitt, teaching freshmen players how to train, practice and communicate at a higher level is a role she relishes.
"Some catch on a little more quicker than others. A lot of that has to do with just the environment they're coming from,'' she said.
The ones who have caught on most quickly are guard Shekinna Stricklen and forward Glory Johnson, who played for high school teams with a similar up-tempo style to Summitt's. Both players have a shot at making a big impact early.
Stricklen said there's still plenty of lessons she's learning about playing defense and communicating with her teammates.
"In high school you're the best player on the team, and they look to you to do everything. But when you come to the University of Tennessee everyone is good and you need to learn to rely on each other,'' she said.
Tennessee's freshman class also features point guard Briana Bass and forwards Amber Gray, Alicia Manning and Alyssia Brewer.
Other players Summitt will lean on early are a few Lady Vols who have spent much of the off season rehabbing injuries. Sophomore point guard Cait McMahan and freshman center Kelley Cain are returning after taking redshirt seasons to recover from knee surgeries.
Baugh, whose 4 rebounds per game and 29 blocks last season are the most of the returning players, also spent the offseason recovering from a knee injury she sustained in the NCAA title game. Baugh will be out for at least the first two weeks of the season as she continues to rehab.
The Lady Vols will celebrate last year's national championship by raising their NCAA banner to the rafters of Thompson-Boling Arena when they open their season Saturday against San Francisco.
Tennessee's schedule is as tough as ever with non-conference games at Texas, Old Dominion, Gonzaga, Rutgers and Oklahoma. The Lady Vols will host their NCAA title game opponent, Stanford, at home, as well as DePaul and Duke.
They also play defending SEC regular season champion LSU at Baton Rouge and face Vanderbilt twice.
"We're going to have to grow up in a hurry,'' Summitt said.