Saturday, June 19, 2021
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UCLA 107, SRP 63

After watching UCLA play its second game under Coach Nikki Caldwell, I’m not sure what to think.

Last week the Bruins began strong and faded. Today they started well, lost momentum and let SRP catch up, and then in the second half, they exploded offensively. UCLA had 38 points in the first half, and scored almost double that in the second. They had far fewer rebounds than in their previous game, and today they shot 44 percent in the first half and 71 in the second.

A little schizo? Naw – it was just the Caldwell Effect.

“I don’t think they’re going to want to practice with me tomorrow,” Caldwell said in the post-game interview, glancing over her shoulder at the closed locker room door.

She added that the team “did a good job of taking the challenge” that she presented to them at half time.

“We played good man-to-man defense in the second half, and that’s something we’re going to be known for,” Caldwell said. “We’re going to play all 94 feet of the court.”

It seems to me that the new coach is trying to wake up a team lulled into inertia by years of bad coaching. She’s doing a good job of it, too. In the first half there were two instances in a row where the Bruins suddenly found themselves with the ball after a turnover, and the entire team hesitated. Both times, Caldwell shouted “GO!GO!GO!” at them. As if a fire alarm had gone off, they shifted into another gear and started fast breaking, like they should have been in the first place. In the second half, they kept up the defensive press almost the entire time.

Though my seatmate isn’t as sure as I am, I think the team seems faster this year. I have no doubt that Caldwell is emphasizing strength and conditioning the way Tennessee does, and thank god for that. But I also think part of the reason the team seems faster is because they’re more aggressive. Good signs, one and all.

In the first half, the rebounds weren’t clicking well and neither was the offense. UCLA looked a bit out of sorts, and shots weren’t falling. Caldwell talked to players individually during pauses in the game: “Chris! Hands!” and “Rebecca, you have nobody – back up.” Assistant coach Tasha Butts yelled at the entire team at one point to stop fouling, which is a situation Caldwell brought up after the game, saying she “wasn’t pleased” with the fouls by her team.

Somewhere in the 13 minute mark of the second half, Doreena Campbell sparked the amazing Bruin offensive run with two consecutive steals for a score. From then on it was a scoring blizzard from herself, Tierra Henderson, Nina Earl and Erica Tukiainen.

Some of the offensive sets were ridiculous. My favorite was the bowling-type assist from Campbell to Allison Taka for the score. There were quite a few other three-pass plays, as well. Tasty!

Caldwell started Christina Nzekwe, Henderson, Campbell, Tukiainen (replacing Chinyere Ibekwe from last week) and Moniquee Alexander. The resulting scoring was very balanced, which is another good sign:

Ugly spots for the Bruins, besides the fouling, were the free throws. Sixty-two percent (including 50 percent in the first half) is not where you want to be. They also need to work on shooting consistency.

My seatmate and I ended up sitting near one of the UCLA recruiting staffers, who was really cool. He said the reason he decided to check out the game today was because he always sees Nzekwe coming in to shoot early, and leave late. Now that’s my girl! Reppin Seattle to the fullest.

Across the country, my other favorite team went similarly nuts on offense as they beat Love and Basketball 85-50. And like UCLA, Tennessee had very balanced scoring today. So many Vol weapons! *drool*

Pac-10 news

Arizona won their exhibition Tuesday night against Panhandle State, of Oklahoma, 85-33. Unsurprisingly, at least for me, was that Reiko Thomas lead her team with 20 points, made 16 of 18 free throws, and played 39 minutes. The girl is going to be a star, mark my words. Here’s the box score:

Washington State also won their exhibition game last week, and have another one coming up this Sunday. One of the media relations people has started a blog for the Cougs, and it’s pretty cool:

Cal has perhaps the coolest page right now, because of the video and accompanying song. Free game on Sunday, too:

I’m going to do some more SEC previews. I meant to do them this week, but it’s hard with work to carve out that much time. I’ll do what I can and at least get the majors covered.

Tennessee 135, Carson Newman 55

Granted, Carson Newman isn’t Vanderbilt or Rutgers, but I couldn’t be happier right now about Tennessee’s debut. Not because of the score, which was completely outrageous; but because of all that talent I saw out there tonight, and the balanced scoring. Six freshmen in double figures! Dig:

Kelley Cain has such a nice soft touch with the ball. Such hands that she makes it look so natural. She is going to be one of Tennessee’s best bigs ever pretty soon. And Glory Johnson! That young lady is going to be a star. Lyssi Brewer won my heart with her double-double, and I like Shekinna Stricklen’s game.

Honestly, though, I like them all. I really like what each brings to the team and I like the way they work together. The defense needs some work, but if there’s one thing Pat Summitt’s about, it’s that. So in the long run, I’m not worried.

