Tennessee season preview: Lady Vols will rely on both veterans and newcomers

Once again this fall, I sat down with 247 Sports Tennessee reporter Maria Cornelius to preview the Tennessee Lady Vols for the upcoming season. Cornelius has been covering the team for two decades, attending both games and practices, and sometimes travels for road games.

Jamie Nared. Photo courtesy of UT Athletics.
Jamie Nared. Photo courtesy of UT Athletics.

There are only two returning starters in Jaime Nared and Mercedes Russell, and three reserves coming back. How is the team performing together with five newcomers?

Coach Holly Warlick has made it a point to commend Jaime Nared and Mercedes Russell for their leadership all summer and throughout preseason. Warlick knew that the senior starters had to embrace the newcomers and help them on and off the court.

That process has been eased by a freshman class that is low-maintenance and doesn’t need a lot of attention. The freshmen have confidence, but it’s not arrogance or an attitude that would annoy upperclassmen. They are talented, and they know it – but they work hard, ask questions and listen. It is encouraging to see a highly-touted class arrive that already is so grounded.

During Tuesday’s exhibition game against Carson-Newman, the seniors helped calm down the freshmen, who had a somewhat wide-eyed look when they took the court. During warmup drills and pregame introductions, the newcomers were taking it all in – and looking to the seniors in terms of exactly what to do.

Thompson-Boling Arena is a big venue, and about 7,000 fans were on hand for the game. That number will increase for Sunday’s regular season opener against East Tennessee State University. The freshmen looked nervous for a few minutes against Carson-Newman, and then showed why they were the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in the country in 2017. Team chemistry is noticeably improved. The seniors want a successful season, and they know that won’t happen without the freshmen.

Only Nared and Russell averaged double-figure scoring last season. Which of the new players can make an immediate impact? Maybe you could talk briefly about the strengths of each.

All five newcomers are being counted on to make an immediate impact, though not equivalent ones because of position and need. Russell is rooted at the center spot with relief coming from junior college transfer Cheridene Green and freshman Kasiyahna Kushkituah.

Green is from London, England, and is the Lady Vols’ first international player. She is an agile post who can guard on the perimeter and in the paint. Green, from ASA College in New York, sat out of the exhibition with a minor injury, and her defense was missed. The injury was an upper body one (not her surgically-repaired knee), and Tennessee is counting on Green for considerable help this season. She doesn’t shy away from contact, and is mentally tough.

Kushkituah is a physical player, which is rare for a freshman. She instinctively plays at the rim and keeps the ball high on shots and rebounds. Kushkituah has been well-coached because she arrived in college with sound fundamentals. Hybrid posts who play inside and out seem to be popular now, but the 6-4 Kushkituah, who played at St. Francis High School in Atlanta, Georgia, wants to be a low-block presence. She is exactly what Tennessee needs this season in terms of post depth.

Rennia Davis was compared in preseason to Chamique Holdsclaw in terms of the smoothness of her jump shot. That assessment is accurate, but for Davis’ sake, let’s pump the brakes on that comparison. Holdsclaw, along with Candace Parker, are the two greatest Lady Vols of all time, and both of their banners hang in the arena’s rafters.

With that said, Davis can be a superstar in college. The product of Ribault High School in Jacksonville, Florida, is 6-2 and can dunk. She aggressively gets on the offensive glass and then switches gears and lofts a soft shot. She started the exhibition game, misfired on her first shot and then settled down and put up 27 points in 29 minutes. She added 13 rebounds for good measure.

Evina Westbrook also started the exhibition game, scored 17 points and dished six assists. She is from South Salem High School in Salem, Oregon, and can set up at point or switch seamlessly to the two spot. At 6-0, she gives the Lady Vols options to go big at point or let her operate from the wing. Westbrook is a competitor and is undaunted by the big stage. Like Davis, she looked a little nervous at tipoff, and then settled down.

Anastasia Hayes. Photo courtesy of UT Athletics.
Anastasia Hayes. Photo courtesy of UT Athletics.

Anastasia Hayes is one of the fastest Lady Vols to ever take the court – her speed is reminiscent of former Tennessee point guard Shannon Bobbitt. Hayes, who played at Riverdale High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, also is unselfish and helped to recruit the entire 2017 class. While Hayes can play point, she told Westbrook and Tennessee’s coaches that she would slide to the wing if needed. Hayes also is a competitor and wants to win. The late Pat Summitt said she wanted players who hated losing more than they loved winning. Hayes is one of those.

How are the three seniors prepared to lead the team this season? Did the U23 experience this summer help Nared and Russell?

The Lady Vols are a mix of experience and youth. The three seniors, Kortney Dunbar, Nared and Russell, along with junior Meme Jackson, have played in a lot of venues and situations. Sophomore Kamera Harris played in seven games last season. The four freshmen and Green make their Tennessee debuts this season. So that’s five players with Division I experience and five players with no minutes logged at that level.

Mercedes Russell. Photo courtesy of UT Athletics.
Mercedes Russell. Photo courtesy of UT Athletics.

Fortunately, the Lady Vols have two senior starters. Nared and Russell are not what would be called natural leaders. But they have both embraced the challenge and accepted the role. Nared is more demonstrative and vocal, while Russell helps to steer a steady ship. Hopefully, Dunbar can have a healthy senior season – she has dealt with plantar fasciitis in her foot, a particularly troubling injury for a long-range shooter who needs to curl off screens and get lift from the feet – because she is one of the better three-point shooters on the team.

