Maria M. Cornelius is a Knoxville-based writer who covers the Lady Vols for tennessee.scout.com. She was kind enough to (virtually) sit down with me and provide her insight into the new team, which she’s watched in action often this fall. I asked her several questions I was curious about that I hadn’t yet seen addressed, and she was able to help me fill in the blanks.
S.F. : Can you say officially what you told me the other night, that they aren’t focused on recruiting so much right now? Or can you allude to it in some way? Because I know there are specific NCAA rules on recruiting.
M.C.: By NCAA rule coaches can’t comment on specific recruits until they sign the LOI. However, they are allowed to discuss the number of players they hope to sign from any given class. Over the summer Pat Summitt said Tennessee would likely sign two to three players from the class of 2009.
From published reports, Lady Vol fans now know that three players verbally committed to Tennessee in Kamiko Williams, Faith Dupree and Taber Spani from the class of 2009, and Lauren Avant committed early from the class of 2010.
Since Tennessee only has four scholarships available to offer for the next two years, it is reasonable to conclude that the coaching staff is through with recruiting for 2009 and 2010 and is now evaluating the class of 2011.2.
S.F.: What does this Lady Vol squad remind you of – any teams of the past?
M.C.: It is tempting to compare them to the 2004-05 team because that was when the original “Six Pack” arrived on campus. But two of those players needed knee surgery before playing a minute for Tennessee so the class was quickly cut to four available that season.
That team also had three veteran seniors in Loree Moore and Shyra Ely, who both play now in the WNBA, and Brittany Jackson. This team has one senior in Alex Fuller.
So because of the youth on the 2008-09 team I can’t really say that they remind me of any past team. They are charting some new territory here.
S.F.: How do you see the players meshing personally? Are they close and do they get along? How do their personalities blend? Anything interesting about specific players, i.e. so-and-so is tenacious during such-and-such a time, etc.
M.C.: They seem to genuinely get along very well. They arrive early to practice, stay late and are constantly cutting up and laughing with each other beforehand. Four of the freshmen are suitemates and two are roommates in the same dorm so they see each other a lot off the court. Add in mandatory study hall for freshmen by Pat Summitt’s rule, and they pretty much spend most of the day and night in the same places.
Alex Fuller has embraced the role of elder stateswoman, and the four sophomores also have taken the youngsters under their wing.
Cait McMahan has a tenacious personality. So does Amber Gray. One interesting fact about Gray is that her grand-grandfather is Benjamin Hooks, the former executive director of the NAACP, Baptist minister and legendary civil rights activist. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and now his great-granddaughter plays for Tennessee. As Amber herself has said, he’s one of the reasons she lives her life as a free woman.
S.F.: How do you see their games meshing on the court? Complementary? What do certain people need to work on? Strengths and weaknesses of each player?
M.C.: I think by midseason they will be used to playing with each other and will improve significantly from now to postseason. Right now they are not familiar with each other on the court – small things such as how a post player likes to receive a feed and where does the jump-shooter prefer to set up and when and where does she want to get the ball. They also need to learn when to bounce pass, when to fire it in there and when to take something off of the pass.
Alex Fuller – strengths, three-point shot, leadership, court savvy, communication, ability to run the floor; weaknesses, perimeter defense and undersized in the paint. But she has excellent footwork inside on defense and offense so she can make up for lack of height.
Cait McMahan – strengths, can put the ball on the floor and get to the rim, also has a dependable perimeter shot, tenacious on defense, will take a charge from a player twice her size; weaknesses, three-point shot must become consistent to keep defenses honest, must learn the playbook inside and out after sitting out a year.
Angie Bjorklund – strengths, outside shot, she has considerable range and is very consistent, quicker on defense, better trapper, should get to the rim this season instead of just firing from outside, outstanding free throw shooter; weaknesses, must read the defense, ball security.
Sydney Smallbone – strengths, three-point shot is very consistent and release is faster this season, got stronger in the off-season and is quicker on defense, another outstanding free throw shooter; weaknesses – must make good decisions with the ball in her hand, reading the defense, ball security
Vicki Baugh – strengths, one of the most athletic players on the floor, can defend inside and out, good shot blocker, can run the floor with and without the ball in her hand, outside shot is much better with more range; weaknesses – coming back from ACL surgery so has yet to play full court, hard to assess her game completely right now for that reason. She does elevate the play when she is out there in the half-court sets.
Kelley Cain – strengths, excellent hands, throw it anywhere close, and she will catch it in the post, finishes at the basket, solid at free throw line, moves her feet on defense, can hit jumpers at elbows and short corners; weaknesses – catching up on conditioning after missing a year for major surgery to realign her right kneecap, must be able to run the floor at the minutes Tennessee will need her to play.
