Lady Vols have options at point

If Tennessee's season started today, Shekinna Stricklen would take the court as the team's point guard, but the quality behind her has been elevated considerably from a year ago as Briana Bass had a splendid off-season, and freshmen Lauren Avant and Meighan Simmons have shown to be good decision-makers with the ball in their hands.

Shekinna Stricklen always has a smile on her face when asked about playing point guard, but the 6'2 guard/forward will probably smile even bigger when someone else is ready to take the reins and allow her to operate from the wing, where she is most comfortable on the basketball court.

The junior has started the majority of her games at the point position since she was a freshman by necessity – and especially when Pat Summitt opted to go with a big lineup and zone defense – and she is keeping an eye on the development of junior Briana Bass and freshmen Lauren Avant and Meighan Simmons.

As of early October, Bass has a solid hold on the number two spot on the depth chart and has shown an ability to hit more consistently from behind the arc, get the team into its offenses and push the ball in transition.

"I like her because she pushes tempo really hard," Summitt said. "She doesn't try to do too much. She knows where to get the ball. I'm pleased with her right now. She's been in the gym."

Bass got a tremendous endorsement from Stricklen.

"Bree, I feel like she has really stepped up, and she is playing that spot better than anyone right now I really believe," Stricklen said. "She is so confident and she is seeing the whole court. She is talking more, and she gets people open and that is what a point guard is supposed to do, and she is doing it really well."

Avant missed most of her senior year in high school in Memphis to recover from a shoulder injury and has been limited at times in the preseason while dealing with allergies and related breathing issues, but she has the physical skills and the mental acuity to get into the mix at point guard.

Meighan Simmons, a combo guard from Cibolo, Texas, has been a pleasant surprise for the coaches because of her decision-making both in the half-court offenses and in transition. They knew the speedy guard could shoot and get to the rim, but Simmons has also shown a knack for finding open teammates with precision passes.

"I like that," Summitt said.

"We have more options now, not that I want Angie to bring the ball up," the coach added with a smile, referring to her senior sharpshooter, Angie Bjorklund. That wasn't a knock on Bjorklund's ball handling but a nod to the way she has been shooting in preseason practices, especially in transition.

"We need to get her down there to shoot," Summitt said. "I think eventually Meighan will be (in the mix). Lauren when she gets healthy she can obviously give us some good reps at the point position."

Avant, like Bass, is a pure point guard. She missed Monday's session because of her ongoing allergy issues but was full go Tuesday and performed well.

"I am trying to soak everything up and understand how my teammates operate, how they like their passes," Avant said. "There are so many components to being a point guard, understanding where shooters like the ball, understand where Kelley Cain and Vicki Baugh like to receive the ball. Just keep the pace up and learn the offense. I am really comfortable right now and I am looking to get better and better each practice."

Summitt has no doubt that Avant will readily grasp the offenses. The product of Lausanne, an elite prep school in Memphis, is already a sophomore in terms of academic credits earned because of Advanced Placement courses she took in high school and her summer school work at Tennessee over two sessions.

"I think she's got a good basketball IQ, and she'll be one to study," Summitt said. "She's bright and serious. (The team) has seen her enough to know that we've got another point guard that could really step in and help us out. She looked a lot more comfortable (Tuesday)."

Stricklen's praise of Avant stems from the fact that she can hear her voice on the court.

"It's not an easy job coming in as a freshman," Stricklen said. "She still has a lot to learn, but she's going a great job. She's being a leader. She's talking. I'll admit it. She's talking a lot more than I did when I was a freshman so I give her credit. It took me a year. She's coming in and she's talking, and she's doing pretty good."

Stricklen, who along with Bjorklund was named to the John R. Wooden Award Women's Preseason Top 30 List, also knows she has to be ready to take the ball.

"I am real comfortable at the point," Stricklen said. "I've been playing it for two years. I've been playing a lot on the wing in practice but still at times when they need me at the point I know it and I'm able to help."

Stricklen laughed and said she knew better than to think her stints at the wing would be permanent, and she joked that Vicki Baugh, a 6'4 post player who played point in high school, could join the rotation.

"She can handle it. I'll give her that," Stricklen said.

Stricklen and Bjorklund will be in the starting lineup for Tennessee in some capacity, as they have been for the past two seasons.

"I'm not surprised these two are on the list," Summitt said of the Wooden preseason nominees, an award that former Lady Vol Candace Parker earned. "We're relying on Shekinna and Angie to lead us this season. Shekinna has improved her game in a lot of ways. She's playing better off the dribble and she's great inside and out. I have big expectations for her.

"Angie has one of the prettiest shots I've ever seen. She knows what it means to invest and work hard. She's one of the best pure shooters in the women's game today."