Both Nared and Russell have said the U23 experience with USA Basketball was a great experience and focused on basketball, not sightseeing or being a tourist in Tokyo, Japan. It is beneficial to just go through training camp, much less make the team and then win a gold medal. The experience was invaluable for both of them, and it’s always a jolt of confidence and affirmation of their skills to make a USA team.

What is Holly Warlick’s approach to the season?

Warlick seems to really like this team because the players work hard. She and her staff are not having to coach effort. That doesn’t mean there is not slippage at times, but the newcomers seem to take a serious approach to the game. Warlick has noted that players are getting in the gym on their own and asking coaches for additional workouts. Granted, as a full season unfolds, it takes a toll on a team because of basketball and academic demands. Will the freshmen hit a wall? Probably. But they seem willing to push through it.

Evina Westbrook. Photo courtesy of UT Athletics.
Evina Westbrook. Photo courtesy of UT Athletics.

The coaches know they have a mix of veterans and newcomers, so the approach has been a demanding one but also a patient one. As one coach said, “Freshmen don’t know what they don’t know.” Experience is the best teacher and that means mistakes. Warlick has shown a willingness to let youngsters play through mistakes. That approach will be needed again. A lot will be placed on the shoulders of freshmen, and it can’t weigh them down. They have demonstrated early mental toughness to push through tough workouts. The four freshmen also love the program. They came to Tennessee to win. Period.

What has former Lady Vol Bridgette Gordon added since she was named assistant coach this past summer?

In a word, toughness. Gordon is very involved and vocal at practice. She knows the expectations at Tennessee. She is thrilled to be “home.” June and July are tough months to hire a new assistant coach as staffs are set and ready to head out on the summer recruiting trail. But Old Dominion plucked former Lady Vol Nikki McCray in late May, South Carolina called Tennessee assistant Jolette Law back to her home state in mid-June, and Warlick was left with an open spot going into July.

Gordon checked a lot of boxes. She had recruiting success at Wichita State, she had a great relationship with Warlick and Dean Lockwood and knew Sharrona Reaves from the recruiting road. The learning curve wasn’t steep at all for Gordon. She understands the culture of Tennessee and how to teach it and reach players. Gordon also had to hit the ground running as she arrived in Knoxville in August.

Her jersey hangs in the banner – Gordon led the Lady Vols to their first two NCAA national titles in 1987 and 1989 – and her resume includes All-American honors, NCAA Final Four MVP, U.S. Olympic gold medalist and former WNBA player. But Gordon also knows that no player on this team was even born yet when she was at Tennessee. While Gordon is steeped in Lady Vol lore, she recognizes that this team has to carve its own path. The players can see her jersey in the arena. Gordon has no need to point it out.

Does the team have goals for the year? What are they?

Win. How big? That depends on overall health and how the freshmen hold up over a full season. A Final Four is a tall order – but the staff and players know it’s the expectation every season. The SEC coaches didn’t even pick Tennessee to finish in the top four in its own conference, instead putting the Lady Vols at the fifth slot. (The media voted Tennessee to finish fourth.) So, while Final Four is always the goal, Tennessee has to first prove itself in the SEC.

During Media Day in October, the players were asked about goals, and the answers varied from making the All-SEC freshmen team to being a consistent scorer. This was Westbrook’s reply: “For me I don’t feel like I really have any personal goals other than having the most successful year possible for my team. My biggest thing is winning, so I just want to win. I want to win big, and I think that’s all of our goals really.”

Renina Davis. Photo courtesy of UT Athletics.
Renina Davis. Photo courtesy of UT Athletics.

Who might have the potential to break out and surprise this season?

Rennia Davis has break-out potential. Her athleticism and shot-making ability are noticeable to novice and expert alike. She plays at the rim and her motions appear effortless. She has excellent body control in the air and is a good ball-handler. Tennessee can use Davis in multiple ways offensively, and she has a knack for being around any loose balls and the offensive glass.

Westbrook has a preternatural intensity about her. She is not always openly demonstrative, but she has a fire burning within – another Summitt-type player. Summitt always said she would teach and coach, but a player has to start her own engine. Westbrook’s engine is running.

Hayes has the quickness to make a difference on both ends. She puts pressure on the defense because she can drive and either dish or hit the layup. She flipped a no-look pass over her shoulder against Carson-Newman when it appeared she was going to the rim. The pass startled Russell and everyone watching because it was perfectly placed. This team will stumble along the way as everyone gets on the same page on the court and adjusts to different combinations, but where Tennessee is going with this group has engendered considerable enthusiasm, with good reason.

What did Tamika Catchings tell the team on her recent visit? Are there any other former Lady Vols who have stopped in?

Tamika Catchings always delivers a positive message to the team and makes herself available for one-on-one conversations, too. Catchings is the gold standard at Tennessee for effort and excellence on and off the court. She also remembers what it was like to play on a big stage and the pressures and demands of college basketball on this level. Catchings relates well to the players and already has their respect because of her accomplishments at every level of the game. She finds common ground, and the players feel comfortable around her.

Chamique Holdsclaw and Alexis Hornbuckle also have stopped by campus recently. Candace Parker was in town last season for the Notre Dame game in January.

Shannon Bobbitt was in town Saturday to sign copies of her book, “Bobbitt: 5-2 Giant Handling the Odds.” Catchings wrote the foreword for the book. Bobbitt, who won national titles at Tennessee in 2007 and 2008, attended practice and talked to the players. She told them the legacy of a Lady Vol is to be a champion.

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