Lady Vols hold full team workout

When the posts and guards split into two groups Friday – the first time the full team took the court together for skill work – just four posts were on one end because of the injury to Alyssia Brewer. It was a significant blow to depth in the paint, but for Glory Johnson it's a chance to carve out some space inside.

Post depth appeared to be a strength before the players assembled for workouts last month as Vicki Baugh and Faith Dupree both were returning from redshirt years – Baugh for ACL surgery and Dupree to strengthen her back. They would join Kelley Cain, Alyssia Brewer and Glory Johnson with guard/forwards Taber Spani and Alicia Manning also being available to post-up inside.

But a freak accident sidelined Brewer when a shard from a broken candle base sliced her left Achilles tendon before the first workout was scheduled in August. The injury initially was believed to not be serious, and she tried to later take the court, but it wasn't healing and last week the 6'3 center/forward had surgery and is now out indefinitely.

Brewer won't be able to start rehab for two weeks – her lower leg is in a cast and wrapped – and although Jenny Moshak has said she anticipated that Brewer could return some time this season, it's too soon to know exactly when that could be.

That left four true post players on the court and nine guard/wings at the other end – though Spani and Manning can switch sides – when the team split into specific drill work.

One thing in particular stood out – 13 players were available for the first team session, the largest collection of healthy or near-healthy bodies in orange and white for a long time.

Baugh is still coming back from her second ACL surgery, but she went the entire two hours, including full court drills, and was noticeably more mobile than in past sessions. Cain has a history of knee issues and concussions and will always be monitored in terms of minutes and pounding on the knee. Spani is coming back from a serious foot condition, but she was able to go for the full session. Freshman guard Lauren Avant is finally physically OK from past injuries, but she has had asthma/breathing issues and has been limited, though she also was able to go Friday.

The team used three baskets in Pratt Pavilion – two on the men's side and one on the women's side, where sound panels are still being installed – with an assistant coach at each station to rotate groups of players through the various drills.

When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas arrived, he first spoke with Pat Summitt and her son, Tyler Summitt, and then the session came to a halt, as he spent at least 15 minutes chatting with the players, asking each one where she was from and how much he admired the Lady Vols and had always watched their games on television. Thomas, who was born in Pin Point, Ga., and grew up in nearby Savannah, was particularly happy to hear that Manning and Cain were also from Georgia.

He reminded the players to cherish this time of their lives, and he said they were living his dream, as he had always wanted to be a college athlete but wasn't afforded the chance. He also pointed out that he was a lifelong fan of the women's game, had every available sports channel and was watching on television. Thomas was in Knoxville to speak at the College of Law and will also attend Saturday's Tennessee-Florida football game.

"I think he was very, very impressive and very much engaged with our team and with our staff and excited to be here, Summitt said. "What a surprise for all of us. I knew a couple of days ago, but knowing and having a chance for our team to meet with him and just talk to us like he was one of us, I think he inspired our team.

"It's kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing for them. I think he was very genuine, met everybody, very cordial."

Once the meeting was over, the players returned to the court, while Thomas went upstairs to the observation area of Pratt and watched the rest of the session for over an hour.

With 13 players on the court, the staff has some options in terms of combinations, and they held various drills against the male practice squad. Summitt indicated that the preseason was a time to experiment with lineups on the floor at practice.

"We will early but after that we will settle in," Summitt said. "We're looking at our offense, as well as our defense and looking at combinations, who plays well together."

With Brewer on the sideline on crutches, the post game lost a major contributor from last season – she was the SEC Sixth Woman of the Year and the MVP of the SEC tourney – but Summitt still liked what she saw from the other post players, especially the mobility of Baugh.

"Vicki is going to be a difference-maker for us," Summitt said. "Our post game is pretty solid. We obviously miss Lyssi. But our guard play we have to do a better job taking care of the ball.

"Guard play has got to get a lot better taking care of the basketball. We've got a lot of guards but we're not necessarily going to play all of these guards unless they understand how to take care of the basketball. That's key."

Summitt was happy to see Spani on the floor. She is still recovering from a severe case of turf toe and related complications, but she shot effectively in the workout, went full court and participated in all sprints.

"She looked good," Summitt said.

Spani can play offense on the perimeter and switch inside for defense, which would allow Johnson to harass the guards on defense and move inside on offense. The staff has wanted to use Johnson more as a perimeter defender but lack of post depth – Baugh and Dupree were out last season – and Spani's injury, which limited her minutes and mobility in the last two months of the season, meant Johnson mostly had to stay in the paint.

Johnson is already the team's most tenacious perimeter defender.

"Absolutely," Summitt said. "Right now with the youth that we have she is probably going to be up there disrupting things."