Briana Bass – strengths, cat-quick with the ball in her hands, lateral quickness as well as straight-ahead, has a solid shot from behind the arc, can also hit short jumpers, attitude is excellent in terms of being coachable’ weaknesses – good one-on-one defender but must learn UT concepts such as switching and help-side, needs to hunt shots in the offense, not always look to pass
Alyssia Brewer – strengths, guard’s vision in a post-sized body, excellent passer, can finish at the basket and shoot from outside; weaknesses – like all freshmen, learning the defensive principles, must run the floor (will come with conditioning) and not get out of position on defense
Amber Gray – strengths, good shooter, good passer, has good instincts on both sides of the ball, vocal, natural leadership tendencies, undersized for post but has a knack for rebounding position; weaknesses – conditioning has to improve, lost some time with a nagging quad pull in preseason, will have to be able to defend on the perimeter, too, at her size, like most freshmen, still grasping defensive principles.
Glory Johnson – strengths, like Baugh, a very athletic player and one of the fastest on the team, has a knack for rebounding, aggressive defender, can get to the rim, can literally defend all five spots on the floor, leaping ability is such that she would jump center if she started; weaknesses – shooting range is limited, must become a better shooter in the field and at the line, can recover on defense due to athleticism but must also learn concepts.
Alicia Manning – naturally talkative on the court, has some innate leadership abilities, excellent midrange shot and can stick threes, too, likes to rebound and will mix it up in the paint, gets up and down the floor very well; weaknesses, I sound like a broken record, but defensive concepts (freshman don’t play this kind of defense in high school), reading the defense, ball security.
Shekinna Stricklen – oozes athleticism, glides across the floor, has a polished smoothness to her offensive game rarely seen in a freshman, has three-point range to roughly 23 to 25 feet, quick with the ball in her hand, will hit the glass, can run rim to rim, never seems to tire; weaknesses – very quiet, will have to raise her volume, must learn point guard as a backup, a position she has never played, like Johnson, her athleticism allows her to recover from a defensive mistake but must also learn concepts.
S.F.: How does Summitt feel about the team being picked second in SEC? What is Summitt’s goals for the season?
M.C.: Pat Summitt thought they would be picked fourth. She sees youth and inexperience, though a lot of talent. The preseason rankings ultimately could serve as motivation for the team if players think they are being overlooked. She and her staff are so busy teaching this preseason that they haven’t really paid attention to predictions and rankings.
S.F.: The team’s response last week to the “punishment” practices was good. This bodes well, right? How mature are the freshmen?
M.C.: They get it and that does bode well. They made that mistake and bounced right back. So far they have handled the intensity and criticism without hanging their heads. It’s a long season and freshmen can hit a wall, but this group all came here for one reason – they wanted to compete with the best and see how they measured up. They also are motivated by the fact that playing time is available this season since five starters left, four of whom did well in the WNBA. The personnel losses at Tennessee were huge. Someone has to fill them, and the coaching staff may go nine to 10 deep in the rotation. There are minutes available.
S.F.: In what ways/what things have Fuller and Bjorklund done to show they’re leaders this year?
M.C.: Fuller adopted the team over the summer and made sure they knew how to get to class and which building was where. She has been the one they pepper with questions and they now call her “grandma.”
Bjorklund has led by example – she is on the court early, stays late and has been a leader in the weight room, conditioning, etc. Her game is much improved. She wasn’t satisfied with her freshman year. She raised her own bar.
Fuller, Bjorklund, Kelley Cain, Cait McMahan, Vicki Baugh and Sydney Smallbone also bring the freshmen over to their off-campus locations to make them part of the group. Early on, the returning players have made sure the freshmen feel like they belong.
S.F.: What’s the format of a typical practice? Conditioning, stretch, warmups, then what? An example of a typical day in the life of a Lady Vol would be wonderful.
M.C.: The players must be on the floor 15 minutes before the official start of practice taped and stretching. Most are there 30 minutes beforehand and already shooting on their own. The coaches devise daily practice schedules – and each includes a “Thought for the Day” – and they practice basically non-stop for two to 2.5 hours. Free throws are always mixed into practice so they are being shot when the players are tired – game-like situations.
They begin each practice in a circle at center court and go over the thought for the day and handle any announcements or team matters, such as an upcoming event or whatever happens to be on a coach’s mind to emphasize. This lasts anywhere from two to five minutes. One day Pat passed around a mirror and had each player look at it to remind them of accountability and that they are the faces of the Lady Vols.
They end each practice in the same circle for a breakdown of how practice went and any reminders that need to be made. If it’s someone’s birthday, Pat will sing to them.
S.F.: How hard is Pat riding them now?
M.C.: Very but with an eye toward building them up, too. With only five players on the roster who have logged an official minute as a Lady Vol, the staff is in total teaching mode. That means a lot of repetition and hand’s on instruction. Preseason was used to install concepts and principles. As the season gets underway the volume will ratchet up. She is riding them hard now in terms of physical and up-tempo practices, but her tone with them is still relatively gentle. That will change as circumstances dictate.
S.F. How is new coach Daedra liking it?
M.C.: Daedra Charles-Furlow is “home.” This is a dream post for a former Lady Vol. Although Dae, as she is called, is originally from Detroit, she considers Tennessee to be her true home. She was a post legend for the Lady Vols – a banner honoring her retired jersey hangs in the arena – and she is still young enough to relate to the players yet still be demanding of them.
Thank you, Maria, for taking the time to share your insight.