"Essentially she's a smaller Seimone."
Augustus is 6'0 with a sturdy build. Meighan Simmons is 5'9 with a slender frame that looks like a stiff Texas wind could knock her off balance. But she is cold-blooded on a basketball court and the long three she drained to tie the game against Stanford in the final minute and send it into overtime - where Tennessee won by 10 - defined her competitive nature. She went to the ball and wanted to take the shot.
Simmons' parents and two younger brothers will make the drive from San Antonio to Baton Rouge for Sunday's game when No. 5/6 Tennessee, 12-2, takes on LSU, 10-4, at 2 p.m. Eastern (SEC Network, Lady Vols Radio Network) at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in the conference opener for both teams.
"I don't even want to think about it," Summitt said when asked about the fact that Tennessee likely would have been facing Simmons in this game instead of having her suit up for Tennessee. "We're just thankful we have her."
Simmons offered very little when asked about that notion - she is grateful to be in orange but didn't want to say anything that sounded ungracious about LSU, which recruited her for a lengthy time in high school - but she did acknowledge the likelihood of where she would be enrolled had it not been for her lifelong love of the Lady Vols.
"If it wasn't going to be Tennessee it probably would be LSU," Simmons said.
Summitt had no doubts about that. The head coach, Lockwood and LSU Coach Van Chancellor were all at Steele High School in September of 2009 for a visit. Simmons came to Knoxville in October of 2009 for an unofficial visit and committed a few days later without taking any other trips.
"If it wasn't for God for planning my life to be able to come here … this is where I need to be," Simmons said.
It was Candace Parker, the former Tennessee All-American, who saw Simmons in an AAU game in Los Angeles - Parker was in Southern California because she plays for the Sparks of the WNBA in the summer - and called Summitt to encourage her to take a longer look. Tennessee was aware of the guard but was still sorting through a short list of players to pursue. The only reason the Lady Vols had a scholarship to offer was because former Lady Vol Cait McMahan, the point guard heir apparent to Shannon Bobbitt, had to stop playing basketball because of the poor condition of her knees.
Simmons signed her letter of intent in November of 2009 and what had been a class of one with Memphis point guard Lauren Avant - Tennessee had just one scholarship to offer to the high school class of 2010 until McMahan had to give up the game - became a class of two in a few whirlwind weeks.
By the second game of the season Simmons had moved into the starting lineup because of a combination of her relentless energy and offensive package and has shown no signs of slowing down. When Summitt has mentioned at times that the current team has exasperated her at times with its lack of consistency and sense of urgency, she wasn't talking about Simmons.
"She is not like (that)," Summitt said. "She's a difference maker, and she's done a tremendous job here. The reason I put her in the lineup is because I respect her game. I respect her toughness, her intensity, her ability under pressure to knock down big shots. That Stanford shot, I was like, ‘Wow.' "
The question, of course, is can Simmons maintain her level of play all season?
It is not uncommon for first-year players to tire late in the season. It's not so much the number of games - they play plenty of games in high school - but the travel combined with college classroom commitments and demanding practices.
Most high school games mean a van ride. Tennessee plays a national schedule and Summitt's academic policies are strict. Even if the plane arrives back in the wee hours of the morning from a road game, the players are required to be in morning classes. That is often followed by practice and weight-lifting sessions, and freshmen sometimes wobble under the expectations at this level.
Simmons said she is trying to ensure that her body holds up physically.
"What people don't understand is I eat so much it's crazy," Simmons said when asked about her slender build. "I eat like Angie (Bjorklund). Angie eats ridiculous. I pretty much can eat as much as anybody else on this team but with me I have to constantly keep eating and making sure I am getting hydrated and making sure I taking vitamins and making sure I am on top of my iron and calcium and getting a ton of rest, especially over break."
Simmons said she spent one day over Christmas sleeping, and "I went to the gym the next day."
It is that level of dedication that Summitt seeks from her players, at least the ones physically cleared to get extra work on their own. When Summitt preaches to her players the importance of repetitions and tells the current team that it needs to raise its work ethic, the words resonate with Simmons.
"To be honest when I hear something like that it just pushes me to work harder," Simmons said. "Obviously I want to be a part of a national championship team. My mentality is I am going to give 110 percent every day. I feel like I am invested. I feel like my heart is in it. My passion is in it.
"To hear her say that … we all have to be on the same page and I think right now we have to get back on track. We have to get back in the gym. We have to practice more, get more shots in, stuff like that, being able to communicate with each other, say, ‘This is what we need to do in order to get better.' I think that's pretty much what I feel about that."
