During a recent practice, Andraya Carter sizes up the defense while Mercedes Russell, left and Nia Moore race down the court. (photo by Maria M. Cornelius)
Each year, I interview longtime scout.com Tennessee Lady Vols beat reporter Maria M. Cornelius for her insight on the team, and for her outlook on the pending season. As usual, her attention to detail does not disappoint.
Sue Favor: What are realistic goals for the Lady Vols this season? SEC title? NCAA Tournament run?
Maria Cornelius: IF they stay healthy – there are just 10 of them – the expectation is that the Lady Vols will be in Nashville at the Final Four and will compete for the national title. This is one of the most athletic teams ever fielded at Tennessee with players capable of having a tremendous impact on both sides of the ball. Tennessee was picked to win the SEC, a very fair assessment by coaches and media, but they will have competition, as the league can be brutal from beginning to end.
The SEC will be affected by the new officiating emphasis, but the flip side is that offensive players will benefit from having more freedom to move both inside and out. Also, the offensive push-off is more likely to be called. In the past, I have seen Tennessee defenders have excellent perimeter position, only to get shoved away with no call.
Cierra Burdick is a player with smooth offensive skills who can flat-out hit shots. She could benefit, too, because she can now move more freely on the perimeter, and she has the ability to get to the rim. Burdick also is unselfish – if she sees an open player in the paint, she is dishing and hitting the boards.
Nia Moore has had a year in the strength and conditioning program and should be able to provide some helpful minutes in the paint. She sets very nice screens, too, and can get shooters open.
It will be an adjustment, but the Lady Vols have skill players, and they are the ones most likely to benefit from the new rules. And while Tennessee was known for its physical defense, it has gotten away from that in the past few years because of injuries and personnel. So it might not be as big of an adjustment as initially believed. The Lady Vols should benefit quite a bit if it frees up the skill players to fill up the basket.
Tennessee isn’t hiding from the expectations. The official motto is Grind for 9, in reference to having eight national titles, and the locker room notes that the Final Four is in Nashville, which is essentially the Lady Vols’ backyard.
The Lady Vols haven’t been to a Final Four since 2008, so it may seem unfair to say that is a realistic goal in 2014. But the reality is that Tennessee is expected to be there, and the team knows it. If they stay healthy, I very much like their chances.
Sue Favor: Five starters return, and there are two newcomers this season. How does that translate into continuity and consistency for the team?
Maria Cornelius: Returning starters: Ariel Massengale, Meighan Simmons, Cierra Burdick, Bashaara Graves, Isabelle Harrison.
The key for the Lady Vols is good health. The starting lineup was gutted last season with injuries to key players, starting with Andraya Carter and then Cierra Burdick and Isabelle Harrison. Massengale was hindered by foot issues – one of the reasons Carter started early – and Harrison never got fully back on track after the knee issues, but she gamely tried in postseason.
Tennessee has an established five with big game experience, but Holly Warlick said at media day that she would likely try various starting lineups. That is because of the versatility of the team.
Carter should play a lot of minutes, whether as a starter or off the bench, because she is one of the team’s best on-ball defenders and her athleticism is tremendous. The same can be said of Jasmine Jones, who should be poised for a breakout season after a year of adjustment. She can be a shutdown defender with Carter and while Jones is 6-2, she can be deployed on the perimeter because she defends with her lateral movement and wingspan.
The new rules about hand-checking are going to test the guards, who are more used to reaching on the perimeter. If it is called as the NCAA has asked – and the edict seemed to come from the top – Carter, Simmons and Massengale will have to be careful. All three are quick enough to guard with their feet and not reach, but habits have to be broken and guards across the country are going to have to adjust.
The good news is that Massengale, Carter and Simmons can all drive to the basket to score or dish. They should be able to do so without being grabbed, held and knocked off balance, as in the past, since the NCAA wants better flow to the offensive game.
Sue Favor: It’s hard to believe Meighan Simmons is a senior this year. She was the leading scorer last season. How has her game changed since her freshman year?
Maria Cornelius: For starters, Simmons is a much better defender. As a freshman, she was asked to score, and her defense slipped considerably. She had to play catch-up on that side of the ball, and Warlick has demanded that the guards play on both ends. Simmons benefits tremendously from a healthy Massengale and Carter because they will push each other for playing time. When all three were healthy, the perimeter defense for Tennessee was better. Why? They pushed each other.
