February is often a month to be survived for freshmen as their bodies and minds finally feel the cumulative weight of a college season. Freshman have said it's not the long season – they play a lot of games in high school, too – but the difference from high school to college as far as travel distances, practice expectations, conditioning and academics.
Meighan Simmons, the precocious freshman for Tennessee, exploded out of the gate in, fittingly enough, the thoroughbred country of Louisville, Kentucky, to open the 2010-11 season with 22 points and eight rebounds, but has trailed the pack in the past two weeks, including an 0-6 showing against Arkansas last weekend.
Simmons smiled when asked if she was starting to tire a little down the backstretch when the college season starts to catch up with first-year players.
"It is," Simmons said. "But I am taking it one day at a time and trying to keep up my energy."
Simmons is 5'9 with a slender build, and she is focused lately on increasing her food consumption. She is making sure she stays hydrated and also takes vitamins and iron supplements.
"And being able to get a lot of rest as well," Simmons said. "I need to eat more. When the season goes on and you have more games and you're traveling a lot, you need to eat a lot more and go to bed earlier. Sometimes I stay up late doing homework and trying to make sure I get things done ahead of time so I don't have to worry about it later on.
"It's OK right now. It's starting to hit a little bit, but then I know I can play through it and continue to move forward."
The next game for No. 4 Tennessee (21-2, 9-0) is against No. 16 Kentucky (18-4, 7-2) on Feb. 7 at 9 p.m. Eastern on ESPN2 in Lexington at Memorial Coliseum in a "Big Monday" promotional matchup.
"I think for competitors you love it so we'll embrace it," sophomore Taber Spani said.
Simmons enters this game with a clear mind.
"The only time I remember them playing Kentucky was in the SEC championship," Simmons said when asked if she had any memories of Tennessee-Kentucky while still in high school in Cibolo, Texas.
That's a good orange memory as the Lady Vols defeated the Wildcats, 70-62, in Duluth, Ga., in the 2010 SEC tourney nearly a year ago.
A bad orange recollection is the Feb. 19, 2009, game in Lexington, a 66-56 loss that led to the Lady Vols being banished from their locker room – a luxury the players didn't get back until after the next season got underway.
Shekinna Stricklen was a freshman in 2009 and although the game is now two years old, she remembers it well.
"We lost everything," Stricklen said. "I totally remember that game. The ones that are still here I think all of us remember that game. I don't think people will ever forget it."
Added Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood, who has the scout for the Kentucky game, "It's hard to forget."
"They just totally dominated us there on everything," Stricklen said. "We're going to have that in our minds."
Spani, who was being home-schooled in Lee's Summit, Mo., and a few months away from joining the Lady Vols, said the upperclassmen have talked about the 2009 loss.
"They definitely mentioned it," Spani said. "It was bad. Four of us (two freshmen and two sophomores) weren't here but you still feel a part. You still have those seeds planted in your mind.
"Kentucky is a great team. We give them all the credit. We just want to play the best that we can play. We feel like when we do that we will be special. Dean always says we want to play against the game and see how good we can become in this game. Obviously we're playing a great opponent, but we want to focus on our game."
Kentucky stumbled a few times this season, including starting the SEC with two losses to Arkansas and Georgia after losing a heartbreaker at Duke, but then reeled off seven consecutive conference wins and seems to have hit its stride.
"They're a relentless team," Lockwood said. "I think who really put their stamp on the team is (reigning SEC Player of the Year) Victoria Dunlap. She is the unquestioned spiritual, energy leader of the team and how hard she plays. When your best player is your hardest worker it just filters through your team. I think she's a classic example.
"She is absolutely relentless. Because of her effort it just radiates throughout the team."
Tennessee's depth has been a strength of the team this season, although the Lady Vols' health has fluctuated. Spani (foot, shin) and fellow sophomore guard Kamiko Williams (concussion protocol) returned to practice Friday on a limited basis.
Coach Pat Summitt said after practice Friday that Bjorklund was unlikely to play Monday against Kentucky. Bjorklund has been off the court for nearly two weeks now – she last played Jan. 23 against Auburn – and continued her sideline rehab. Summitt reiterated Friday that the team would take a conservative approach with Bjorklund's return.
Simmons said she would welcome back the on-court leader of the team.
"I am waiting for Angie to get back," Simmons said. "That's our missing piece right there – the energy that she brings and her mentality. She is always bringing us together. We haven't really had somebody to come and just bring us together and say, ‘Hey, let's get this done today.'
"That's one thing that I miss about Angie and I think with her coming back (at some point) it's going to be a lot of help with us."
Kentucky is a team that can exceed the depth of the Lady Vols as 10 players log double digits in minutes played in SEC games. Tennessee has eight players tallying double-digit minutes in conference games.
"It's a war of attrition," Lockwood said. "They just want to keep coming in and wearing you out."
Kentucky can't match Tennessee's size, but the Lady Vol bigs have to be healthy to deploy that weapon. The backup bigs, 6'4 Vicki Baugh and 6'3 Alyssia Brewer, had effective practice sessions this week in post drills with the 6'6 Kelley Cain and the 6'3 Glory Johnson.
