The Lady Vols shot a robust 46.6 percent from the field during the 2010-11 season. But an inability to sufficiently pressure the ball, especially when it was in the hands of guard Skylar Diggins, sent them home against Notre Dame in the Elite Eight and denied Tennessee a spot in the Final Four.
The preseason of 2011 has been underscored by a distinct emphasis on defense, particularly the principles of Tennessee's traditionally stout man-to-man defense. The coaches intend to teach the matchup zone to the freshmen – and drill it as a refresher for the returning players – but the focus so far has been man and full court pressure.
One player whose defensive bar has been raised is sophomore scoring sensation Meighan Simmons. The 5'9 guard from Cibolo, Texas, was thrust into the point guard spot last season, started 36 of 37 games and led the team with 13.5 points per game.
Freshmen tend to struggle on defense anyway and with Simmons on the accelerated offensive plan so that she could lead the team at the game's toughest spot, defense was on a crowded to-do list.
Simmons got the message this preseason that it would move to the top of the list, along with every player on the roster. Head Coach Pat Summitt emphasized that point in a one-on-one meeting with Simmons.
"Defensively, after Pat had a little chat with her, her defense has picked up," Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss said. "She's more committed to it, that it is important."
Summitt smiled when asked about the conversation, as did Simmons. The message apparently got delivered.
"No doubt," DeMoss said to Summitt. "I think since you had that talk with her, her defense has improved. Just her awareness, some things that she can control. Her effort is there."
"She relies a lot on her offense," Summitt said. "But I told her it was very important that she become a great defensive player and set an example. I think she has been more serious about it since we talked about it."
Simmons was receptive to the conversation and the on-court instruction. She wants to be a better defender, and that's the first step.
"The fact that defense is everything," Simmons said of the message she received. "Yeah, I have the ability to score, but she wants me to be an all-around player. If I can't be an all-around player then there is something wrong with that.
"She sees so much good in me to the point where she wants me to be good in every aspect of the game. Defense is my priority this year. I am trying to focus on it as much as I can as well as getting in the gym working on my shot and going back and forth and making sure that I am working on every aspect."
Simmons also has focused on conditioning and leg strength – defenders have to get in stances and be able to move their feet.
"I have one year under my belt," Simmons said. "I should be able to maintain consistency on defense."
Simmons, a natural wing player, should not have as much on her plate this season since it is clear freshman Ariel Massengale is extremely capable at the point position. Simmons, however, is still on the depth chart at point and has to stay ready.
"I have to be able to maintain and play both positions," Simmons said. "I have to be prepared. Whether I'm at the two, the one, the three, any position around the arc, I have to be mentally prepared to play that position."
Playing defense at Tennessee is not an easy task. First, it takes sustained effort. Second, players have to communicate, especially those who are facing forward and can tell the guards what is happening behind them. Third, the defense has to work as a unit. If one piece breaks down, it has a domino effect.
"You have to be perfect," Simmons said. "You have to be in the right spot at the right time. It is all about timing and being able to see everybody and where you need to be as far as helping your teammates if you do get beat.
"You have to be focused. You have to have eyes in the back of your head making sure nobody is cutting behind you or cutting in front of you."
That is where communication is vital – the guards at the top need the posts to communicate what is happening behind them – and it's been a work in progress for Tennessee. Getting a consistent and healthy rotation on the court would help tremendously.
"I feel like I am starting to talk a little bit more," Simmons said. "I need to be way more vocal than what I am right now, especially on defense. I feel like my defense is improving every day.
"You have to be physical and you have to be mentally ready to play defense no matter what. It is just hard work. It starts with focus and inner energy. Am I going to focus on defense today or am I just going to worry about offense? I feel like if you have the inside energy to say, ‘I am going to work on defense and I am going to make sure I am in the right position so the coaches don't get on me as much,' I feel like that's really going to help everybody else."
Simmons is of slender build, but she takes care of herself in terms of healthy food choices and staying hydrated. She also has had one year in the conditioning system with Heather Mason. Still, considerable effort is expended on defense. Does Simmons have the energy for both sides of the ball?
"I really think I do," Simmons said. "I am starting to be in better condition than I was when I first got here and being able to get back on the floor and still go back and forth and work on it, I think it's really going to help.
"And once we start playing I'll get back in the flow."
Defense has always been an emphasis at Tennessee – and the past three seasons were no different – but because of injuries (nine players expected to have significant roles have missed multiple games and practices over the past three years), the coaches couldn't pull players for extended periods of time for defensive lapses, as Summitt had done in the past. On too many occasions, there wasn't a healthy body available to replace them.
"Defense is a major emphasis, especially for Coach," Simmons said. "Things haven't changed as far as philosophically. She constantly reminds that we need to have our hands up on defense, we need to be sitting down in a chair (in a stance), and we need to stay focused and see the man and the ball at the same time."
The issue is getting all that to become habit – so that Summitt doesn't have to issue constant reminders.
Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood has seen improvement over the past two seasons, but he wants to see something closer to the defensive mentality that the 2007 and 2008 teams possessed.
"They were football players, wrestlers, hockey player mind-sets in basketball players' bodies," Lockwood said. "You've got to have that. You've got to."
Simmons can empathize with the freshmen as they learn Tennessee's defensive terminology and philosophy. Ariel Massengale has shown in preseason that she is a good on-ball defender, Isabelle Harrison is learning how to patrol the paint, and Isabelle Harrison has worked a lot on the perimeter.
"The freshmen are getting there, but at the same time it is a process," Simmons said. "I feel like once the season gets on, they're understand where they need to be and the reasons why they need to be in certain positions."
A second area of emphasis in preseason has been improvement in the passing game. Drills have been added in practice, and the coaches are demanding better decision-making in live situations.