At a practice this past week the team ran multiple sets of sprints for missed box-outs and turnovers. It was a grueling session with back-to-back-to back sets of sprints that sapped even the upperclassmen. Simmons was either with the front of the pack or led each time.
"It was tough," Simmons said. "I have to go out there and keep working hard. Because when I run like that, it lets her know that I am still prepared. I am still in shape. I am ready to practice.
"Every time I step on the floor there is no fooling around when it comes to basketball. That is just what I am focused on."
That attitude has gotten her into the starting lineup. To stay there she will have to continue to absorb the offense, especially since she plays significant time at the point spot.
"It's a mental thing and communicating with (Summitt) a lot and keeping her by my side, asking her questions, is this the right time to do this, is this the right time to do that, communicating with Angie and all my other teammates and making sure they know where they are so it will be easier for me so I will be able to hit the open man or hit the low post, make a good pass and make good drives," Simmons said.
Summitt said putting Simmons at the point has gone fairly smoothly for one simple reason.
"She loves to have the ball in her hands," Summitt said.
Simmons noted the position is as much in her mind, too.
"It's just a mental thing, just coming mentally ready to be prepared for everything and anticipating what's coming next," Simmons said.
Simmons, a natural shooting guard, has also had to learn to share the basketball - an adjustment all the more difficult for freshmen who are used to being the go-to player just a season ago on their high school teams.
Summitt has described her precocious freshman as coachable, and Simmons said she is now.
"There was a time where I played for my dad and I got frustrated and I wouldn't listen," said Simmons, who acknowledged it can be tough to play for a parent. "But that's the way you have to be, especially if you want to be good in the game of basketball. You have to be able to be coachable. You have to be a listener before you can start to lead. You have to be a follower before you can start to lead.
"My dad teaches me all the time, ‘You have to have respect for your coaches.' By that you have to listen to them, you have to be coachable, you have to sure you know what they want and what they expect of you and what your teammates expect of you and go out there and not only live up to their expectations but live up to your expectations."
Simmons' father, Wayne Simmons, is in the U.S. Army - she was born in Fayetteville, N.C., site of Fort Bragg - so a message of respect for authority is hardly a surprise. Simmons also shows respect for the U.S. flag, and doesn't flinch during the national anthem, a moment that is both patriotic and spiritual for her.
"Every time when they would play the national anthem I always sit still," Simmons said. "When you see me my hand is over my heart and my eyes are closed and I am praying. I pray and ask God to give me the strength to play to the best of my abilities, injury-free, let the coach be able to use us.
"I am just focused on the game and my prayer and what I am prepared to do. I get that from my dad."
Simmons also will have to improve her defense - perhaps the steepest learning curve for freshmen - if she is going to continue to play a major role this season, especially with conference play about to get underway. SEC teams know each other well, and the conference games can become a defensive grind as scouting reports hone in on tendencies and coaches scheme to take them away.
"Right now it's just going out and doing it," Simmons said. "I'm a visual learner and when people show me where I need to be that is where I am going to go. I use my speed to my advantage. I am able to get there and get back.
"Communicating with Pat and letting her know if I don't understand something, if I don't understand where I am supposed to be, I have to communicate with her, I have to communicate with my teammates and ask them if this is the right position to be at the right time."
Simmons also would like to schedule additional one-on-one film sessions with the coaches.
"That really does help, and I think I need to do that a lot more," Simmons said. "When you have a one on one, you're able to hear, listen, freeze frame, pause, and say, ‘Let me explain to you why this is going to happen, when this is going to happen and what you're expected to do.' "
Simmons is looking forward to the second part of the season and the start of SEC play.
"I am expecting great things from us in the SEC," Simmons said. "Everybody's mentality is going to change. Seeding, to get to the Final Four, it affects everything. We're going to work hard every day and say, ‘This is where we want to be at the end of the SEC.'
"I am excited and I can't wait to see all the different players and freshmen coming in in the SEC."
Simmons also doesn't mind opening conference play on the road in Baton Rouge.
"I don't know what it is about away games but for some reason I play (looser)," Simmons said. "It gets me a little more into it."
Summitt acknowledges that she knew Simmons would help the team but didn't know that would happen so fast.
"No, no I didn't," Summitt said. "Her energy level, I think she can run for days and then her skill set. She can really shoot the ball. I envisioned her being a special guard but did I know what she was going to bring (so soon) on the big stage? No."