Brewer, last year's SEC Sixth Woman of the Year, and Baugh, are both coming back from surgery and are trying to reestablish footholds. Brewer logs 7.8 minutes a game in conference play while Baugh averages 6.7.
Williams (19.0 minutes in SEC play) and Alicia Manning (15.9) can log starter minutes if they need to, as they did against LSU because of foul trouble to other players.
"Anybody can come in and make a difference," Spani said. "A lot of people get good quality minutes. We don't really have a drop-off. I think that's awesome. I think that attests to what the coaches have done with recruiting and what we've bought into."
Tennessee likes to play through its middle so the presence of the bigs is huge in any game, but guard play will be paramount against Kentucky.
"The margin of error against them is very small because they are so active with their hands and feet that they tip a lot of balls," Lockwood said. "They turn steals into points. We have to be a lot sharper than we were against Arkansas."
That means Simmons will have to be ready for pressure, a process she sees as mental and physical.
"I'd say it's both," Simmons said. "Mentally you have to know when to pass, when to ball fake, when to go to the basket. They have a tendency to grab and rip and scrap. Physically you have to just be able to want to run. If you turn the ball over, sprint to get back and get a stop."
Simmons said she also has to tighten her handle with the ball.
"Lower to the ground and tight," Simmons said. "I can't just cross over in front of somebody. They're either going to hit the ball and it's a turnover or it's going to go out of bounds. Knowing what my defender can do as far as quick hands, quick feet.
"I have to keep my poise. I have to be able to dribble back out and go forward and hit the open man."
Simmons turned the ball over against Arkansas by trying to dribble behind her back while splitting a double team. Simmons said that was a lesson learned that college defenders "are a lot quicker with their hands."
"You just have to make the adjustment," Simmons said. "I am still learning the fact that college players, their hands, the jumping ability, little things like that are just something that you have to watch out for and be prepared for any time in the game."
Tennessee has had some games with few turnovers and others where the ball squirts free too often. Against Arkansas several early miscues were unforced – the result of bad ball handling or miscommunication on passes and firing the ball out of bounds.
"I think we can get better at that," Spani said. "We do pride ourselves on taking care of the ball. We want to play fast on our end, but we want to slow them down. We can do that by limiting turnovers. I think it's been a focal point for our coaching staff and our team. If we can limit turnovers we can hopefully limit their transition points."
Summitt and Lockwood emphasized the tenacity of the Wildcats.
"It's man to man, get up in your grill," said Summitt, who noted she had seen the Wildcats in only a few possessions of zone defense.
"It's a man to man where they try to turn you and as they turn you they're trapping from the blind side," Lockwood said.
"It's kamikaze," Summitt added.
"Very much so," Lockwood said. "They are as aggressive of a basketball team as we've faced all year."
Tennessee worked this week in practice on matching up in its transition defense.
"We're a lot better at communicating and matching up quicker," Spani said. "We used to all run back to the paint and then match up. We're really stopping the ball quicker, matching up quicker. It's just kind of a recognition of what you're doing on the floor, where your man is or where another person's man is.
"Get the ball stopped is a huge key. That has been something in practice we really have worked on. I think Mickie (DeMoss) has really helped with that. She's just stressed that over and over again."
On the offensive end Spani has stepped up in the absence of Bjorklund and was 3-5 from behind the arc in the win over Arkansas.
"We understand when you have an Angie go out who brings so much to our team we all have to step up," Spani said. "I realized as a guard and as a shooter I have to step up. I've had that mindset this whole season of bring what I can bring."
Saturday is a scheduled off day – though Summitt said the players indicated they would shoot on their own – and the team will reassemble Sunday before departing for Lexington.
Simmons has a list of ways to help the team and survive the month of February as a freshman.
"Just staying focused and not letting little things get to me and not trying to rush any and everything," Simmons said. "Being able to make adjustments, being able to slow down and pick it back up at the same time and hitting the open man and taking good shots and being patient.
"Just being patient, waiting to see when my time is, getting in the gym, being able to talk to my coaches and asking them, ‘What is it that I need to do in order to get better for the rest of the season?' Eating, resting and doing a lot of things ahead of time so I don't have to do things later and staying confident all the time."
Summitt is being patient with her freshman, as she knows the shooting guard was handed the toughest spot on the team in point guard. Summitt also has heard that this year's juniors remember the 2009 game against Kentucky when they were freshmen.
"They've got a little edge to them," Summitt said.
The week is also important for Tennessee with three SEC games and two on the road as far as postseason seeding.
"One at a time," Summitt said.
The Lady Vols remain in the driver's seat in SEC play – and postseason seeding – and they want to keep it that way.
"I actually talked to my dad about this," Simmons said. "It's getting to the climax of the season. It's getting to the end of the SEC and to the tournament. At the same time you're moving on to the next stage. You're going to the NCAA championship and stuff like that. You've got to be ready for it."
Simmons was talking beneath the row of national championship banners that hang in the arena. She looked up and smiled when asked if that was what mattered at Tennessee.
"Oh, yeah," the freshman said. "Oh, yeah."
Glory Johnson interview
Friday practice clips
Pat Summitt interview