In mid-September the NCAA allows schools to put the entire team on the court with coaches, although the time limit remains two hours per week. Tennessee will take advantage of this rule by holding one two-hour team session next Thursday at Pratt Pavilion. Full-scale practices can start for the Lady Vols in early October, because of a rule enacted last season that sets the start of practice a certain number of days before a team's first regular season game, and the coaches also will take advantage of that opportunity.
The coaches used the past two weeks for skill work, such as passing, shooting and dribbling, and also installed concepts and taught terminology, specifically to get the freshmen up to speed so that they will be ready for the full team workout.
All three freshmen, guard Ariel Massengale, forward Cierra Burdick and post Isabelle Harrison, have impressed the coaches with their energy levels and willingness to learn. Coach Pat Summitt has said she despises having to coach effort, and that is not an issue with the newcomers, or "freshmates," a term coined by Burdick.
Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood does a lot of drill work with the posts, and he has been impressed by Harrison's attitude.
"She is responding great," Lockwood said. "She is very receptive. There is a spirit about her, there is just a positive spirit."
Harrison has a lot to learn, as any freshman post would and especially one who can't hide behind the veterans – she will be needed to fill major personnel holes as a sophomore because of graduations – and she has approached the challenge with enthusiasm.
"OK, put me somewhere, I want to work," Lockwood said of Harrison's attitude. "She is that receptive. She is like, ‘OK, teach me.' You love the spirit because somebody with that type of mindset and spirit will absorb much quicker than somebody you have to win over.
"Guys? You have to win them over. You are winning them over almost every hour on the hour. With her she is just very receptive and willing to try. Even if she makes a mistake, she comes back with equal effort. That is another big difference between her and a lot of players."
Newcomers have to avoid getting discouraged – with a team of upperclassmen such as this season the freshmen see stronger and faster players on the court — and they also have the most to absorb since they are learning the system from scratch.
"She will get down occasionally," Lockwood said. "She didn't make 20 Mikans in a row. She got very frustrated with herself."
The Mikan drill, named after legendary post player George Mikan, requires a player to pick up a basketball from the floor in rapid succession and move from right to left and hit 20 layups in a certain amount of time. It is a test of fitness – the drill is done at game speed and the post players have to explode from the floor to the rim after getting the ball – and skill.
"But once again the difference between her and someone else, that may have transferred into the next eight or 10 minutes (of the workout session) whereas she got down, Vicki (Baugh) talked to her for a minute, I was talking to her. Within a minute or two minutes, she was fine, next thing. That is huge. For a freshman how you approach it mentally is every bit as important as what you bring physically."
|Lady Vol freshman Isabelle Harrison is turning some heads with her work ethic.|
Lockwood also used a mini-ball on Thursday to work with the posts to encourage them to fully extend their arm before releasing the shot. Posts who short-arm their shots negate their size. Vicki Baugh and Glory Johnson particularly enjoyed the drill because dunking was encouraged, and Baugh had no trouble slamming the small ball through the hoop.
"The purpose was to get them to finish with high extension and explosion," said Lockwood, who used a Tipoff ball from 2009, and Vicki Baugh was the one who noticed it was a commemorative one from the Tennessee-Baylor game. "One hard dribble, jump as high as you can and release it.
"They get this in their hand and now they want to transfer. So pretty soon we'll do that with a regular ball."
The long-range shooters also used the sessions to work on the three-ball with the arc now a foot farther back in the collegiate game at 20 feet, 9 inches. Massengale has shown an ability to hit the longer trey with Taber Spani and Shekinna Stricklen, who tend to shoot farther back already, not even toeing the new line and instead firing and hitting from about 21 to 22 feet.
"I feel like it's similar to international ball," Massengale said. "That was farther back than high school. Knowing that my goal was to play USA basketball I would work on shooting a step or two behind the three-point line."
The posts, guards and forwards will all be on the court together next week, and that will allow the coaches to get a better assessment of how the past two weeks of drills translate to the full team.
"Now, we can do a lot more team system stuff," Lockwood said. "What you are seeing now are concepts and fundamentals. Again, I don't care what you do with your system and your schemes. If you don't have the stuff we've been trying to put the seeds in, you've got very little. We're building it the right way.
"But now you're going to see a lot more help-side defensive concepts, two-on-two, three-on-three stuff. We'll put in our transition where we go five (on zero). We've got the little pieces in where the point guards have gotten the outlet pass, and the posts run the post highway. Now we're going to put all five pieces together."
One of the most encouraging signs of early preseason has been the overall play and health of Baugh, who is sprinting the floor and leaping in ways that recall her pre-ACL days of freshman year.
"I can tell you this," Lockwood said. "Take out her freshman year, she is looking the best and moving the best than at any other time that I have coached that kid."
For the past three years, Baugh has used practice to test her knee, see what it could and could not do and undergo the long process of trusting it again. She also dealt with daily pain and limitations on her practice time.
"She is actually doing things and it's more fluid and flowing than it is mechanical and robotic," Lockwood said. "That is huge for me to see that."
The coaches are eager to integrate the three freshmen into the full team, and that process begins next week. The players also are looking forward to it.
"Individuals has been fun but to start that journey and win a national championship you've got to work as a team," Massengale said.
