Vicki Baugh excited to be back

Vicki Baugh is not thinking about her knee and since the psychological recovery from major surgery is as important as the physical one that bodes well for the redshirt junior's return this season. The 6'4 forward also has wowed the coaches with her athleticism on both ends of the court and presents a formidable presence in the paint with the 6'6 Kelley Cain.

Vicki Baugh and Kelley Cain entered Tennessee together in 2007, but knee injuries to both of them at different times have essentially kept them off the court at the same time. They overlapped for a few games in the fall of 2008, but Baugh was still limited after ACL surgery, and Cain was getting used to her realigned right kneecap, a surgery that caused her to miss the entire 2007-08 season.

Then, Baugh reinjured the same knee in February of 2009 and missed over a year of court time to recover from two ACL surgeries in one calendar year. Cain, meanwhile, was dealing with her knee issues and had the added blow of concussions.

Finally, three years later, both of them are on the court together and although Cain's knee will always have to be managed in terms of pounding, and Baugh is making her own comeback, they are an imposing pair inside with their size.

"Exactly," Baugh said. "It's fun playing with Kelley. Her screens are amazing. I noticed when I went up for a layup she took out three people that I believe were going to try and block me. It was great. Playing with Kelley is awesome.

"I am very excited. It seems like we've been on the same team forever, but we never really played together. Even in USA ball (U17), we were on the same team but we were on the court at different times, so it's fun to finally get to play with Kelz. We're super close but now we want to develop that chemistry and playing together."

Every repetition Baugh gets on the court right now is another step in her comeback from the two surgeries to her left knee. She is easing her way into practice – she went for the majority of the two hours Monday after completing the 1.5-hour session on Sunday evening – before taking a seat. She was even lobbying to return, but Pat Summitt smiled and said no.

"I am getting very comfortable," Baugh said. "My knee brace falls down and that's the only thing that's been interfering with my knee. Everything is good. It's a little bit too big, but if you go a size smaller it's a little bit too small so we're trying to get some thicker padding, and I'll be good.

"I haven't really thought about it, so I think that's pretty good. If I feel comfortable with my knee then I don't have anything to think about."

Two of Baugh's close friends are former Lady Vols Candace Parker, who came back from two major knee surgeries, and Nicky Anosike, who switched her number with the Minnesota Lynx to No. 21 to honor Baugh and who has dealt with meniscus tears in her knee for the past two summers close to end of the WNBA season.

"Nicky told me to just take it easy and make sure I don't push myself," Baugh said. "If I can't do it just listen to myself and listen to how I'm feeling. She's been through it, and she understands, and the same with Candace.

"Candace told me that I could be quick and I could do so much just with the post game (whereas) a lot of other posts are limited, so establish a face-up game and work on my jump shot and it should be a good year."

Baugh also is very comfortable with the ball in her hand. While in high school in Sacramento, Calif., she played one through five. That experience helped her develop ball skills not typically seen in a 6'4 post player.

"Most definitely," Baugh said. "I was probably the tallest point guard in the game in high school. That really helped playing all positions on the floor in high school. It's a different game in college and establishing roles is important, and I understand when I should dribble the ball and when I shouldn't, kick out and when I shouldn't. I have learned a lot in college as well."

Baugh had to learn to play with her back to the basket at Tennessee and her breakout performance came during the 2008 postseason, and she was instrumental in the run to the national title. But she tore her ACL in the second half in that championship game in April of 2008 and then reinjured the same knee in February of 2009. She didn't return to the court until late spring of 2010 and that was for basic half-court workouts. When Baugh plays in her first game of the 2010-11 season, it will be 20 months since she played in a game.

Despite that extended time away from the game, Baugh has already shown that she is a difference maker at both ends for Tennessee. She can challenge the shots of the male practice players, even though several are as tall and athletic, run the floor in transition, pass out of double teams and finish at the rim.

Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss is retooling the offense to take advantage of the versatility of the post players and the long-range marksmanship of several players, including Angie Bjorklund, Taber Spani and Shekinna Stricklen. DeMoss also favors a high-low attack and that suits Baugh, who has excellent court vision at the high and low post spots.

"I think we should establish a great high-low game," Baugh said. "I think we have the best posts and the best team in the country. It's just exciting to see how versatile our team is and how many people can play different positions and move in different areas of the floor."

With post players Alyssia Brewer out indefinitely because of an Achilles tendon injury and Faith Dupree announcing her intent to transfer at midseason, guard/forwards Alicia Manning and Spani are getting reps at the power forward position in addition to the perimeter.

"It's great because they're fours, and they can both drive and finish, especially A-Town (who gets to the rim)," Baugh said. "It's great they can pop up and hit the shot, too, whether it be a three or just from the perimeter."

The team once again practiced in Thompson-Boling Arena with the volleyball team on the road and no home games this week.

"I wanted them to remember where we played," Summitt said with a smile about why she opted to have the basketball court put down in the arena.

Tennessee is one of the teams taking advantage of a new rule that allows women's programs to start official practice 40 days before the first game. Teams are still limited to 30 days during that time period of countable athletic-related activities, including strength and conditioning.

The Women's Basketball Issues Committee presented the proposal to the NCAA and noted that the first permissible date for an official game had moved up, and some programs had less than a month to get ready for the season. The rule change ensures teams can get the full 30 days of preparation, if desired.

The rationale for the change was presented as the following: "Additionally, this proposed flexible preseason practice schedule permits coaches to best use practice and ‘off' days to benefit student-athletes prior to the first contest. While the existing preseason practice schedule essentially dictates that practice must occur during every possible day, the flexible approach offered in this proposal provides each coach with the ability to determine when to use the practice opportunities depending on the team, the team's needs and the academic calendar.

"For example, a coach may provide the team days off to study for midterm exams, to take advantage of fall vacation periods or to recover from injuries."

Tennessee has opted for this approach, as the players will be off for fall break at the end of the week when classes are not in session. That allows weekend time off, and a chance for some players to make trips home for the final time before Christmas. The coaches also said they could give the team consecutive off days later in October after the fall break.

"I think we're going to be cautious," Summitt said. "It's not like we're going to go every day. As a coaching staff, we're going to sit down and map out (practice plans). We've got some leeway. We're still going to work on our skills, set plays, press break, up and down."

Tennessee worked Monday on new offensive sets, press breaks and press defense, along with shooting drills and free throws. With so many returning players on the court and only two freshmen in Meighan Simmons and Lauren Avant, who has been restricted in preseason as she deals with allergies – not an atypical reaction for newcomers to East Tennessee – the team is practicing at an advanced level already. Two years ago, when freshmen dominated the roster, the coaches spent a lot of time teaching drills and concepts. Now, the players can quickly translate instruction to court performance.

"We can accomplish more because we've got the players at both ends and there is a lot of coaching that can go on whether it's ball screens or back screens," Summitt said Monday after practice, citing one example of specific detail.

"Today, when we put in our full court defense, I was like, ‘I am going to see how this is going to be,' but we've got enough veteran players that I thought we did a lot of good things. We're ahead of the game because of it."

Baugh is just grateful to be back on the court. Her teammates have said the goal this season is the Final Four and a national title. Baugh's initial approach was more day-by-day to come back from two major surgeries but she's won one championship at Tennessee and knows what it takes to raise a banner.

"I definitely still have the big picture in my mind," Baugh said. "We do all this work to win, and we want to win championships. That's the beauty of being at Tennessee. My goal is to win a national championship this year."

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