KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee heads into the NCAA Tournament embracing its unfamiliar role as a potential underdog.
No longer is Tennessee mentioned with the reverence of an elite program alongside the likes of UConn, Notre Dame, South Carolina and Baylor, all top seeds.
Instead, after a disappointing regular season, Tennessee is seeded seventh in the Sioux Falls Regional — the Lady Volunteers' lowest seed ever. This is just the third time in the last 30 seasons Tennessee hasn't entered the tournament as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.
That means Tennessee doesn't get to stay home for the first weekend of the tournament, a perk for the top 16 overall seeds. After setting a school single-season record for losses, the Lady Vols (19-13) face No. 10 seed Green Bay (28-4) in the opening round Friday at Tempe, Arizona, nearly 1,900 miles from Tennessee's campus.
Tennessee coach Holly Warlick took a glass-half-full approach to the challenging trip.
"I think that this team plays better as an underdog," Warlick said. "Have we played our best basketball throughout the whole year? No, but I think we've turned it around. ... What I love about us and what we're doing right now is we're playing extremely hard."
This is an unusual and somewhat embarrassing situation for a program that has won eight national titles, though Tennessee hasn't reached the Final Four since its 2008 championship season.
Tennessee was ranked fourth at the start of the season but struggled with consistency and fell out of the rankings last month, ending a string of 565 consecutive weeks in the Top 25. Tennessee hadn't been unranked since February 1985.
The Lady Vols are on pace for their lowest scoring average (65.1) and field-goal percentage (.403) since former coach Pat Summitt took over the program in 1974. In two of its last three regular-season games, Tennessee lost to an LSU team that finished 10-21 and an Alabama program that hadn't beaten the Lady Vols since 1984.
Add that all together and a seventh seed doesn't look so bad.
"Based on the year we had — it was up and down — we're just happy to be in," Tennessee guard Diamond DeShields said. "You can't really say too much about who we play other than we knew that at this point wherever we played, we were just going to be grateful for wherever we were because we didn't play our best basketball this year, so we earned what we got."
But the Lady Vols still have reason for hope.
DeShields has been erratic in her first season at Tennessee and went scoreless in two of her final four regular-season games. But the North Carolina transfer averaged 19.6 points per game in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. Tennessee beat Texas A&M and reached the SEC semifinals — coincidentally as a No. 7 seed — before its problems on offense resurfaced in a loss to Mississippi State.
"We have the talent, but we're playing with a lot of passion," Warlick said. "That's what we've needed on a consistent basis."
The inconsistency should give Green Bay a little added confidence.
ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo noted that the Lady Vols are dangerous when they have a good flow to their offense and are locked in defensively. The question is how a team that won at Oregon State and trounced NCAA Tournament participants Georgia and Auburn could also play poorly enough to lose consecutive games to LSU and Alabama.
"They've got such good size on the perimeter," Lobo said during a conference call Friday. "When they extend their defense, it can make them so difficult to play against. But it's just been finding that consistency. I would imagine that's got to be one of the biggest frustrations for Coach Warlick and for the fans down there. You just don't know which team is going to show up. It's kind of like, 'All right, let's turn the TV on and see how Tennessee is going to play today.'
"While that is scary for opponents because you might get the great version of Tennessee that's going against you that day, I don't know if it's a recipe for a long run because habits are habits."