The Lady Vols won't start the playing season in perfect health. Alyssia Brewer, a 6'3 post who needed Achilles tendon surgery after a candle base shattered in her apartment, has a projected return date of early January. Lauren Avant, a freshman point guard, who suffered a nerve contusion of her right hand, remains out of practice and is day to day while she rehabs and heals.
In addition, Vicki Baugh, a 6'4 post with tremendous athleticism and skill, is coming back from two ACL surgeries, and her minutes will be managed as her knee gets used to basketball moves and the physical play inside. A guard coming back from ACL surgery has a somewhat easier return – shorter limbs means less leverage issues on the knee and a perimeter player doesn't absorb the contact on every possession that a post player will.
Kelley Cain, a 6'6 center, must be monitored in terms of pounding and lengthy practice sessions, especially consecutive ones, because of past knee issues. Faith Dupree, a 6'3 post, continues to practice with the team but won't play in any games, as she will transfer in December to Tennessee-Chattanooga.
The fourth true post, Glory Johnson, a 6'3 power forward, will also need to slide over to the center spot to spell Cain. Johnson has had an excellent preseason on both ends of the court, and an apt way to describe her is being in a good place both physically and mentally.
"I think she is," Coach Pat Summitt said. "She is good in the paint, but she's extending her range a little bit more, which is going to take some pressure off of her. When people have to come out to get her now she can go by people. And her pull-up game is better."
"A-Town, you're talking about somebody that is gritty and tough and focused," Summitt said. "She is, to me, you can depend on her constantly. Taber is shooting the ball really well and I thought her defense was a little bit better (Wednesday) and that is where she's going to be challenged."
Spani was severely limited last season because of turf toe and related complications. She is offensively well suited to play at small forward – she has deep three-ball range and is a good passer – but she will also have to guard inside and outside this season. Manning can post up on offense – she has a knack for getting to the rim and can hit midrange shots – and can always be counted on to rebound.
Given Spani's offensive ability and Manning's board work and defensive mentality – she has become one of the team's best defenders on the perimeter – Summitt can envision the two being on the floor together for extended minutes while Brewer is recuperating.
"Absolutely early on," Summitt said.
The good news with Brewer is she is doing rehab exercises specifically focused on her Achilles tendon and is riding a stationary bicycle. She also has maintained good physical shape while being idled from the court.
The position of point guard remains with junior Shekinna Stricklen, but she is getting more help than in the past two seasons and has been able to play off the ball in various sets in practice. Avant was making a solid push for playing time and should be right back in the mix when she returns to practice.
"The thing I want to see is more than just Stricklen at the point and Lauren at the point," Summitt said. "I think we need another point guard there."
The candidates include Briana Bass, Kamiko Williams and Meighan Simmons. Bass is familiar with the offenses and Williams has certain sets that increase her comfort level. The next step is to get a package for Simmons, who has shown an ability to make good decisions with the ball.
"She does," Summitt said. "That's what I told our staff (Wednesday). We have to get her a package together because I think she can help us there. We can move people around, whether it's Bree, Kamiko or Meighan. And that's not bad."
With practice entering its fourth week, it's apparent why Summitt wants to find multiple ways to get Simmons on the floor. She can hit three-pointers and run the floor. After Williams threaded a pass to the corner to Sydney Smallbone, who buried the three-pointer, Simmons scooted down court to break up the long pass on defense against the male practice team.
That male practice squad has continued to provide stiff competition throughout practice.
"It stands out," Summitt said. "These guys are really good. This is one of the best groups we've had."
The Lady Vols have had sessions with rashes of turnovers, but that is partially because of how good the competition has been. If that trend continues once the season starts in games, it would be reason for concern. But, for now, a lot of those miscues can be attributed to the reach of the guys with the lesson being to protect the ball and make precision passes.
"You've got to really take care of the basketball or they're going to expose you," Summitt said. "We've got to get every player focused on taking care of the basketball, communication and doing the right things."
Senior guard Angie Bjorklund has been shooting well in preseason – her shot has a noticeably quicker release, especially in transition or coming off a screen – and she has mixed up her long-range ability with midrange looks. Bjorklund is best described as steady and dependable – the staff knows each session what it will get from her.
"I know, I know, and I like it," Summitt said.
The team is also better defensively than a year ago, when the coaches put in a 3-2 matchup zone that was deployed throughout the season. Now, although the zone remains viable, the Lady Vols have diversified the defense.
"I think we have more defensive schemes going on now," Summitt said. "We're expanding on what we want to do, obviously trapping more. Overall, there seems to be a mindset that everybody is investing in it. Some players will overrun the ball and get out of position but each day we're out here we're committing to playing better and better. Our communication is a lot better. That's helped to clarify a lot of things."
Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss and Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick also have made their voices heard at practice. Failure to communicate means a whistle blows, and the players back up and begin again. If it continues, the players are running sprints. The message has been delivered in preseason – talk on the court or don't expect to get on the court.
"I think we've had more good practices than not so good," Summitt said. "By watching and seeing the (practice) tapes I think the communication is a lot better. Going against the guys I think we've really elevated our intensity because of that. We've gotten a lot of sets in. I think we still could use more repetition and running through all of our sets."
The team will hold three more sessions this week on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and then take off Sunday, the second off day this week. With the earlier start to practice, Summitt had said she wanted to get the players a few weekend days off this month when they don't have class and can sleep later. She has been able to stick to that plan.
"Overall I am very pleased with where we are," Summitt said.