Bjorklund is on pace to break the career three-point record at Tennessee – she has 232 and the record, held by former Lady Vol Shanna Zolman, is 266 – and Stricklen can connect from long range and attack the rim. If Bass, Avant and Simmons can provide substantial help at the point spot, it means Bjorklund and Stricklen would be free to operate together on the wings.

"I think they can get some playing time," Summitt said of the trio backing up Stricklen on the point depth chart. "Understanding our defensive system, commitment to rebounding, learning the plays. Lauren has got a lot to learn. I think Meighan can play there."

Sophomore Kamiko Williams got reps at point guard last season but her skill set, so far, has been better suited to the wing and scoring in transition.

"Kamiko is going to probably be more on the wing unless she can learn the plays (from the point spot)," Summitt said. "If she can learn the plays she can play a little bit there."

Summitt said the lineup also could be determined by matchups and how Tennessee wants to play on offense.

"A lot depends on how we want to play, whether we want to go three out, two in, or we want to run set action," Summitt said. "I think we've got good depth with the guards, and I am pretty comfortable with all of them. They've got to get a lot more reps.

"Post game we're capable of being very good there if we're all healthy. There are a lot of ifs in this game. Eventually we'll get them all healthy."

Cain and Baugh both have a history of knee issues, though they have practiced without setbacks, and Alyssia Brewer is out indefinitely while she recovers from an off-the-court accident that injured her Achilles tendon.

Sophomore guard/forward Taber Spani missed practice Tuesday because of an issue with her left knee, which is being evaluated. She rode a stationary bike and received sideline rehab during the session.

The good news for Spani is that her left foot is feeling fine of late. She was hindered last season by a serious case of turf toe and related complications that had her in near-constant pain.

"My foot feels great and every other part of my body feels awesome so I am really excited about that," Spani said. "The first couple of practices (Sunday and Monday) were really good."

Junior forward Glory Johnson provides an athletic presence in the post and can also guard on the perimeter. She is the Lady Vols' best perimeter defender and could completely disrupt the opponent's ball handler.

"If she can stay out of foul trouble, we can use her there," Summitt said. "She's just got to get that focus and get in the gym and work on her offensive game and then defensively she can pick up the ball full court. She's one of the best athletes, if not the best athlete on our team."

The presence of Cain and Baugh inside also has been a boost for the post game.

"It helps a lot, especially in the post that Vicki is back and running around," Stricklen said. "Those two are both 6'6. They play together really well."

When Stricklen was told that Baugh is actually 6'4, she smiled and said that she plays bigger.

"She can jump," Stricklen said. "It helps the guards out when you have two big trees in there, tall trees."

Summitt has stood out for the past three practice sessions more for what she hasn't said. She has allowed the three assistants to do much of the talking while she circles the court watching.

"For me I can see more," Summitt said. "While they're teaching it gives me a time to really observe who's talking, who's boxing out, who's rebounding, who's getting up and down. The fact that I've got a veteran staff is wonderful. I don't have to be out there calling every play and getting on everybody."

When asked if she would pick her spots as to when to use her voice, Summitt smiled and said, "They'll be some spots."

One of those spots came Tuesday when she gathered the team together for a brief chat. But Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick and Assistant Coaches Dean Lockwood and Mickie DeMoss are rotating among the guards and posts and making their voices heard.

"I think it's so important that our players hear everybody's voice and they know that we're holding them accountable," Summitt said.

FOOTBALL FAN: Taber Spani brings a football player's mentality and toughness to the sport of basketball – the result of being Frosty Westering's granddaughter and Gary Spani's daughter.

Westering was a legendary coach at Pacific Lutheran University from 1973 to 2002, where he won four national titles. Spani remembers her grandfather taking her and her older sister to Wal-mart when they were preschoolers and getting poster board, felt material and markers to line a football field and set up offenses and defenses.

Gary Spani was an All-American linebacker at Kansas State and played in the NFL for the Kansas City Chiefs. He now works in the Chiefs' front office, and the Spanis are, needless to say, tremendous fans of the team.

After four weeks the Chiefs are the only undefeated team in the NFL and next face Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. Did any Chiefs fan predict that stellar start?

"I don't know, even Kansas City people, as much as we want to believe it, it's crazy," said Taber Spani, who noted the high number of SEC players on the team (19 in all), including three former Vols in Eric Berry, Dustin Colquitt and Brad Cottam, on the active roster. "We've got speed galore and they play so hard. Our coaches have them playing so hard and that's helping them win. I am really excited for this weekend."

The Tennessee-LSU game was pure anguish for Spani. The Vols lost 16-14 after believing they had won after LSU's center snapped the ball past the quarterback, but Tennessee got penalized for having 13 players on the field and with another shot at the goal line, LSU scored as time expired.

"You just know what they're going through," Spani said. "They left everything on the field. I mean everything and then they have it won and it's taken. They played really hard, and it's amazing to see how much they're improving and they're getting better. We've got some awesome potential so that's exciting."

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