For her part Simmons wants to make sure she can hold up physically all season and stay on that stage. She believes the keys to that process are in her head and her chest.
"I think it's always a mental thing," Simmons said. "No matter how big you are your heart has to be big, and you have to want to go out there and give it your all no matter how big you are.
"It might hit me but I've got to keep going, continue to move forward and continue to play and stay focused on what I need to do."
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Meighan Simmons, 5'9 freshman guard, No. 10 (16.7 points per game, 3.1 rebounds per game, 2.2 assists per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 senior guard, No. 5 (12.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.8 apg); Taber Spani, 6'1 sophomore guard/forward, No. 13 (9.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 junior forward, No. 40 (10.5 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 2.2 apg); and Glory Johnson, 6'3 junior forward, No. 25 (9.1 ppg, 8.9 rpg).
Kelley Cain, a 6'6 redshirt junior forward who started the last game, has been bothered by a sore hip - a chronic condition that has been managed day to day this season - so Johnson is likely to get the nod at the opening tip unless Cain feels much better overnight. Cain is the more polished offensive player while Johnson brings an athleticism to the post that is tough to match.
"Glory Johnson gives this team a dimension that it doesn't get from any other player and there are not a lot of players in this country from a pure athletic standpoint, her explosion when she's playing at a high effort level, when you take as an example what she did in the Stanford game, especially in the second half, when she's playing to that level, she gives this team a dimension that it simply cannot get from any other player," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said.
"Because when you combine athleticism with a high energy level and an output level that just keeps going and going, it's special. That is what she can do."
Cain's availability is significant for Tennessee because in three career games against LSU she has hit 94 percent of her shots while averaging 13.0 points and 5.2 blocks per game. Backup center Alyssia Brewer has averaged 10.6 ppg against LSU, but she is being eased into action after Achilles tendon surgery and didn't play in two of Tennessee's last three games.
Tennessee had all 13 players on the practice court Saturday - including freshman guard Lauren Avant, who missed the last game because of a concussion - but posts Cain, Brewer and Vicki Baugh remain limited.
LSU Coach Van Chancellor is expected to start: Latear Eason, 5'8 senior guard, No. 3 (4.1 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.2 apg), hails from Chicago, making her 52nd career start, full strength for the 2009-10 season after broken collarbone in the 2009 NCAA tourney and torn ACL before the 2008 tourney, hit two 3-pointers in win over UCLA, wears No. 3 because favorite player is Allen Iverson; Katherine Graham, 5'11 senior guard, No. 1 (8.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.8 apg), hails from Birmingham, Ala., has started 69 games in her LSU career and 54 consecutive ones, leads team in assists with 39, preseason All-SEC Second Team pick, only LSU player in school history to record a triple double in an SEC game when she did so against Ole Miss last season; Adrienne Webb, 5'9 sophomore guard, No. 10 (12.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg), hails from Madison, Ala., 38 made threes lead the SEC, has scored in double figures in 11 games this season, was the 2009 Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Alabama, cousin Richard Hendrix was standout basketball player for Alabama; LaSondra Barrett, 6'2 junior forward, No. 55 (11.2 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.5 apg), hails from Jackson, Miss., preseason All-SEC First Team, ranks seventh in LSU program history in career free throw percentage, has 884 career points and 437 career rebounds, selected as co-SEC Freshman of the Year after 2008-09 season with C'eira Ricketts, also played volleyball in high school, nickname is Boogie, cousin is Oakland Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell; and Taylor Turnbow, 6'2 junior forward, No. 35 (6.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg), hails from Stone Mountain, Ga., second in the SEC with 24 blocks, leading rebounder for LSU with 92 boards, played in all 31 games last season with 20 starts, has started all 14 games this season, also played volleyball in high school.
LSU started the season with two losses to Northwestern and Ohio State and later were wiped out 81-51 at Connecticut. Since that defeat, the Lady Tigers have won six consecutive games, including a 55-53 victory at No. 8/9 and previously undefeated UCLA on Dec. 28.
During SEC Media Days last October, Chancellor was excited about his team's offensive possibilities, but it's been the defensive improvement that has turned the course of LSU's season.
"That was a great win, the way we won it," Chancellor said. "We had to find a way to win a close game and execute when it mattered most. We have gone back to the reliable defense of ours. We only give up 53 points to a legitimate (top 10) team in the country that went to Notre Dame and beat them 87-84."
The challenge for the Lady Tigers will be contending with the size of the Lady Vols, though the status of the 6'6 Cain and 6'4 Vicki Baugh remain game-day determinations.
