Flexibility buzzword for Lady Vols

It didn't seem like it at the time but the best thing that happened to Tennessee this season likely was the loss to Georgetown last November. It finished the Shekinna Stricklen full-time point guard experiment – albeit in its third year and also started another one – and ended with the all-everything junior earning the SEC Player of the Year award.

Injuries have forced Shekinna Stricklen to move all over the court during her Tennessee career. Despite having never played the position before, Stricklen became the Lady Vols' starting point guard as a freshman. With the post players nursing an assortment of ailments this season, Stricklen also moved into the paint when needed.

The 6'2 forward/guard from Morrilton, Ark., followed up SEC Player of the Year accolades with MVP of the conference tourney last weekend in Nashville. But Stricklen is not the team's go-to player, though she is the only one to have started all 33 games this season over the course of a 31-2 record.

The Lady Vols don't have one, and the storyline this season has been the different players who step up from game to game.

"Teams really don't have to focus on two or three people," Stricklen said at the post-game press conference after the 90-65 win of Kentucky to complete a 19-0 run through the SEC and claim both regular season and tourney crowns. "Our whole team, you don't know any given night who is going to have their best night. You don't know if the guards, who were hitting for us (last Sunday), or if our post game is going to be there.

"We're strong throughout our whole team."

The depth is such that senior guard Angie Bjorklund, whose 300 made treys has her atop Tennessee's career list and just 38 away from the all-time SEC mark of 338 – can miss six games in the final month of the regular season with a foot injury, the team goes 6-0, and she comes off the bench when she does return.

"We just have such a deep bench," Bjorklund said. "All 13 players will come in and play. If one person is not having an on night, someone else is going to step up. That's what is great about this team."

That level of depth also raises a question – have the coaches determined their best starting lineup?

"No, we haven't figured it out," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "You look at our bench and you could make an argument for two or three people on that bench who are starters."

Tennessee's second group in Nashville was Kamiko Williams, Bjorklund, Alicia Manning, Vicki Baugh and Kelley Cain, leading media pundits to call it the second-best team in the SEC. Add Lauren Avant into the mix, and the Lady Vols went 11 deep in the first half of games, not late in the second half when the outcome is determined.

It's a puzzle for the coaches to put together and often this season it has depended on matchups and health, especially in the paint as the three true bigs, Cain, Baugh and Alyssia Brewer, are in various stages of rehab and recovery.

"We're less concerned about starting than who our better groups are," Lockwood said. "As coaches we are not at all hung on the starting lineup. Like Angie right now she seems to have hit a real comfort level coming off the bench, shooting well, and maybe it has something to do with there is not as much pressure to start the game off.

"We love the fact – the old Pistons thing with Vinnie Johnson – instant offense. You've got a microwave coming right off the bench. You don't need that crock pot to be stirring for 20 minutes. That kid can come off the bench and within a minute of play be ready to go.

"We love that dimension. Now people are so focused on that starting group you bring a kid like that off the bench who is as much as a three-point shooting weapon as she is, it gives you a whole other dimension.

"I don't know that we've figured it out, but one of the things we'd like to do is get in a nice rhythm of who can start us out right, and then who can keep us going at a high-octane level."

The buzzword for the team this season is flexibility, and the players have bought into the concept. Despite the assorted lineups and allocation of minutes – a player can go 12 minutes one game and 25 the next – there haven't been any chemistry issues. Pat Summitt has said this team is one of the closest on and off the court that she has ever coached.

Lockwood said he watched a recent biopic on the epic boxing bouts between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali and drew a parallel to his sport.

"Fighting is a matchup of styles and sometimes in basketball games it holds true as well, too," Lockwood said. "Certain styles that would work against one team do not work well against another team. We counter and go ultra-small it can be a hook for us. We want to be receptive to those possibilities.

"There might be a style or a team or a matchup out there who that is a real thorn in their size to have a small player switching, pressing, so we want to get that option very much on the table."

That means junior forward Glory Johnson is definitely on the court with a combination of four quick guard/forwards who can defend and score inside or out, a situation tailor-made for Manning and Stricklen.

It also provides a playing opportunity for Lauren Avant, whose on-ball defense is outstanding and particularly impressive considering how many games and how much practice she has missed this season because of injuries, illness and concussions.

"Oh, my gosh, she's one of the best I've ever seen by far," Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss said. "We're not going to hesitate to put her in. I'm the Avant Substitute Queen right here."