Summitt was referring to the callowness of freshman guards Lauren Avant and Meighan Simmons and sophomore Kamiko Williams. Junior Shekinna Stricklen, who plays point and wing, is not a shutdown one-on-one perimeter defender, though she can be effective in the open floor. Avant, Simmons and Williams could become solid ones eventually, but all three are at various stages in the learning process. Angie Bjorklund is a solid defender and while Stricklen is a big guard at 6'2, she doesn't possess Johnson's lateral quickness. Then again, nobody does.

Johnson is willing to take on the role, if asked by the staff.

"I love playing defense and if Pat wants me to be her defensive stopper I don't mind doing it," Johnson said. "I love defense. Any way to excel. If you put me on anyone I will try my hardest to stop them from scoring, whether it's a guard or a post."

Johnson, who is from Knoxville, attended both summer sessions and worked on her post and perimeter game. She knew she needed to become a better ball handler and develop a more consistent midrange jumper, especially if she plays some on the perimeter at both ends of the court to get Johnson, Baugh and Cain on the floor at the same time.

"I've been working on that first step and my jump shot," Johnson said. "If they want to play me for the drive, I can take the shot. If they want to play me close, I'll drive."

The scouting report on Johnson for two years has been that her athleticism can be overwhelming but her basketball skills needed to catch up. Where is she now on that continuum?

"Freshman year I started out great, ended a little slow, wasn't ready for the pain to hit me at one time from working out that long," Johnson said. "Sophomore year, set out strong and then we let up a little bit. This year, still starting strong and ending strong as much as I can whenever I am getting the opportunity to put it all out there.

"It's crazy. I have two more years. It is going so fast. I want to put it all out there. I have nothing to lose."

Decision-making must be an emphasis for Johnson in the preseason, according to Summitt.

"One thing she has got to do is establish her offensive game, as well as her defensive game," Summitt said. "Sometimes she still rushes. I think composure for her is really big in the scheme of things."

The 2009-10 season ended with a 77-62 loss to Baylor in the Sweet 16 with Johnson shooting 1-3 and logging 20 total minutes. She wasn't happy with that ending.

"Not at all," Johnson said. "I've been working on my game so hard over the summer knowing that I have to step up more than one position. I was expecting Lyssi to be strong, Kelley to be strong and Vicki to be strong once we started and I was thinking I could help out the guards a little bit, work on my inside and outside game. Now, I know that my post game has to improve that much more.

"We do have to step up. When one person goes down that means two or three have to step up. Be it a post or a guard we all have to work together. Lyssi is still going to be supporting us from the side, but we've got to be strong for her, and we've got to do it for her."

It has been a long road back for Baugh, who tore her ACL the first time in the 2008 title game, returned the next season and then tore it again in February of 2009. She was held off the court for 14 months and has been eased slowly back in workouts last spring and late this summer. There were several times in Friday's workout that Baugh crashed the boards and didn't seem to even be thinking about her knee as she jumped and landed – that mental comeback is as important as the physical one.

"She is getting better and better every single time we get on the floor," Johnson said. "She is getting stronger and stronger. In her mind she is getting a lot more comfortable with it. I am so happy about that."

After the early endings to her first two seasons by Lady Vol standards, Johnson feels like she has a lot to prove.

"I do," she said. "I want to show everybody that everything that they thought I can do, I can do. I want to show people I am the type of player they thought I was and at the same time I know my teammates are behind me. They'll be behind me with everything whether I am sitting on the bench or out on the floor."

Johnson was as thrilled as Summitt to finally have the full team on the floor.

"I am so excited just to see how we all work together," Johnson said. "The freshmen I am excited to see what they can do with everybody on the floor. Curious and excited, real excited."

Summitt added, "You learn a lot more. You have the guys going against us and looking at different combinations. We're still a little rusty but that's to be expected."

FIELD HONORS: The 2008 national title and the 2010 SEC Champions teams will be honored during Saturday's Tennessee-Florida football game with kickoff set for 3:30 p.m. Eastern on CBS.

With no seniors on last year's squad, that 2010 team is already in place, and nearly the entire 2008 team is also in Knoxville, minus Candace Parker, who can't fly because of recent knee surgery.

"It's great," said Pat Summitt, who added the first hurdle the players had to clear was securing enough tickets for the sold-out game. "I think it was important to get as many here as we could get, and they all wanted to come. They've been blowing up my phone. I think they'll get a great reception."

EARLY POLLS: Three preseason polls are out and have Tennessee ranked third, fourth and fifth by Athlon's, Lindy's and the Sporting News, respectively.

Did Pat Summitt have any reaction to the rankings?

"It doesn't mean anything to me," said Summitt, who will be coaching her 37th season and has won 1,037 games to 196 losses for a winning percentage of 84.2 percent.

VIDEO COVERAGE: InsideTennessee.com was present for the visit from Clarence Thomas with video coverage plus clips of the full team session.

Watch here:


Inside Tennessee Top Stories