BEYOND BURDICK: Cierra Burdick is graceful and skilled on the court but take her away from basketball, and the freshman forward is full of smiles and stories.
From her clumsiness to her failed trombone career to her escapades with her wayward dog, the 6'2 forward from Butler High School in Charlotte, N.C., promises to be as entertaining off the court as she is on it.
On her first day on Tennessee's campus, Burdick had a bad encounter with the sink in her dormitory.
"The dorms are a little tight, and our loft bed is extremely close to the sink," Burdick said. "Rel has it good because nothing is near her bed. I already can't go up the ladder like regular people because I am too big so I have to jump on my chair onto my desk onto my bed. That is a process unto itself.
"I was putting up clothes or something and I just rammed my thigh into the sink. I had a bruise probably about the side of an orange on my thigh for two weeks. I tripped over my dog (at home) every day."
Rel is the nickname bestowed on "freshmate" Ariel Massengale by Burdick. It apparently arose over a misspelling during the teammates' first stint with USA Basketball.
"I think they thought that I spelled my name Airel, which is why that came out," Massengale said.
The USA coach had Massengale's first name spelled as such on a sheet apparently based on Burdick's nickname. When Massengale pointed out the error the coach asked, "Then where did we get Rel from?"
|Freshman Cierra Burdick goes through a ballhandling drill.|
"I said I had no clue," Massengale said. "But she started it, and that is just something that stuck."
Burdick's dog, a Beagle mutt named Chester, was the reason for one of her early childhood adventures.
"He came from the pound," Burdick said. "I picked him because he was the only dog not barking in the pound. We just made a connection from right then. That is like my brother."
Chester decided to roam one day when Burdick was a youngster, and both child and dog ended up in a police cruiser after going missing for nearly an hour.
"It all started on a rainy day," Burdick said. "I was six or seven, and my dog Chester, who I still have, he decided he wanted to go on a little stroll and I didn't agree with that so I chased him trying to get him back into the house. He ended up in a completely different neighborhood after we went under some fences and over some fences, and finally I caught him after he got tired. I didn't know where the heck I was.
"Fortunately the mailman was delivering the mail, and I went up to the mailman and I was like, ‘I need to find my mommy.' And I knew the number to call my mom. He called 911 and my mom had already put in a report that I was missing. She was mad that she couldn't go pick me up herself. The police had to go get me.
"So that is how I rode in the back of a police car. I thought it was pretty fun actually but I was kind of embarrassed that I was in the back. I would much rather be in the front. I thought it was pretty cool. She was just relieved. She doesn't really get mad at me. It takes a lot for her to get mad at me."
Burdick's mother, Lisa Burdick, is grateful to have her daughter after Cierra needed heart surgery as a 2-year-old.
"I don't remember anything," Cierra Burdick said. "My mom told me after my surgery was over and she was allowed to come in I was just sitting up in my seat smiling, smacking on some bubble gum. So I seemed to be OK.
"It was an ASD repair (atrial septal defect, an abnormal opening in the upper chambers). My (hole in the heart) never closed up. My mom was taking me to the doctor for an ear infection – what she thought was an ear infection – and that is when they noticed the heart murmur.
"They say it looks like a little bread tie, and that is what is keeping my heart closed up. I still have my scars to prove it. When I look at the scars I just think that I am really blessed that the nurse at a family practice noticed the murmur. If not I probably wouldn't be here today."
For all of her clumsiness and goofiness off the field of play, Burdick is a graceful athlete on it with athletic genes – her great-grandfather played for the Chicago Bears, and she was a North Carolina State champion in the high jump.
"He passed before I could meet him," Burdick said. "He was a linebacker."
Burdick excelled at track as a prep player but doesn't think that would transfer to college.
"Here? That's a lot of work," Burdick said. "Even in high school it was a bunch of work. I couldn't get enough practice in and balance basketball at the same time. Although sometimes when I walking at Thornton past the track (at Tennessee) I look at the high jump mat and I kind of want to go jump on it, but then I'm like, ‘Nah, let me just stay on the court.' "
Burdick also enjoyed playing volleyball as a youngster.
"I played volleyball all throughout middle school and then I played freshman year," Burdick said. "After I transferred from South Meck (Mecklenburg) to Butler my sophomore year I stopped playing volleyball because I needed to focus on basketball. I still love playing volleyball for fun. I think it's an extremely fun sport."
Burdick even game music a try but that was short-lived.
"I tried the trombone," Burdick said. "Music and I just don't get along. Reading music was tough for me, and the trombone hurt my cheeks so I had to stop playing. I didn't make it past two lessons."
She also has culinary skills and put those on display to help a friend's grandmother for the past two years.
"My best friend who plays at Gardner-Webb – she graduated with me at Butler – her grandmother travels and goes to carnivals and festivals," Burdick said. "She makes funnel cakes and fried pickles – which is a Southern thing, love them – so we made those as well and homemade lemonade.
"I tried not to eat them while I was making them because that would just lead to me never wanting to eat funnel cakes again."
Burdick also is a committed student who has her career mapped out post-basketball.
"I am majoring in communications – journalism and electronic media," Burdick said. "After basketball is all said and done with I want to pursue sports broadcasting."
But basketball figures to hold a prominent place in Burdick's life for the next four years and beyond.
"I would love to play in the league and overseas as well for as long as I can," Burdick said.