Lady Vols picked to win SEC

The Lady Vols scrimmaged Tuesday against the same sets of male practice players that had befuddled them Saturday with their speed, height and athleticism, and this time they communicated on defense, spaced better on offense, got on the boards and held their own. The improvement was apparent by the shouts of "Good job!" by the coaches when practice ended.

On Saturday, the Tennessee coaches loaded up the male squads with the stoutest collection of talent ever assembled for team practice purposes. The Lady Vols were affected by the size – even the 6'2 Shekinna Stricklen had a taller point guard on her – reach and speed of the players, who had them on their heels.

Tuesday's effort was much better, especially after a film session Monday that pointed out the miscues. Because of availability due to classes and work schedules, not all of the male players were at Monday's practice but they were back in force Tuesday and once again could present the coaches with any situation they needed – size, quickness, penetrators, shooters and post players.

The difference Tuesday was the reaction of the Lady Vols.

"We came back Monday, and I thought our film session made a huge difference just sitting down as a team and seeing how our spacing was off, our transition D (wasn't good)," senior guard Angie Bjorklund said after Tuesday's practice. "I think the next time through we learned from our mistakes. I think that's a huge difference with this team, not just doing the same thing over and over again.

"I think the key thing this year is, ‘All right, here's a mistake. Let's get down to business and take care of it right away.' "

Pat Summitt and her staff were noticeably pleased with Tuesday's performance in the scrimmages and while plenty remains to be done, the coaches saw quite a bit to like.

"That day, no communication, no one is talking," Summitt said of the Saturday scrimmages. "They didn't take ownership of what they had to do. It was night and day (Tuesday).

"The thing I told them today you have to have discipline. You have to have it on the court. You have to have it in life. Discipline, that is a powerful word and it's a great thing when people have discipline, and they buy into a system."

The coaches realize they have a talented team – and deeper inside once Alyssia Brewer returns at some point during the season from Achilles tendon surgery – and this preseason they are seeking more accountability on the floor. That usually works best if it originates from the players.

"I think it's finding a balance between when and how to approach players," Bjorklund said. "It's finding a balance between holding somebody accountable and saying, ‘Come on we need you to do this,' and at the same time encouraging them if they mess up by saying, ‘OK, you've got it next time.' I think it's constantly communicating, everyone not just me, Strick or Kelley or Vick, but the underclassmen.

"I see Lauren and Meighan coming up to me and saying, ‘Ang, shoot that shot. That's your shot,' so I think it's accountability across the board, not just the upperclassmen, is what we're really starting to see."

Lauren Avant and Meighan Simmons are the team's true freshmen, but they don't act like it on the court on either end.

"When I saw her (Simmons) in high school I thought she's light, she's quick," Summitt said. "The only thing I had in my mind was, ‘Is she going to be frail?' She's not frail. She'll take a hit, and she'll hit somebody. I am really, really pleased with her footwork, shooting the ball, she can knock down threes, she can get to the rack. I am very pleased there.

"With Lauren, I think she is gaining a lot more confidence and talking. Knowing our sets and all that, that takes time, but she is a quick learner. I am pleased with both of our freshmen."

Avant got a late start with her teammates, as she was limited all summer as she healed a shoulder injury and then had to adjust her lungs to the fall climate of East Tennessee and missed some preseason workouts. Simmons has been full go but with a lot on her plate as she has gotten reps at the wing and point spots for depth reasons.

"Meighan is really starting to pick up the system more," Bjorklund said. "With Lauren, I was excited. She is very aggressive on defense. I think that brings a lot to our team because that's what we're trying to be is more aggressive and in attack mode more than back on our heels like we've been in the past. I think they both bring that attack mode type of defense to our team."

Avant had a steal in a scrimmage set Tuesday to put her team in position to win the game and then had the presence of mind later to back out the ball and run some clock. Simmons showed patience on offense by waiting for a play to develop with off-ball screens before delivering the ball to the player who popped free for an assist.

The coaches had said they want the team playing better together, and Bjorklund said the more practice reps, the better.

"I think the more we play together, the more we scrimmage together in practice, it's going to get a little bit better," Bjorklund said. "It's just getting familiar with each other again."

Last year's 32-3 team didn't lose anyone, but the Lady Vols are working in Vicki Baugh, who last played a game in February of 2009, and Taber Spani, who was hindered a lot last season with turf toe. Alicia Manning, along with Spani, also are getting reps inside to help with post depth.

"Injuries have a little bit of effect on that with Lyssi (out)," Bjorklund said. "We're bringing in A-Town and Taber, and I think that is an adjustment for us, too, reading off of them feeding the posts, so I think it's a lot of little things getting used to (like) Strick on the wing now, not as much as the point."

