Lady Vols officially start practice

The Lady Vols officially started practice Sunday under a new NCAA rule that allows women's teams to start earlier in October, and they underwent a 1.5-hour session that emphasized new offensive sets and late-game situations. That practice plan so early in preseason is indicative of a veteran squad.

Tennessee junior forward Alicia Manning said the players' initial concern was extending what is already a long season but the chance to get to work in early October outweighed that consideration.

"It's a long season, but at the same time we're ready to get back and we're ready to start working for that championship," Manning said. "I think it will be good."

The new rule allows teams to start official practice 40 days before their first regular season game. In the Lady Vols' case that was Sunday, and Coach Pat Summitt wanted to take advantage of the extra time and with the volleyball team on the road, she also moved the players to their home court in Thompson-Boling Arena.

For Tennessee it's 12 days sooner than the usual start date of Oct. 15 but the rule also limits the number of sessions to 30 in that 40-day window, so the coaches will stagger some sessions and shorten others.

Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said the staff welcomed the chance to introduce new concepts in full team practices as opposed to individual drills and workouts.

"I think we get more team concepts here," Warlick said. "I think we get in some stuff early, and we don't have to go as long. We'll be taking more days off so I think in the long run it's going to help them. It will get them out of doing some stuff with Heather (Mason), which they appreciate, but sometimes she kills them. I think if they look at it in the big picture they'd much rather be on the court."

The Lady Vols will practice three days this week and then the players will get four consecutive off days for fall break. That allows player who live relatively close to Knoxville to get a final chance to go home before Christmas break.

The coaches modified practice plans to guard against fatigue. Also, with 13 available players – Faith Dupree, who will transfer to Tennessee-Chattanooga at midseason, continues to practice with the Lady Vols – they can rotate groups during the offensive and defensive repetitions to allow some respites during practice.

"The only thing we worry about is when you get towards the end of your season you don't want to get them burnt out," Warlick said. "We kept everything moving, everything short. We don't want them to have that feeling, ‘Oh, I've got to go to practice.'

"We're trying to keep everything as crisp and fluid as we can, and giving them extra days off. I think in the long run it's going to help them because we'll give them (consecutive) days off. It is different starting this early."

Warlick said she thinks the rule came about because teams are sometimes playing games earlier in November, and some coaches had been lobbying for an earlier start.

"All of a sudden it was just a rule change that we could start early," Warlick said.

It could also be helpful for freshman- and sophomore-laden teams – Tennessee could have really used the extra time two seasons ago when Manning's large class entered college – because of the steep learning curve for young players. The Lady Vols have two freshmen, guards Lauren Avant and Meighan Simmons, and they both have caught on faster than usual for newcomers.

"Our two freshmen, they did very good," Warlick said. "Their IQ is very good, and they've picked up on stuff very quickly. They've been able to keep up, which is great for us."

With a roster of mostly juniors and seniors Tennessee was already working on late-game situations during a portion of Sunday's session. It also allowed the coaches to try different combos on the floor.

"We just want them to get comfortable and be able to react when they're on the court," Warlick said.

The drill also reinforces playing together, "taking care of the ball, getting the shot off, time and possession," Warlick said. "We've got to learn that a little bit more this year and that's why we're starting early."

Tennessee also is working redshirt junior forward Vicki Baugh back into the rotation after she missed 18 months to recover from two ACL surgeries on her left knee.

Baugh showed her skill set Sunday on both ends of the floor, especially in one sequence in which she forced a bad shot on defense, ran the floor and got a layup on the other end.

"Every time she goes up for a layup I just hold my breath," Warlick said. "And every time she goes up for a rebound."

Summitt had mentioned the same reaction Friday and it's understandable after what Baugh has endured medically. It's also already apparent that her availability increases the Lady Vols' chances to contend for a national title.

"She plays instinctively," Warlick said. "She plays all out. She does not hold back. Where she is right now for us it makes me understand how much we have missed the last two years. It's incredible."

The 6'4 Baugh is especially effective in the high-low attack, and she can play both the four (power forward) and five (center) positions in that offensive look. Manning also is getting extensive work at the four spot, as is sophomore forward/guard Taber Spani. Both players are 6'1 and have the size to play inside.

"They both are very good at the four," Warlick said. "I think Taber is a very good four because she can pick and pop and then A-Town is used to the four and she likes playing the four. In our system the four can be a perimeter player as well.