Briana Bass played more minutes than Cait McMahan, who was supposed to start and have Bass as her backup. So I wonder if Pat’s just experimenting, or if she’s flipped them and will have McCahan back up Bass. And though Bass is the same height as Shannon Bobbitt, she seems taller than Lil Bit. Bobbitt also seems faster than Bass, despite Summitt saying last month that Bass was the fastest guard she’s coached. Who knows, but it’s interesting to note that Bobbitt’s birthday is Dec. 6, and she wore the number 00, while Bass’ birthday is Dec. 7 and she wears number 1. Weird, huh?

I was surprised to learn that the reason Angie Bjorklund and Vicki Baugh sat out tonight was because both cut a class over the summer. Now why would you want to test Pat Summitt? Crazy kids. But realizing we beat another team by 70 points without those two is frightening.

Tennessee fans, what do you have to say about this win and this new team? Are you excited? Please, discuss.

UCLA 86, Love and Basketball, 80

Nikki Caldwell and her UCLA Bruins set a tone yesterday, and the pitch was decidedly Tennessee: rebounds.

The new coach’s young team pulled down 57 rebounds in their first game of the season – an exhibition against Love and Basketball. That was 15 more boards than the Bruins’ season average last year of 42, and the difference was noticeable from tipoff. Caldwell alluded to it in an on-court post-game interview.

“Rebounds are a point of emphasis for us,” she said.

So, apparently, is a strong inside game, as UCLA repeatedly got the ball inside the paint for the bucket, particularly in the first half. That is another Tennessee emphasis, to be sure, and it’s a vast improvement.

Though the Bruins still have work to do, things are looking up for them like they haven’t for a long time. Caldwell told fans after the game what her long-range plans are.

“Our goal is to bring a national championship here to UCLA,” she said.

Once again, welcome to Los Angeles, coach.

Caldwell, who is still experimenting with her lineup, started Nina Earl, Christina Nzekwe, Chinyere Ibekwe, Tierra Henderson and Doreena Campbell. They got the team off to a fast start with their scoring and rebounding. Usually when a player missed, a teammate would step up and nail the put-back.

Earl was hustling for the ball, and it seemed like everyone was making their shots – no doubt because the Bruins shot 53 percent in the first half. Henderson and Campbell were also making their presences known.

In the second half UCLA faded a bit. They began missing shots in the paint, and weren’t pulling down the rebounds they had been. Caldwell’s displeasure was evident when she wondered aloud to the bench, “why aren’t we taking care of the basketball?” Shortly after that, she substituted in four players.

The Bruins buckled down, scoring more while limiting their opponents. At one point they lead by 16, but then seemed to run out of gas. They let Love and Basketball score too many points in the last few minutes, but held on to win, 86-80.

Besides the rebounding, UCLA team scoring was balanced – a good sign ( The offensive sets also looked good.

“We’re a work in progress,” Caldwell told fans.

Fading in games is one thing the Bruins need to work on, as their second half shooting was 32 percent. Free throws are another, as they shot 58.6 percent from the charity stripe. And it seems that the posts need to emphasize defense, as UCLA logged only two blocks in the game.

Now for the extras.

My seat is five rows behind the bench, on the aisle. I couldn’t have personally picked a better seat; I’m so close!

Tasha Butts was out with the team during pre-game warm-ups, watching them. At one point she glanced up and saw me, and we both waved.

The UCLA band has got a lot of spirit, and I give them props. During shoot-around they clapped out each player’s name and cheered when she would turn and wave. During opponent free throws they made monkey and bird noises to distract.

When Caldwell first came out, I didn’t recognize her from the back because her trademark short hair has turned into a bob. She looked great in a pants suit outfit with an open neckline.

During the game, she is usually crouched down to the floor in front of one end of the bench or the other. During timeouts, Caldwell is sitting on a stool in front of her team – a stool that reminds me a lot of the one Tennessee brought to Pauley when they played UCLA last December.

The entire coaching staff sits in the middle of the bench, with four players on each side of them. I’ve not seen that done before.

Caldwell is a calm presence. She didn’t say much to players the first part of the game, but as it went on, she would pull certain players aside and talk to them personally. She also addressed the entire bench at the end of the game.

I get the feeling that calm and exacting is her style, and I like that combination. Caldwell, Butts and Tony Perotti seem to have taken the very best of Tennessee, mixed it up with their own knowledge and are dispensing it. That’s why I think this team has great potential.

Caldwell also sees things the former coach did not. She started Nzekwe yesterday, who had never started a game in her college career. Nzekwe responded by pulling down seven rebounds and scoring five points.

