SEC preview: The Tennessee Lady Vols (part 1)

Prior to the commencement of the 2008-2009 college basketball season, I will profile teams in two conferences, as well as various other teams around the country. Southeastern Conference coverage continues today, with a preview of the Tennessee Lady Vols.

There wasn’t a Tennessee fan around who wasn’t at least a bit worried when the Lady Vols saw all five of their title-winning starters graduate last spring. Coach Pat Summitt assured the crowd at the post-championship celebration, “the cupboard isn’t bare – help is on the way,” in the form of seven super freshmen. And though I believe in Summitt more than I believe in most people, I still wasn’t at ease.

But I’m getting there now. And it seems, so is much of the Big Orange Family, aka Tennessee fans. Two weeks after official practice begun, and despite some collisions and other on-court mishaps, the new Lady Vols are downright promising.

The returning players have stepped up to lead, and have taken the new Lady Vols under their wings. The freshmen have thrown themselves into practices with a fierceness that stems from their belief in and dedication to the program and its philosophies – not to mention Summitt.

“It gives me a feeling of being honored to play here, having all of that history behind you,” freshman Alyssia Brewer told the News Sentinel. “Being here lets you know that Coach (Summitt) has put that in your hands, to continue the legacy that has been here. That feeling is hard work.” (1)

Summitt echoed the sentiment.

“The personnel may change from year to year, but our system won’t change,” she said. “We will play up and down basketball; we will press and run; and we’ll establish a strong inside game. It’s simply Lady Vol basketball.

“The caliber of players we have yera-in and year-out makes that happen, and our fans expect that level of excitement.”

To be sure, team members have been paying their dues lately. Official practices begun two weeks ago with scrimmages against male practice players, and have not let up since. Practices are 2.5-hour non-stop affairs, laced with sprints for the freshmen to get them used to Tennessee conditioning and free throws for all to simulate game-like situations of shooting when tired. For the one day when players were lackluster in practice – Oct. 22 – Summitt laid down the law.

The Coach, senior Alex Fuller and sophomore Angie Bjorklund had traveled to Birmingham, AL for SEC Media Day, leaving assistant coaches Holly Warlick, Dean Lockwood and Daedra Charles-Furlow in charge of practice. When Summitt called Warlick to check in, Warlick told her it was “not good.” Players weren’t exerting enough effort, and weren’t responding well to coaching.

Summitt ordered a 6 a.m. practice the morning after the bad practice. Satisfied with what she saw, she called a Thursday afternoon session and liked the effort from players then, too. The new incarnation of the Lady Vols had passed a big test.

“It’s an amazingly positive group,” strength coach Heather Mason said a few days earlier. “Really hungry, wanting to see where they could go.” (2)

But there have been complications along the way.

Fuller fell hard on her left knee the second day of practice, but escaped major injury. Then sophomore Cait McMahan and freshman Glory Johnson had a head collision. A few days later, sophomore Vicki Baugh’s recovering knee (ACL tear from the April 8 championship game) swelled up after practice, slowing her progress.

Freshmen Shekinna Stricklen took a blow to the head the following Saturday, and sat out of practice Monday. This followed a minor elbow injury two days earlier, and a death in the family. Brewer sat with her, suffering from a stomach illness.

This past Wednesday, Johnson and freshman Amber Gray sat out practice with a banged knee and a sprained ankle, respectively. Johnson came back Thursday, but Gray’s ankle is still swollen.

Could the youngest team in Lady Vol history have the jitters? Over-eagerness is more like it.

“I guess that’s the exuberance and youth of our basketball team,” Summitt said at a pre-season photo shoot with the team, who wanted to do a ‘back-to-back-to-back’ photo. “You’ve got to love their enthusiasm.”

Ironically Summitt, who has headed the program for 35 years, also said before the season that their success would be “a direct result of how quickly we are able to get our freshmen class committed and engaged into this style of play and intensity.”

Tennessee fans, take heart. The signs are good.

On a personal level there is also reason to be optimistic, as the 13-member team is reported to be getting along extremely well (more on that in part two). Fuller took time to orient the freshmen to campus this summer, and makes herself available for their questions. The young players began calling the lone senior “grandma.”

Bjorklund has also taken on a leadership role, despite being only a sophomore, and supports and encourages Fuller, as well. The freshmen also look up to Baugh.

Fans have been treated to one open practice, which complimented the usual plethora of stories and photos that show up this time of year. Freshman Briana Bass is being compared to Shannon Bobbitt, who graduated last year. Both are 5’2″, are ridiculously fast, and each have an infectious smile that endears them to fans.

Last week a photo ran in which Baugh had picked up a laughing Bass during practice to carry her across court. In an interview, Bass showed her sense of humor by revealing that she talks to herself during practice – as well as her injured body parts.

“I kind of like talk to myself,” she said, “especially my (surgically repaired) knee, telling my knee, ‘it’s going be O.K.’ ” (1)

The Lady Vols will have plenty of options at each position. At point, there is McMahan, Bass and freshman Alicia Manning. Fuller, Johnson and Gray comprise the forwards, and the post roster features Baugh, Brewer and 6’6″ freshman Kelley Cain. At two-guard are Bjorklund, Stricklen, Manning and sophomore Sydney Smallbone.

Last week Summitt said she would commit to only two starters so far: Johnson and Stricklen. But a few days later, the coach said she might have been premature to tag the two newcomers so early.

Message? There is a lot of playing time available this season. In fact, the field has perhaps never been so wide open. Every day is a chance for each player to prove she should be on the court, which is no doubt another reason for the urgency in practice.

Along with the bevy of new players, former Lady Vol Daedra Charles-Furlow joined the coaching staff this year, filling the shoes of former assistant Nikki Caldwell. From all accounts, Charles-Furlow has made a seamless transition because she feels like she has come back home (again, more on this in part two).

Despite the youth of the team, coaches chose Tennessee to finish second in the SEC, behind Vanderbilt, in a poll two weeks ago. Yesterday the Associated Press released their pre-season top 25, and the Lady Vols were ranked seventh on that list. No doubt, the rankings have much to do with the strength of Tennessee’s schedule.

In December, the Vols face George Washington, Middle Tennessee, Texas, Old Dominion, Stanford and Gonzaga before traveling to New Jersey to take on Rutgers on Jan. 3. They have their first exhibition game this Thursday, and open the regular season at home Nov. 15 against San Francisco.

Summitt said other teams are waiting to pounce on her young squad.

“People are licking their chops to beat us,” she said. “They’re thinking: This is the time.” (1)

But if you’re like me, you never count out the greatest coach of all time. Summitt, already the winningest coach in the history of the game, needs 17 wins to mark her 1000th career victory. If she were any other coach I’d guess that win would come in March, if she’s lucky. But I’m putting my money on January. You just don’t bet against Pat Summitt.

I’m also not going to bet against the new Lady Vols. I have a feeling this team will eventually have a very 2007 and 2008 ring to it, and sooner than one might think.