"As long as we have a home base of a five player, a four is really like a three (small forward) to us. Both of those two are also very good passers."

Manning lined up inside and on the perimeter in high school, and she instinctively gets to the paint with or without the ball.

"I actually love playing the four, and I'm used to it, because in high school I played basically anywhere," Manning said. "It keeps me around the goal, I can get my little midrange jump shot, I can pass it to the five, and it just gives me a lot versatility and also it's good for rebounding because you're right there."

Warlick has said that Manning could average 10 points a game just by rebounding teammate's misses as she finds a way to slip inside against bigger players.

"She finds a way to get paint points, and she's one of those type players that wherever the ball is, she's around," Warlick said. "You like those type of players."

That scrappiness of Manning's game should remain whether she plays inside or out.

"That's me," Manning said. "If you think about it it's the easiest way to get two points. You've just got to hustle."

Manning also has connected well with Baugh, who has the court vision to make passes from the post. Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss is installing some new offenses, and Tennessee's versatility with its posts and perimeter players gives her quite a bit to work with in preseason.

"I really like Mickie's offenses that she's bringing in," Manning said. "Vicki makes the players around her better. She's a good passer for a post, and she knows the game really well, so I am excited to get to know how she plays and play off of each other."

The ability of Spani and Manning to play inside is important for Tennessee because junior forward Alyssia Brewer is out indefinitely after surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon and Dupree, a redshirt freshman forward, is practicing with the team but won't play and will transfer midseason.

"She wasn't happy here, and we said, ‘Do whatever is best for you,' " Warlick said. "Pat gave her (time to change her mind). I think Faith wants to go somewhere and play, if she can, for 40 minutes. She wasn't going to do that here as much as she wanted to."

Dupree was solid in Sunday's session and good plays brought encouragement and praise from teammates and coaches. As far as transfers go, it was the most amicable one that Warlick, who is in her 26th year at Tennessee, could recall, with the additional wrinkle of the player remaining with the team until she leaves.

"It's hard because I love Faith to death," Manning said. "We have so much fun together but in the end she has to do what she thinks is best for her, and I am going to support her the whole way. She is representing another University of Tennessee and it's a good program for her. I think she'll do really well."

Manning's maturity is apparent in her answers as she fielded questions about the early start to practice to the transfer to starting vs. coming off the bench. Manning has done both at Tennessee, and she said she was willing to accept either role.

"I think in the back of everyone's mind they want to (start)," Manning said. "Starting somehow it became a big deal in our society but when it comes down to it we're trying to win games so whoever the coaches think is best out there it's for the good of the team."

Manning smiled when asked about being a junior already.

"It's crazy how fast time flew by," Manning said. "My goal is to get a championship before we get out of here and now we've only got two more years. We're going to put the same work as last year times two because last year wasn't good enough."

Tennessee bowed out in the first round in Manning's freshman year and made it to the Sweet 16 last season. The players have made it clear that a Final Four is their only acceptable destination. Those expectations are constant with the Tennessee program, and a veteran squad is better equipped to handle them.

"Our fan support alone, you're playing for all those people and Coach," Manning said. "She's hard to please. It is really hard, but I wouldn't have it any other way. At first it's a little overwhelming. You're in constant check, you've got a target on your back, and it just prepares you for life after basketball and life in the business world.

"It's going to be hard for the freshmen to adjust just like it was for all of us as freshmen. It's hard to go from playing 40 minutes to coming in and have to sacrifice some time and getting used to playing at the college level. But we're well rounded, and I think we'll be fine."

The players are getting a stiff challenge from the male practice team – so far, one of the best in recent memory – as the guys have a mixture of size, speed and athleticism.

"Especially when we go inside," Warlick said. "I thought we missed a lot of layups and shots we normally hit. They're overpowering, and we really haven't gotten used to it and especially the freshmen haven't quite understood the speed and quickness. They're physical and big. We've got a good group of guys. They'll help us in the long run."

Manning added, "They're just better (than past squads). They're more athletic. They have that tenacity that is going to help us get better."

Overall, the staff was pleased with the first official practice of the 2010-11 season.

"I thought today was a great practice," Warlick said. "I thought we ran the ball well. I thought we had some great fast breaks. We did turn it over – it's early – but I thought our transition game offensively looked, for the most part, very good."

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