The only downer yesterday was the lack of attendance. At one point, 20 minutes before tipoff, there seemed to be more in the band than in the audience. I really hope that Caldwell’s inevitable guidance of this team to the top of the Pac-10 will fill up Pauley Pavilion.

Next up, “SRP” next Sunday. The Bruins play their first real game Nov. 16, against Cal State Fullerton.

SEC preview: The Tennessee Lady Vols (part 2)

Maria M. Cornelius is a Knoxville-based writer who covers the Lady Vols for 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.

new Lady Vols

Thank you, Maria, for taking the time to share your insight.

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.



SEC preview: The Vanderbilt Commodores

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. Today begins Southeastern Conference coverage, with the Vanderbilt Commodores.

If last year was a rebuilding year for Vanderbilt, as many said, then they did well. SEC coaches and media members last week tabbed the Commodores as this year’s conference champions, topping Tennessee by 12 points and second runner-up Auburn by 27.

Yet, in an ESPN poll just released today, Vanderbilt is picked to finish 12th (while Tennessee is seventh – Whichever the case ends up being, the word is out that the Commodores will be in the running.

Much of this is due to what the Vandy coaching staff refers to as “the two-headed monster” of guards Jence Rhoads, a sophomore, and junior Jessica Mooney. Rhoads started her team’s final 21 games last season and earned SEC all-freshmen honors, while Mooney was named the conference’s sixth woman of the year. Head Coach Melanie Balcomb said the combination is dangerous because Mooney allows Vandy to “wear down other teams while we have fresh legs.”

In that case, maybe the Commodores have a six-headed monster. After graduating three all-conference seniors in 2007, last year’s team featured one senior and several underclasswomen. This year, all five starters, plus Mooney, return.

“We’ve never had that here,” Balcomb said. “We’ve been graduating our leading scorer almost every year – usually more.”

Last year’s scoring leader was forward/center Christina Wirth. Along with fellow senior guard Jennifer Risper, Vanderbilt’s second-leading scorer, the two are poised to lead the team. Balcomb said both are well-conditioned, and their “mental toughness” will lead a group that includes four sophomores and two freshmen.

Other returning starters are guards Merideth Marsh and Rhoads, and forward Hannah Tuomi. Marsh, a junior, played point guard in high school, but moved to shooting guard with the arrival of Rhoads last year. Balcomb was pleased with Marsh’s work at the 2, and will keep her there.

The coach also indicated she will rely heavily on the bench this season for paint play – specifically, forwards Amber Norton, Rebecca Silinski and Amy Malo. The latter two have battled injuries the last couple years, but are ready to make a contribution.

Vandy’s two new freshmen are Tia Gibbs from Louisville, KY and Jordan Coleman of Orlando, FL. Gibbs lead her team to a state championship last year, and was named Ms. Kentucky Basketball. Coleman won all-state honors in both track and basketball.

The Commodores get their start tomorrow with a home exhibition game against Tusculum. After a second pre-season game, their schedule gets brutal.

In November, they face Texas A&M, Western Kentucky, East Tennessee State and Michigan. A California trip will take them to Cal State Fullerton (I’m going to that one) and UC Riverside in December. After that, they go home to face Liberty and Notre Dame at the end of the month. The team will play their home games on a brand-new floor.

“Last season, we started what I thought was our best defensive team since I’ve been here, so I’m really looking forward to seeing what we are capable of defensively this year,” Balcomb said.

The Sparks introduce “Fantourage”

Last night the LA Sparks introduced their new promotional “Fantourage” program to a group of about 25 hardcore fans at a downtown restaurant. Of course, I was there.

Fantourage is a marketing program that puts fans to work helping to find new season ticket holders for the coming season. It was piloted by the Atlanta Dream, according to Sparks Account Executive Erica Pacheco. The goal of the new franchise was to sell 300 season ticket packages; they sold 364. The Dream office wasn’t answering their phone this morning for comment.

Besides the Sparks this year, the New York, Minnesota and Washington D.C. franchises are also launching Fantourage-type programs, Pacheco said. But Sparks staffers want their effort to top them all.

“We want to compete with them,” Pacheco told fans last night.

Fans arriving last night walked into the patio/event area were greeted by the entire Sparks sales staff – and a boa-clad Coach Michael Cooper – taking their pictures, as if fans were the stars and the Sparks staffers, the paparazzi. Fans received an information packet, and the mingling began.

I introduced myself to the new Sparks president, Kristin Bernert. I heard about her hiring last week and was intrigued, because the Sparks haven’t had a president before. I asked Bernert what the difference between her and General Manager Penny Toler would be, and Bernert said Toler would handle basketball operations while she focused more on the business side of the Sparks.