Simmons’ best attribute remains her fearlessness. She doesn’t back down on the court. She also is an energy player. Simmons doesn’t have to be dialed up. She steps on the court ready to play.
She is capable of filling up the basket and from freshman to senior year, she has matured on offense. She is more selective about her shots and more likely to let her teammates help her. Simmons will be helped by a healthy lineup – she was the one player to start every game last season, though Graves started all but one – as she will have help on offense and won’t feel she has to do it all herself.
Simmons has sometimes tried to carry the team. She won’t have to do that this season. She will be better, and so will Tennessee.
Bashaara Graves, left, and Jasmine Jones interact at practice (photo by Maria Cornelius)
Sue Favor: You always say, “Bashaara Graves is a beast!” Why so?
Maria Cornelius: Graves is a throwback player. She says little and works hard every single time she is on the court. She is naturally strong – Graves didn’t lift weights until she got to college – but more importantly, she is mentally tough.
Last season, she made her first career start in the second game at Georgia Tech. She was gassed in the second half – and Georgia Tech was coming back in a game Tennessee ultimately won – when Graves had a turnover. Warlick got up, clearly ready to make a sub, but then Graves hustled down court, got the defensive board, made the outlet pass and sprinted to the other end for an and-one play. Warlick sat back down smiling. Graves simply had to be on the floor most of the time, even as a freshman. And she started every game the rest of the way.
Graves wasn’t sure about the nickname, as she is soft-spoken and engaging, but she came to embrace it as a moniker only meant to describe her court mentality. She never gives up on a play. She always goes hard. She is a Pat Summitt throwback type of player.
Sue Favor: How prepared is Ariel Massengale to lead at point guard?
Maria Cornelius: I think Ariel Massengale is poised to show why Pat Summitt declared her the starter before Massengale graduated from high school. Massengale has dealt with a concussion and hand and foot injuries, but she enters her junior year healthy. She said in preseason it was nice to not spend so much time between practices and games in the training room.
She will benefit tremendously from a healthy Carter because Massengale can be spelled in games and practice by the redshirt freshman. Carter also can play off the ball and the two showed some special synergy in the few games they got to play together last season. There may be times Warlick will play three guards on the perimeter, and that could very well be Massengale, Simmons and Carter.
In preseason, Massengale was noticeably more vocal and quicker. The team looked different – in a very good way – when she was on the court. She took control, directed traffic and, even more importantly, pushed tempo. Warlick wants a fast pace and a healthy Massengale can deliver.
Sue Favor: Andraya Carter’s season last year was cut short due to injury. How does she look so far this year? Is she still hungry, and do you still consider her one of the most gifted players you’ve ever seen?
Maria Cornelius: The year off may have done her tremendous good. Her shoulder is healed, her knee is strong, and she learned the game even more as a coach on the sideline. She is one of the most physically gifted players I have ever watched, especially her leaping ability. She has been lauded by the coaches in preseason for her energy and leadership ability.
The fact a redshirt freshman is being asked to be a leader says a lot about her ability and maturity. The coaches trust her, and that is the ultimate compliment for a player.
Carter can handle pressure, distribute the ball and pick up the other team’s best perimeter player. She has worked on her shooting – she can hit the three ball – and she also can get to the rim at will. Graves was the freshman of the year in the SEC last season. The award could stay orange with a healthy Carter in uniform.
Sue Favor: How are the two freshmen, Jordan Reynolds and Mercedes Russell, fitting in with the team so far? What do each of them bring to the table?
Maria Cornelius: Russell brings pure post size that the Lady Vols haven’t had in a few years. She is a legitimate 6-6 with some perimeter skills, too, in that she can pass the ball and see the floor. Russell has soft hands and will catch anything thrown in her area, and with her wingspan, that will cover quite a bit territory.
Freshman post players have to adjust to the speed and strength of college basketball, so Russell will need some time to do so, but she will be a major contributor this season. She won’t be under pressure to play extended minutes right away with two returning starters in the paint, so she can make that adjustment and progress throughout the season.
