KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — New Tennessee coach Kellie Harper believes it would be good for women’s basketball to have the Lady Vols competing for titles again.
How long that might take depends on how soon Tennessee can improve under Harper, a point guard for three straight Lady Vols national championship teams from 1996-98.
“Our fans obviously want it so bad, but I think women’s basketball needs it,” Harper said Monday in an interview with The Associated Press. “I think women’s basketball needs Tennessee back in there. Obviously that’s what we’re striving for.”
Harper, who led Missouri State to the Sweet 16 this season, begins her first full week as Tennessee’s coach trying to get the Lady Vols back among the nation’s elite women’s basketball programs. Tennessee hired Harper to replace Holly Warlick, who was fired after going 172-67 in seven seasons.
Tennessee has won eight national titles and is the only school that has reached every NCAA Tournament in the event’s 38-year history. But the Lady Vols haven’t reached a Final Four since 2008, their last national championship season.
“I think we’re right on the cusp, I really do,” Harper said. “I think this team can be right back there. As soon as we get to that Final Four, the dam’s going to break, I really do believe.”
Tennessee reached regional finals in three of Warlick’s first four seasons but hasn’t advanced beyond the second round of the last three NCAA Tournaments. Tennessee lost in the first round to UCLA this year to cap a 19-13 season, marking the first time since 1975-76 that the Lady Vols failed to win at least 20 games.
Warlick acknowledged after the UCLA game that the program needed a culture change. Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer said at Harper’s introductory news conference last week that he was seeking a coach who could “develop our young ladies into a real team — not just a group of athletes.”
“Building the confidence is going to be really important,” Harper said. “I think that’s going to be a big part of our job. As much as the basketball piece, I think it’s the mental piece that’s going to be as (important) if not more important for this group.”
Harper says her staff will include her husband, Jon Harper, and Jennifer Sullivan. After working five years with Harper at Missouri State, Sullivan spent this season as an Ohio State assistant coach. Throughout Harper’s 15-year head coaching career, her husband has worked as an assistant on her staff. Harper hasn’t decided on her third assistant.
Although Tennessee nepotism laws prevent state employees from supervising their spouses, Jon Harper can still be part of the Lady Vols’ staff because he will be reporting directly to associate athletic director Angie Boyd-Keck.
The new staff will be working with a roster that would feature seven McDonald’s All-Americans if guard Evina Westbrook returns for her junior season. Westbrook, who had 14.9 points per game this season to match Rennia Davis for the team lead, has entered the NCAA transfer portal but could remain at Tennessee.
Tennessee’s incoming freshman class features Jordan Horston, the MVP of this year’s McDonald’s All-American Game. So this isn’t the typical rebuilding process that occurs after a coach gets fired.
“You will not hear me use that term,” Harper said. The word “rebuilding will not be used. That’s something that can be seen as a negative, and I don’t want these players to feel any negative right now.”
Harper said she inherits a long and athletic team that is particularly deep at the wing spots.
She acknowledged that “a lot of our players are similar” and that she’d like to add players with different skill sets as she signs her own recruits over the next few years. Bringing in more capable 3-point shooters is a priority.
But Harper believes there already is enough talent in place for Tennessee to win right away.
“I don’t think we talked to them about, ‘Let’s build for this,’” she said. “We talked about, ‘Let’s do this now.’ They came here because of the great tradition, but they also came here to win. I think it’s important that we don’t sell ourselves short and we give ourselves an opportunity to win quickly.”