Stricklen is still slotted as the starting point guard but the coaches have used preseason to get extended looks at the position for depth reasons with Briana Bass, Avant, Simmons and Kamiko Williams getting reps, too.

Tennessee started practice on Oct. 3 under a new NCAA rule – with an assortment of days off – so the players have been at it for two calendar weeks now, and they are ready for the games to start. The first exhibition is Nov. 2 against Carson-Newman followed by a Nov. 7 game against Union. The first regular season game is on the road Nov. 12 against Louisville for the official basketball debut of the waterfront KFC Yum Center.

"Woo, I'm excited," Bjorklund said. "It's still kind of a tough part of the year getting used to having full practices (plus conditioning) but game time it's coming right around the corner. This year is going by fast, and we're looking forward to the first game."

SEC PRESEASON NODS: Angie Bjorklund, Shekinna Stricklen and Kelley Cain were named by the media voters to the preseason All-SEC squads – first team for Bjorklund and Stricklen and second team for Cain.

"That's exciting," Bjorklund said. "It says a lot about our program. I'm surrounded by great teammates that help improve my game. It's great. We have a pretty deep squad this year, and I'm pretty excited about it."

Pat Summitt applauded the preseason recognition for her players.

"I am very happy with it," Pat Summitt said. "Obviously Angie has been so invested, and I think Shekinna now understands she can be a point guard, and she can be a great player. The two of them have shown tremendous leadership for us, but I think even now you can just tell they're older, they're more invested, they're more confident, and with all that said I think that they are going to provide great leadership for us."

Bjorklund and Stricklen were joined on the First Team by Jence Rhoads of Vanderbilt, LaSondra Barrett of LSU and Victoria Dunlap of Kentucky. Dunlap, the 2010 SEC Player of the Year, was the media's preseason pick for SEC Player of the Year in 2010-11.

Named to the Second Team with Cain were: Tierney Jenkins of Alabama, Alli Smalley of Auburn, Porsha Phillips of Georgia and A'dia Mathies of Kentucky.

The media's predicted order of finish was: Tennessee, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Georgia, LSU, Auburn, South Carolina, Arkansas, Alabama, Ole Miss with Mississippi State and Florida tied for last place.

The coaches' preseason SEC picks will be released Oct. 28.

It's the first time in two years that Tennessee has been picked in the preseason to win the league, though the Lady Vols were slotted at second a year ago. Last season, LSU topped the list with Vandy getting the top nod in the predictions the year before that.

A year ago, Summitt, coming off the 11-loss season, said she thought Tennessee should be picked fourth, prompting Georgia Coach Andy Landers to quip that bordered on dishonesty and LSU Coach Van Chancellor to say she was sandbagging.

The Lady Vols won the SEC regular season with one loss to Georgia and the SEC Tournament.

This October, Summitt said the prediction of Tennessee to win the SEC was expected.

"I think how we finished up and also, again, I see an improvement with their commitment to get in the gym and get up a lot of reps," Summitt said.

The target on Tennessee has been standard in years past, so for the players the predicted order of finish doesn't matter. They feel the pressure to win no matter where they're ranked.

"When you come here you always have a target on your back no matter where you're at, so I think we've learned to play through that," Bjorklund said. "We have high expectations here so we're expecting as a team to win the whole thing."

Repeating the double of the regular season and tourney trophies is a challenge. It had not been done in a decade until Tennessee did it last season.

"It's not going to be easy," Bjorklund said. "We have a target on our back, and the SEC this year is pretty strong so there are a lot of great teams. It's going to be tough, but we didn't lose anyone and we're looking to do the exact same thing as we did last year."

A lofty goal for the Lady Vols would be to go undefeated after taking just one loss in the league last season.

"Absolutely, but I think key is going to be just taking it one game at a time," Bjorklund said. "Yes, we want to win an SEC championship. We want to win a national championship. But at the same time we have to take it one game at a time."

Summitt's ringing telephone several weeks ago before court workouts started let her know how committed the players were to being better this season with the ultimate goal to be at the Final Four in Indianapolis.

"One night my phone just started going off, and everyone of them sent a text message," said Summitt, who believed strength and conditioning Coach Heather Mason likely had something to do with the timing. "Heather had to be right on top of it. … They're very invested. I think they want to be in Indianapolis. There is no doubt. They've blown my phone up with that. It was really neat when everyone of them texted me and everyone of them was saying things about how they wanted to get to Indianapolis and what they wanted to do.

"Just different things about what they were doing, what they're commitment was. Everyone texted me a different message, but it all involved getting to Indianapolis and cutting down the nets. It was just them making a commitment to me saying, ‘We're going to do this, Coach. This is what we want.' It was neat."


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