The coaches have repeatedly mentioned her high basketball IQ. That is expected among guards since they have the ball in their hands so much, so a post player with the aptitude for the game must be a treat for the staff. Russell has quickly learned concepts and understands what Tennessee wants to do on both ends of the court. She will have to get up to speed physically – again, women’s basketball is a grind inside – but she should be another reason the SEC Freshman of the Year award stays in Knoxville and perhaps even the national one as well.
Reynolds is a delight for the coaches because she is upbeat and energetic. Warlick, like Summitt, despises having to coach effort, and Reynolds is ready to go when she steps on the court. She is engaging off the court – she swiped Warlick’s phone one day over the summer and posted on the head coach’s Twitter that Reynolds and Russell were her favorite freshmen – and seems to always be in a good mood. Attitude means a lot at the next level, and she has that part down pat.
She also is tremendously athletic and can get on the boards. Tennessee wants to play up-tempo this season, and Reynolds fits that style of play. Like Russell, she won’t just see the court in her first year, she will have a chance to be a major contributor.
Sue Favor: Holly had a successful first year as head coach. How does that translate on the court in practice now in year two?
Maria Cornelius: The players know what to expect. Although Warlick had been at Tennessee for nearly three decades as an assistant, it changes when the title says head coach. She went from being the player’s buffer to Pat Summitt – Summitt could bring the wrath; Warlick explained what the head coach meant – to being the one to bring the wrath.
I think the players had to get used to Warlick as the disciplinarian and not the one they went to with issues. That falls to the other assistants now. However, Warlick has a very relaxed personality, and she will cut up with the players – she dressed up as Tina Turner for Halloween – and the players are clearly comfortable with her. On a bus trip to Kentucky last season it was lightly snowing and Warlick was standing outside with the players trying to catch snowflakes.
The biggest thing is the players know exactly what she expects – at practice, in the weight room, during games. The familiarity factor has increased for everyone. Warlick has a full season of game experience as the head coach and all that has to be juggled on and off the court with radio and TV shows, media interviews, film study, recruiting, et al. Pat Summitt used a color-coded schedule to keep up with it all – nearly every minute of her day was planned – and Warlick now does the same thing.
Head coach Holly Warlick and assistant coach Jolette Law were the coaches during a recent scrimmage (photo by Maria Cornelius)
Sue Favor: How is Holly’s coaching approach different than Pat’s?
Maria Cornelius: Warlick retained Summitt’s team rules, especially the one about a missed class or study hall equals a missed game. The continuity from Summitt to Warlick seemed nearly seamless and that was good for the team and especially the returning players who were jolted by Summitt’s diagnosis and subsequent move to an emeritus role. Warlick was the ideal successor for many reasons, one of which was that she has embraced keeping Summitt involved in the program.
But Warlick, like any head coach, will also have her own ideas and style of coaching. Summitt had the glare. Warlick has the whistle. She doesn’t need one around her neck. Warlick can whistle so loudly on her own that one time last season the officials thought someone in the stands had one and was interfering with the game. It was Warlick getting a player’s attention.
Warlick will also get a player back in fairly quickly after a mistake. A player will come out, have a brief discussion with Warlick and/or an assistant, take a short breather and then be summoned again by the head coach. Warlick did spend 27 years beside Summitt, so she definitely reflects that influence. She, like Summitt, relies on her assistants and loosens the reins so that they all have input in decisions.
But she is now the head coach, and that final decision is hers. In her second year, Warlick will spend less time – much less probably – fielding questions about following Summitt and instead be asked about getting her team to Nashville.
Sue Favor: As far as you can tell, how is team chemistry coming along?
Maria Cornelius: The players indicate that it is excellent. That is likely due, in part, to the fact that Warlick had them all move to on-campus apartments instead of being scattered around Knoxville. The freshmen now have veterans around them all the time. With just 10 players, it is a tightknit group. The hope is the closeness transfers to the court.
In the past I have seen teams that were very close but it didn’t seem to extend to the court. If that trust and chemistry go hand in hand during games, it will be very beneficial.
During my interaction with them and seeing them together, there seems to be mutual respect and genuine affection. A team leader must emerge, and that is likely to come from the point guards. Massengale and Carter are the likely candidates.
The Lady Vols face Carson-Newman tomorrow night in exhibition play. They tip off the regular season Friday, at Middle Tennessee.