"Every team has matchup problems from time to time, but when you look at a team like Tennessee this season, they pose major problems for every team they face," Chancellor said. "Their overall size is such a strength. Now, (point guard) Meighan Simmons is there scoring and they are extremely difficult to defend. We have to play our best, rebound the basketball and can't turn the ball over."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-LSU game. Here is his assessment.
When LSU has the ball: Lockwood said the Lady Vols will need to guard personnel as directed in Saturday's scouting session at the PMAC and account for the primary scorers.
Taylor Turnbow had a breakout game in the paint against UCLA with 18 points and 13 rebounds while LaSondra Barrett can score at the rim and with her midrange game.
"Barrett, I think is one of the best midrange players in the conference, maybe beyond," Lockwood said. "That kid has got such a great 15 to 17, 18-foot jumper. She's got versatility. Between the two of them you've got two good 6'2 post players that can do some different things."
Adrienne Webb has 98 three attempts on the season and has made 38 for a shooting percentage of .409, so the Lady Vols must account for her on the court.
"Webb is clearly their best (from long range)," said Lockwood, who added each starter had a strength that needed to be guarded. "We have to be concerned with their starters. Each of them can do their own things, but what they can do individually is subservient to their team action.
"They run such good motion, they take good shots, they're patient, they make you guard three or four actions in a possession. They really make you guard them."
Defensively, LSU wants a team to work deep into the shot clock and grind out its offense.
"Very much," Lockwood said. "They're averaging about 66 points a game and giving up 52. They want the game in the 50s and low 60s. They need it that way."
Lockwood prepared the Lady Vols for both man and zone defenses.
"Their man defense is very solid," Lockwood said. "They play kind of a pack containment. They'll go out and deny on occasion, but they're not all over the court chasing you. They're going to try and make you make five, six, seven passes.
"They play some 2-3 zone. Depending on how it's going they may jump into some zone action with us as well."
When Tennessee has the ball: The game is likely to start with Kelley Cain on the bench because of her sore hip, but Tennessee's philosophy is to still work inside-out with the ball and get good ball movement and player spacing.
"Regardless of what we're getting from a scoring standpoint inside-wise, we want inside touches," Lockwood said. "We want the ball to go through our middle so that we can establish that we can play inside, we can go inside-out, we can do some different actions that way and be a threat at least to get the ball into the paint as opposed to, especially on the road, relying solely on your jump shot."
Defensively, the Lady Vols want to bring some pressure but that will depend on personnel and game situation.
"We're going to be selective," Lockwood said. "We will selectively look at that and test it."
Tennessee will also be ready to deploy man and zone looks.
"We played zone here some last year, in the second half in particular was effective for us," Lockwood said. "And obviously last year was last year but we think this is the type of team that multiple looks may be better than a single one thing.
"Because they're very good at honing in - with their offensive spacing and what they do - once they know what you're doing and how you're doing it, they're very good at picking up your rhythm. We want to keep them off rhythm."
ON TAP: Eight other SEC teams are in action Sunday as conference play officially gets underway in the following matchups: Auburn at Alabama; Arkansas at Florida; South Carolina at Georgia; and Vanderbilt at Ole Miss.
On Tuesday, Kentucky steps out of conference to play Duke and then goes to Arkansas on Thursday for its first SEC game. Mississippi State's first SEC game also is Thursday at Vanderbilt.
SEC PLAY: Pat Summitt named the usual suspects when asked for the top teams in the SEC - her predictions fell in line with what has happened in the conference recently - but she added that every game had better hold the attention of Tennessee, the defending regular season and tourney champs.
"I think on a given night if you're not ready to play then you've got trouble," Summitt said. "I just think what we have to do is be mindful of getting ready for every game and not looking ahead and focus on the moment, and we've got to compete. We've got to compete on every possession and every thing we do.
"This team, they're laidback at times. I want us sprinting to drills, not walking. As coaches we have to hold them accountable because we know this group at any point in time can lay down. It's our job to kick them in the butt and move on."
Besides the usual powerhouses at or near the top of the conference, Summitt said Arkansas and Alabama, which finished at the bottom a year ago, were much better this season. Arkansas finished its out-of-conference schedule with a 12-0 record that included a win over Oklahoma. The Lady Vols travel to Fayetteville this season.
"At Arkansas it's going to be a war," Summitt said.
Some SEC teams also absorbed some bad losses, including LSU's destruction at the hands of UConn and Florida dropping a game to Brown. Summitt said none of those outcomes matter now and especially when Tennessee is on the court.
