KNOXVILLE — Not much appears to shock Kellie Harper.
For that reason, the new Tennessee women’s basketball coach had to mull over a question regarding any pleasant surprises from the Lady Vols during their recent three-game European Tour.
“I don’t know if surprised is the right word because I have high expectations,” Harper said. “I’m rarely surprised if I go in and see what I want to see, but I thought the players played hard, and they were very into what we were trying to do as a team and as a staff. That was a very good positive.”
On Friday, Harper stuck a balance of optimism and frankness about the lengths the team still has to go.
The Lady Vols are coming off a 19-13 season — the first time in the modern era they didn’t reach 20 wins.
They also suffered their first losing conference record and first six-game losing streak in 49 years, prompting a head coaching change.
Harper — who took over the program from Holly Warlick — said only time will tell how beneficial the trip was, but it certainly didn’t hurt getting to experience game settings as a new unit.
“It gave them an opportunity to hear my voice,” Harper said. “They know where to sit on the bench now. They know how to go in and out of the game. Little things that people take for granted sometimes, we don’t have to now go over those things for our first game in November. They have an understanding of what that’s supposed to look like, so it puts us a little ahead there.”
The Lady Vols went 3-0 on the trip that spanned August 5-15.
They defeated Dozy BV Den Helder in Den Helder, Netherlands, 97-45; KBBC Upkot Sparta Laarne in Laarne, Belgium, 106-64; and AK Select in Brétigny-sur-Orge, France, 93-43.
Tennessee sophomores Rae Burrell and Zaay Green scored in double figures all three games.
Harper, however, isn’t putting much stock into those victories.
“I don’t know that we can identify a rotation yet,” Harper said. “Really, the competition over there wasn’t what we’re going to see here, so that’s going to make a big difference. We have a lot more to put in as a staff and as a program.”
The team is young, with half of its 12-player roster featuring newcomers. Its most experienced returnee is junior forward/guard Rennia Davis, who led Tennessee in scoring (14.9), rebounding (7.7) and free throw percentage last season.
Harper said she will count on Davis to provide leadership — a role she said Davis seemed ready to step into abroad.
“In huddles, we were able to hear her voice,” Harper said. “We didn’t have a lot of adversity. There was one quarter in the whole trip where we faced a little adversity and didn’t play well while the other team did. I remember hearing her voice. I think the players naturally look to her because she’s the most experienced player on the team.”
Harper is coming off her most successful coaching season to date, leading Missouri State to its first Sweet 16 appearance in 18 years.
She was also a point guard for Tennessee under Pat Summitt from 1995-99, during which she helped the Lady Vols win three consecutive NCAA titles.
Harper is ready to bring that winning culture back to Tennessee, but she knows it will take time.
“I think it’s a process,” Harper said. “In terms of the basketball expectations, those definitely have not been set yet. We have a lot to do to even put ourselves in a position to know where we need to be. We talk about just wanting to be the best we possibly can be, and that’s going to take a lot both on and off the court.”