I really liked Bernert. Besides being friendly, she seemed like a straight shooter. I asked her if she was from New York, and sure enough, she was. From 2005 to the present, she had been vice president of team business development for the WNBA, and before that, she was VP of business operations for the Detroit Shock. Fans gently gave her a bad time about that job.

A few minutes after our conversation, the introductions began. Co-owner Kathy Goodman was her usual wisecracking self, commenting that this was “the first day that it had gotten below 140 degrees in Los Angeles.”

Bernert made a strong impression, asking fans why they were Sparks fans. Five people spoke. They mentioned the friendships they’d made with the people in their section, the “love affair” they had with the players, the coaches and the staff, and how much fun they had going to games. I spoke up and mentioned that fans appreciate the opportunities they have to interact with the players and “watch” them in action, i.e. at SEC Night, Trader Joe’s, and other places.

Cooper took his turn at the mike, still wearing the red boa. Among other things, he told fans that they had a love affair with them back. We also found out before the night was over that Cooper loves to bang the office gong when a sale is made.

I must say, I love Cooper as a person. He’s sweet, friendly, and incredibly silly. He’s always messing with fans in a good-natured and funny way. I asked the staff if he’s always like that, and they smiled and nodded.

Cooper and I have been on a first-name basis since the Sparks camp in August, when he asked my opinions. Last night he gave me a hug and told my daughter from another mother, who came with me, that I was his assistant coach but just didn’t know it yet. I told him he looked fly in the boa.

Sparks forward Jessica Moore was also on hand, and thanked fans for coming. She also stuck around a little bit afterwards to talk.

After all the account representatives were introduced, Pacheco walked us through our instruction packet. It outlined how we should represent the Sparks, what to tell prospective ticket buyers and how to host sign-up parties. We also learned about the perks we could get, and they’re really an incentive, to say the least.

I’m not sure how many season ticket packages I can sell (I’ve already sold one), but I’m going to try. There’s nothing to lose here, and everything to gain in this win-win for the Sparks and us hardcore fans. After all, word of mouth has been one of the best selling methods for decades. I want to beat the fans of other WNBA teams in this effort.

As a postscript, both Goodman and Cooper took the blame for the second-game semifinals loss against San Antonio. Each said they had already projected past that 1.3 seconds and a few minutes into the future, as if the Sparks had already won.

“I’m going to live in the moment now,” Goodman said, and Cooper echoed the statement a few minutes later.

all the news that’s fit to print

Coach Nikki Caldwell held her first press conference today as the head of the UCLA program. Watching the interview, her confidence comes through. I can’t wait to see the team play! Four days and counting. Here’s the link to the interview:


Unfortunately, the news was not as good up north at Cal, where senior Devanei Hampton has been sidelined for 12 days after her healing knee flared up:

STANFORD, Calif.: California center Devanei Hampton, the 2007 Pac-10 Player of the Year, is being held out of practice probably until at least next Tuesday because of a setback with her surgically repaired right knee.
The 6-foot-3 senior underwent a knee operation at the start of last season and then another procedure this past offseason to clean it out. Since official practices began Oct. 17, she had been experiencing regular swelling that kept her out of some drills, coach Joanne Boyle said Tuesday during a media day for the Cal and Stanford programs.
Last week, Cal athletic trainers decided to hold Hampton out of practice for 10 to 12 days, which will take her to about next Tuesday. She also received a cortisone shot in the knee.

Here’s the link to the entire story, by the Associated Press:

As the owner of a knee with tendinitis, I really sympathize, and I wish Hampton a complete and quick recovery.


Finally, there was the cutest picture from yesterday’s Lady Vol practice. Not sure what’s going on here, but someone on “the Summitt” board suggested that Vicki Baugh was carrying freshman Briana Bass to her team after scrimmage teams had been picked. Whatever the case, the reports seem to be true that this team is already pretty dang close for the amount of time they’ve been together. This is good news!

And this is adorable:

Bass carried by Baugh

Bass really reminds us Tennessee fans of Shannon Bobbitt. Hopefully she can bring the same kind of energy. I want this team to start bringing home some championships soon.

She’s baaaaaaack!

Guess who showed up to practice in Knox Vegas today?

she's baaaaack!

Candace told the media she’s enjoying her time off, hasn’t touched a ball in a month, and she seemed happy and relaxed. She wouldn’t comment on her shoulder, but spent some time with Vicki Baugh, above, whom she is close to. (Baugh seems to be recovering well from her ACL tear, by the way).

Cappie Pondexter and some other former Scarlet Knights go back to visit their old school, too. It says a lot about the coaches and the programs they create when players go out of their way to come back and visit. It’s heart-warming.

And it’s great to see Candace with such a big smile on her face. I’m so happy she’s getting a chance to rest.