Pat Summitt’s Lady Volunteers are always very talented, and this year, they are also very experienced.

Tennessee returns its top three scorers from a year ago, and seven of its top nine.

Those top three — sophomore Meighan Simmons, senior Shekinna Stricklen and senior Glory Johnson — all are preseason first-team All-SEC selections, with Stricklen tabbed as the preseason player of the year in the conference.

“I really feel like we have a veteran team,” Simmons said. “We have so many veterans that I don’t feel like there’s any excuse as to why we shouldn’t make it to the Final Four.”

Along with other returners like junior Taber Spani and seniors Alicia Manning and Vicki Baugh, the 2011-12 Lady Vols are poised to make a run to Denver, Colo., site of this year’s Women’s Final Four. Baugh, a redshirt senior, is the only player on the team who’s played in a Final Four, something the team is hoping to change.

“I think they have their eyes on it,” Summitt said. “Great focus, great leadership across the board. I know they’re aware that they haven’t cut down nets and obviously we (as coaches) don’t want to put pressure on them because of it.”

While Summitt and her assistants aren’t using the recent lack of a deep postseason run as motivation, they don’t need to. The players are putting it on themselves.

“The biggest thing is just we’re very focused,” Spani, who averaged 8 points per game and started 26 times last year, said. “We’re coming into practice every day and our mindset is get better. Get better every day. We’re not focused on the outside distractions, we’re just going to work every day with a businesslike atmosphere.”

For the versatile Stricklen, who averaged 12.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2 assists per game last season, this year is about taking on more of a leadership role to go along with stuffing the stat sheet.

“I’m communicating a lot more with teammates,” Stricklen said. “(We’re) coming in every day holding each other accountable and working hard. No more complaining. I can play every position and I just want to get better at every position, whether it’s playing the point, playing wing or playing inside.”

Simmons, the team’s leading scorer a year ago averaging 13.5 points per contest as a freshman, isn’t expected to play multiple positions. Last season, she was forced to play point guard, as opposed to her more natural position of shooting guard. With the addition of freshman Ariel Massengale at point guard, coaches are hoping to play Simmons off the ball more to create additional opportunities for her to create offense. But with all Summitt-coached players, it starts on the defensive end of the court.

“Meighan is trying to make a better commitment to her defense and distribute the ball more,” Summitt said. “She has the green light to shoot most of the time. We addressed better shot selection and I think she’s settled down now.”

Playing with poise and composure is a trademark of veteran teams, and most of the time it leads to better chemistry on the court. Like Dane Bradshaw was for the UT men’s teams from 2004-07, Manning appears to be that “glue player” for the Lady Vols this year.

“‘A-Town’ brings the energy to this team,” Baugh said. “If only we all played like her. That’s one player who is a blue-collar worker and a lot of the time she doesn’t get appreciated for the hard work because she does the things that don’t necessarily get you on TV and stuff. She always has that work ethic, and if we play like that, we’ll be competing for a championship.”

And it’s the lack of that championship that has the Lady Vols geared for a run at the school’s ninth national title.

“For me, personally, I think about that loss to Notre Dame (in last year’s Elite Eight) and never wanting to feel that again,” Spani said. “Obviously, getting to a Final Four, we haven’t done that in four years, it plays a lot into it as much as it’s cliche, but it motivates you. It better motivate you.”