Simmons led the team last season with 104 assists – the next closest was Shekinna Stricklen with 75 – and the coaches have identified it as an area of improvement for everyone.
Simmons is expected to draw the defense this season – she is the leading returning scorer and Angie Bjorklund, the school's career leader in treys with 305 and a magnet for defenders, has graduated – so she will need to make good decisions when the ball is in her hands.
"Her passing, she's got to be able to hit open players, because she's going to attract a lot of attention," DeMoss said. "She's got to be able to make her teammates better. She is hitting the open player better."
An offshoot of better decisions is a reduction in turnovers – as a team last season the Lady Vols had 567 turnovers to 522 assists – and that is a stat that coaches would prefer to flip with more helpers than miscues.
"They are looking for us not to turn the ball over (as much)," Simmons said. "They want to have people in there who will take care of the ball. They are constantly reminding us, ‘Hey, we're a veteran team. We need to make smart passes. Read the defense and things like that.'
"I really feel like they emphasize that a lot. It's reading and being able to think. If I made that pass last possession (and turned it over), I can't make it again."
Simmons hunted for shots last season for Tennessee, and the Lady Vols needed that from her. With the return of a healthy Vicki Baugh, the presence of Massengale at point and Stricklen showing the ability to score inside and out, Simmons has been as apt to pass as shoot in preseason. Her shot selection has made a sophomore leap in terms of basketball IQ.
"Like Pat was saying, ‘I want you to be good at every aspect,' " Simmons said. "As far as getting my teammates involved it's always been a part of my game, but at the same time (last season) I needed to score, especially if Angie wasn't in.
"But now I feel like I have to be better at every aspect. If I want to play in the WNBA or even play overseas, I have to be good at passing. I have to be good at making sure my teammates are getting shots up as well.
"And you've got to guard people. In Europe if they go past you, you sit your behind down."
Part of becoming a better passing team is getting used to playing with each other. That is where a healthy roster and a regular rotation will help Tennessee, and that hasn't been the case for the Lady Vols of late.
"You have to learn each and every one of your players," Simmons said.
The eight national championship banners hanging in the arena got there through a commitment to defense and rebounding. Board play has been consistent for Tennessee. The defense has to catch up to program standards.
"Last year we went to a lot more zone than what Tennessee is usually doing," Simmons said. "We've got to get back to man-to-man. Your two-three (zone) can be awesome, but if you switch over to man-to-man, and your players are blowing right past you, that's a problem.
"You have to be good at both sides. You have to be quick on your feet. You have to be lower than your offender."
Interesting choice of word for the player on the offensive side – though it makes sense since the opposite term is defender – and Tennessee could benefit from an attitude that that the other side is trying to commit the offense of scoring.
"You've got to be able to stop people one on one," Lockwood said. "You've got to be able to move your feet. You've got to be able to make shifts and quick adjustments and help and plug gaps and contest shots and block out."
The principles of that are rooted in man-to-man defense. The coaches are instilling those before they even begin to introduce a zone scheme.
"There is a great book called "Stuff!" by Dick DeVenzio, the originator of the Point Guard College, and I love a phrase," Lockwood said. "He said very few games are ever won or lost by playing the wrong defense. They are won or lost by playing defense poorly.
"It's not about man or zone right now. It's about playing it right. Now, we have not put in one second of zone yet so we are saying to our players, ‘We're going to be accountable. We want to play great man-to-man defense as our base and staple.'
"Now, when we throw in a zone we want to still be able to play it well, because we are well versed in man-to-man concepts. All good zones are built from good man-to-man principles."
The coaches have known that defense was a weakness and one of the main reasons that the Lady Vols have been missing at the Final Four.
It has now fully been realized by the players, too.
"They know that defense is a factor, and they know that defense was a factor in getting bumped a couple of times," Lockwood said. "I want to get them some credit to say, ‘Hey, we realized it within ourselves. Forget about what the coaches are asking us to do. We realize if we want to get to Denver, we've got to be able to play great defense. We're not going to be able to do it by out-gunning people.'
"I think it's taken them a couple of cycles for that to really sink in and that message to be delivered."
In the Elite Eight in Dayton, Ohio, last March, the shots didn't fall for Tennessee, and the defense couldn't stop Notre Dame.
"The defense has to carry you," Lockwood said. "Or you're up the creek without the proverbial paddle. I really think, especially with our senior class, they recognize that.
"Having said that, I still don't see enough hockey players out there. It's coming, but it's still not where I like it, and I don't think it's where the rest of our coaches like it.
"But it's better. It's coming."
PRACTICE NOTES: Ariel Massengale appeared at practice for the first time since Oct. 10 when she collided with a teammate and suffered a concussion. Massengale is not yet cleared to practice, but she watched the action courtside. She also had a one-on-one sit-down session with Mickie DeMoss to go over some things on a clipboard. Massengale must be symptom-free, pass physical and cognitive tests and be examined by a physician before she will be allowed to practice under the program's protocol. … Taber Spani continues to work on her right hand as far as shooting, passing and dribbling, but is not cleared for practice or contact. She sees her doctor on Wednesday for a progress report on her left elbow. … The Lady Vols have just eight players available for practice with Massengale and Spani out – junior guard Kamiko Williams will do some stationary dribbling to open practice but then enters ACL rehab – and were down to six for the final 20 minutes Tuesday after graduate students Glory Johnson and Vicki Baugh had to leave for an evening class. That left six for a final scrimmage against the male practice team, so freshmen Isabelle Harrison and Cierra Burdick got a lot of court time. The two also stayed after practice to loft extra shots with Dean Lockwood. Burdick, the ultimate gym rat, was still in the arena after everyone else had cleared the court.