Lady Vols tested by stacked male squad

If the season opened today, savvy veterans Angie Bjorklund and Shekinna Stricklen would start at the guard spots and Vicki Baugh and Kelley Cain would be in the paint. The wildcard spot is at small forward where the coaches have several options that would be determined by desired style of play and post depth – or lack thereof at the moment.

The Lady Vols completed their fourth consecutive day of practice Saturday – it was a bit uneven in terms of performance but an intentionally loaded male practice team had a lot to do with that – and will take off Sunday before returning to the court Monday.

Once again, the Tennessee team had an audience of recruits and their family members as unofficial visitors/commits Kaela Davis, class of 2013, and Andraya Carter, class of 2012, were in attendance with class of 2011 official visitors Ariel Massengale (committed), Cierra Burdick (committed) and Elizabeth Williams (uncommitted). Davis is the daughter of former NBA standout Antonio Davis, who brought his child and Carter up for the visit from Georgia.

The group saw a lively practice as the coaches witnessed some outstanding play and several areas for improvement. An abundance of male practice players was available and one group was particularly tall, athletic and rangy at every spot on the floor with the intent being to take the Lady Vols well out of their comfort zone.

"It's good," Coach Pat Summitt said. "They get frustrated at times, but it's good. They've got to figure out they're going to win. They've got to figure out how they're going to communicate. That is what I told them. I said, ‘We have got to have great communication, and we didn't have it today.'

"We got frustrated and started playing by ourselves. As much as it was ugly it was good."

Several top teams in the women's game this season, including 2010 Final Four participants Stanford and Baylor, have tremendous height in the paint. The male practice team, especially the combinations the coaches have available to them with this current group, is tougher than any opponent the Lady Vols will face. They also had plenty available to substitute so a fresh group was ready to go for each scrimmage session.

"Initially, they went into (a shell)," Summitt said of her players' reaction to the first group of guys that a combo of starters and substitutes faced.

That group of men was bigger and quicker at every position on the floor and basketball savvy as well. At least two look physically imposing enough to practice with the Vols scout team if they so desired.

"I told them you can be a mental midget or you can be a mental giant," Summitt said. "We've got to be mental giants. That's how you fight through adversity. You're not going to allow somebody to knock you down and stay down."

Summitt was speaking figuratively but one day after freshman guard Meighan Simmons got hit in the head by a practice player and missed Saturday's session under the school's concussion protocol, junior guard/forward Shekinna Stricklen collided with another male player and needed assistance to leave the court.

Stricklen has a history of knee mishaps and in this case she tweaked her right knee. Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine, indicated that Stricklen would be OK, and the player was smiling afterwards.

"Jenny felt good about it," Summitt said. "I like them (male players) but I want to make sure they're pulling up and not running through us. We'll talk to them. … We'll taper off before we get ready to play games."

The team has had nearly two weeks of practice – with fall break built in and several off days – and Summitt has also seen plenty that she liked.

"I think our communication has been better, obviously this session today not as good," Summitt said. "But I think the overall speed at which we played was good. I thought we did a nice job of playing inside-out."

Simmons was missed Saturday because of her court speed.

"She would have been a quicker guard than most guards we had on the floor today," Summitt said.

A delightful development in preseason has been the readiness of redshirt junior Vicki Baugh, who is being cautious in her comeback from ACL surgery but noticeably improves the team on both ends of the court.

"I like where she is," Summitt said. "I think Kelley is doing a good job."

The size and skill of Baugh and Kelley Cain make Tennessee a formidable team in the paint, and Summitt said she would start both of them if the season opened today. The issue is foul trouble with the absence of Alyssia Brewer, the other true center, as she recovers from Achilles tendon surgery.

Summitt said she has already pondered the starting lineup, something she usually doesn't address in mid-October, but she's seen plenty of live action in the past two weeks.

"I would start both of them," Summitt said. "We would probably have a one-foul (rule)."

The first foul would the offender to the bench. That means Glory Johnson, the only other true post, would likely come off the bench as she represents the only depth at center until Brewer is able to return, and she has just started basic rehab. Johnson, who will be Tennessee's player representative at SEC Media Days next week, figures to be a big part of the team's plans this season.

Stricklen would start at point guard because of experience with backup from Briana Bass and Lauren Avant, with senior guard Angie Bjorklund on the wing. Johnson could be a candidate at small forward, especially for defensive reasons, but she is needed for post depth, so that spot is likely to be filled by junior Alicia Manning or sophomore Taber Spani. Summitt indicated that decision would be likely made by matchups.

Spani has deep three-ball range, while Manning can dominate on the boards. Even against the first-team male practice squad, Manning still managed to get inside and get rebounds, once splitting two of them and emerging with the ball. Both Manning and Spani also will have to provide relief inside at the power forward spot.

"If we're wanting to spread out and shoot the ball, Taber is a better shooter, but A-Town is just mentally tough and has got a lot of grit," Summitt said. "I think she influences the game more so."

One thing is certainly clear: Summitt and her staff have options, something they like.

"I do," Summitt said.


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