Given the Texas women's basketball team's youthful roster featuring seven freshmen, most college basketball observers, fans and coaches might have expected UT to create a 2005-06 slate of games featuring an abundance of "mid-major" opponents and fewer Top 25 teams comprising college basketball's elite.
Yet, as is the philosophy of Texas head coach Jody Conradt, to be the best, you must play the best. The most effective way to bring along a talented, young team is to expose it to top-caliber opponents - the type of team the Longhorns aspire to play in late March and early April.
So, it was no coincidence that perennial powers Tennessee and Duke, along with Rutgers and Connecticut, were included in the Longhorns' non-conference schedule.
After all, Texas has played Tennessee each of the last five seasons and Duke in two of the past four seasons. But, after only four games in the books, the 3-1 Longhorns prepare to take on Tennessee and Duke in back-to-back games, and it just so happens that the Lady Vols and the Blue Devils each hold No. 1 national rankings.
"I don't think it has ever happened in the history of the program," said coach Jody Conradt of playing top-ranked teams in consecutive games. "It is ironic that this is happening with the most inexperienced team we've had in a long time."
Texas will meet Tennessee (5-0) tonight (Thursday, Dec. 1, 6 p.m. Central on ESPN2) in Knoxville, Tenn., having won four straight meetings with the Lady Vols, including two at Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena. Texas holds the longest current win streak in the nation against the Lady Vols - an enviable stretch of wins in any program's eyes.
Texas defeated then-No. 1 Tennessee by a 74-59 count in the teams' last meeting on Nov. 25, 2004 in Austin. Tennessee sits atop the ESPN/USA Today Coaches' Poll with 24 of 30 first-place votes, with the Blue Devils claiming the other six first-place votes.
Meanwhile, Duke, also 5-0, owns the top spot in the Associated Press Top 25 despite having one less first-place vote than No. 2 Tennessee. The Blue Devils will meet the Longhorns on Sunday, Dec. 4 at the Frank Erwin Center. Texas claimed the last meeting, an 85-77 victory at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, on Nov. 16, 2003.
Texas is the only team in the nation scheduled to play Tennessee and Duke in back-to-back games this season and is one of only four teams - along with Old Dominion, Maryland and Auburn - to have Tennessee and Duke on its schedule.
As noted earlier, the back-to-back games against Tennessee and Duke will mark the first time Texas has taken on top-ranked opponents in consecutive games. Texas' 2002-03 Final Four campaign marked the last time Texas battled teams ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the same season. The Longhorns dropped a regular-season game at No. 2 LSU (76-58, Dec. 28) and then were edged by top-ranked Connecticut at the Final Four in Atlanta (71-69). Texas had faced No. 4 Tenneessee (Dec. 21) prior to that contest against the No. 2 ranked Tigers in Austin, and won in dramatic fashion, 63-62, on then-freshman guard Nina's Norman dramatic 3-pointer with seconds remaining. That marked the last time UT has gone up against such highly-ranked opponents in back-to-back play.
Conradt sees these games as great chances to measure her young team against a pair of the nation's top teams.
"These are early-season games against elite programs, but it's not a time to get too high or too low," Conradt said. "It's a time to find out where you are and what you need to do to continue to improve.
"Tennessee and Duke each have a realistic chance of reaching the Final Four," Conradt continued. "We have an opportunity to see where we are early on."