"Factor in who we are, and we get everybody's best shot," Summitt said. "I don't think our team always knows it, but you've got to respect every opponent that you face. That's something that we have to be on our players about all the time."
The SEC opener sets the tone for a team, and the Tennessee coaches want that to be done the right way.
"We do," Lockwood said. "This a big game because LSU is a legitimate contender. Always have been. Since the seven years I've been here they've always been in the picture."
LSU also has used the early part of the season to sort out personnel matters and then has settled into an identity by the time conference play begins.
"We're hitting them at their stride because they just beat UCLA in a well-played game for them," Lockwood said. "It's an important game for both of these teams. There are going to be opponents for us down the line that we're all going to be challenged by most certainly but I remember playing this game a couple of times where it decided the conference championship."
LSU and Tennessee are the two winningest teams in the league over the past six years. Tennessee has taken 75 victories in SEC play while LSU has claimed 70 since 2005.
"To open up here where they are a legitimate contender, they're just coming off a big win and we know that they're going to be a player in the SEC race, this is big for us," Lockwood said.
ODDS AND ENDS
Tennessee leads the series with LSU, 39-12. The Lady Vols' record in Baton Rouge is 12-6 with the Lady Tigers last win at the PMAC coming on Feb. 26, 2009. Tennessee won in Baton Rouge last season. The games tend to be closely contested between the two programs whether at home, away or in postseason. … Tennessee is 16-0 in games played on January 2. The last win on this date was against DePaul, 102-68, in 2008. The first win on January 2 was against N.C. State, 70-65, in 1978. … Tennessee is 26-5 in opening SEC games dating back to the 1979-80 season. The record on the road in conference openers is 12-3. The last time the Lady Vols lost the season SEC debut was to Georgia, 94-93 in overtime, on Dec. 8, 1996. The last time LSU lost an SEC opener was in 2002, also to Georgia. The home opener for Tennessee is this Thursday against Alabama. … Tennessee's overall record against SEC teams is 427-66. The Lady Vols have a winning record against every team in the league. For the second game in a row, both coaches on the sideline are in the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame and Naismith Hall of Fame. Tennessee's Pat Summitt entered the WBHOF in the inaugural class of 1999 with the Naismith nod coming in 2000. LSU's Van Chancellor entered the WBHOF in 2001 and Naismith in 2007. In the last game, C. Vivian Stringer of Rutgers was also in both halls. … LSU is facing back-to-back top 10 teams for the first time since facing No. 2 North Carolina (regional final) and No. 3 Tennessee in the 2008 NCAA tourney. It is the first time to face consecutive top 10 teams in the regular season since 2002 when LSU played No. 6 Vanderbilt and No. 9 South Carolina. … During LSU's six-game winning streak leading into Sunday's game the Lady Tigers ignited the offense while stiffening their defense. LSU is averaging 72.0 points per game while allowing only 46.2 points with opponents shooting 31.0 percent. Four teams failed to reach 50 points. Louisiana Tech scored 53 while UCLA, which was averaging 69.2 points per game, was held to its lowest point total of the season at 53. … LSU fans are encouraged to wear gold, and the first 1,500 fans will receive a mini basketball and hoop set. The New Orleans Hornets French Quarter Flyers dunk team will perform at halftime. … LSU is likely happy to be at home as the Lady Tigers racked up miles in their out-of-conference play. Including trips to the Northeast and Pacific Coast, LSU has tallied 11,241 miles of travel so far this season.
BY THE NUMBERS
Tennessee is averaging 80.5 points a game while allowing opponents to score 57.3. LSU averages 65.4 points a game while allowing 52.5.
The Lady Vols are shooting 45.2 percent overall, 36.1 percent behind the arc and 63.6 percent from the free throw line. The Lady Tigers are shooting 40.0 percent overall, 33.7 percent from long range and 65.3 percent from the line.
Tennessee makes an average of 7.1 three-pointers a game while allowing 5.1. LSU makes 6.1 threes a game while allowing 4.4.
Tennessee averages 45.0 rebounds a game for a +10.8 margin. LSU averages 40.2 boards for a +3.6 margin.
The Lady Vols average 14.7 assists and 15.9 turnovers a game. Opponents lose the ball an average of 20.4 times a game. The Lady Tigers average 14.4 assists and 13.8 turnovers with foes losing the ball 16.6 times a game.
Tennessee averages 9.9 steals and 4.4 blocks a game. LSU averages 7.1 steals and 4.8 blocks.