DeMoss inserted Avant into the Vanderbilt game on Feb. 13, and she led Tennessee to a come-from-behind victory in Nashville. DeMoss had to suggest it to Summitt at that game. Now, Summitt can be standing near the end of the bench, and a player heads to the scorer's table without a motion from the head coach. That's because DeMoss has the green light at times to make changes.

"I've been doing some substitution," DeMoss said. "If it's an obvious substitution then I don't have to (run it by Summitt)."

Avant wasn't even on the trip to the Virgin Islands when the Lady Vols lost to Georgetown, 69-58, amid a sea of 29 turnovers with seven from a clearly frustrated Stricklen.

Avant had severely injured her ankle and had gone home for Thanksgiving rather than navigate commercial airports on crutches during the holidays.

That was the seventh game of the regular season and the last time Stricklen started at point guard. Freshman Meighan Simmons, a combo guard from Cibolo, Texas, now starts at the position with backup from sophomore Kamiko Williams, a combo guard from Clarksville, Tenn., Avant, a freshman point guard from Memphis, Tenn., and Briana Bass, a junior point guard from Indianapolis, Ind.

Simmons and Williams are not true point guards, but they have learned enough to get the team in its offenses and handle the spot. Simmons is a natural shooter, while Williams can penetrate at will and score off the dribble.

"Neither one of them really have a point guard mentality, not at the level that we need it to be," DeMoss said. "Meighan is really a two guard and I don't mean this selfishly, she thinks about, ‘How can I get my shot?' And we don't want her to lose that mentality. Sometimes it's almost mixed messages with her (from coaches as she is told to both distribute and look for her shot)."

Williams at times has replaced Simmons early in games either because of foul trouble or erratic play at the point, and the freshman has shown the ability to adjust.

"She usually responds," DeMoss said. "She is very coachable. She comes over to the bench, ‘Was that a bad shot, Mickie?' She wants to learn. I say, ‘You've got to look at time and score. Were you open? Yes, you were open, but you just missed your last three shots. Let's get somebody else a turn.'

"As a shooter you always think your next shot is going in, and you want her to think that way. But time and possession (matter). It's her learning all those factors."

Williams replaced Simmons early in the SEC tourney title game – the freshman had four first half turnovers – and then Simmons returned and struck a good balance with 16 points, three assists and no miscues after halftime.

"She did and bottom line, she wants to win," DeMoss said. "I think she gets on those little shooting sprees because it's what she's always done. She had to do that for her high school team to win."

The coaches also know that Stricklen has experience at point and can still be deployed there. While Stricklen has played entire games without a single rep at the point position, she also can still take the ball and settle into the spot.

"We always have that in the back of our minds," DeMoss said.

The coaches have had to adjust to the flexibility and depth of this team. Most championship teams have a clearly designated go-to player – think Chamique Holdsclaw and Candace Parker for Tennessee examples – but this squad has shown itself to be deep and willing to find the hot hand or effective scheme, even as it varies from game to game.

The smaller lineup of Johnson and Manning inside with a combo of guards on the perimeter has been one effective look, as the Lady Vols can play their switching "five" defense and switch on every screen.

They did this against Kentucky in Nashville, and Johnson ended up on the Wildcat point guard, who went backwards when confronted with the 6'3 rangy post low in a stance and clawing at the ball.

"I've had a number of people, coaches, tell me and I think our staff, too, ‘Oh, I like that small lineup,' Lockwood said. "There's a certain niche with that group. You can press. You can switch. They're aggressive."

But there is also a place on the court for the 6'6 Cain. A Kentucky dribble driver turned the corner in that same game, saw Cain step out to greet her and literally put on the brakes and reversed course.

"When you put a Kelley Cain in the game, the game changes," Lockwood said. "With that small group there is a dimension of scrappiness that we really, really like and there is great flexibility."

That will remain the buzzword for the postseason, which begins next Saturday, March 19, when Tennessee will host the opening rounds. Brackets will be unveiled Monday evening at 7 p.m. Eastern on ESPN.

The coaches have embraced the team's depth even if it means being ready to make wholesale changes between timeouts.

"That's exactly what we were talking about in the office," DeMoss said. "As coaches you have a tendency to talk about all the things you don't have. But what do we have? It's depth, and we've got size and shooters."


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