If Simmons can hold down the spot – and she gets it for the toughest stretch of the season – that leaves Shekinna Stricklen on the wing, where she has thrived this season.
The first test is Sunday when No. 7/8 Tennessee (4-2) takes on No. 20/21 DePaul (8-1) in the second game of the Maggie Dixon Classic at Madison Square Garden. Tipoff is set for 1:30 p.m. Eastern (ESPNU)
The first game features No. 1 Baylor vs. St. John's with an 11 a.m. tipoff (ESPNU).
Massengale's presence on the court can't be overstated. With her at point guard, the other players are in their natural positions. That is a tangible result. The intangible effect is her calming effect on the team.
During the last game against Texas, Simmons took some repetitions at the point spot with Massengale on the floor.
"It wasn't by design where we said it, but she kept the ball, so Ariel just wisely moved," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "She has got such a good feel. Some players would be lost and say, ‘Oh, I'm the point … .' She saw Meighan had the ball so she went to the wing.
"I go back to (Shannon) Bobbitt, (Alexis) Hornbuckle. You've got primary ball handlers who can make plays."
That temporarily ended Thursday when Massengale went to scoop up a loose ball and with her momentum moving forward, fell to the court and jammed her left hand against the hardwood. The result was the finger dislocation and two to three weeks needed to heal.
The timing for Tennessee was wicked with four games on the road, starting with DePaul and then Rutgers while in the Northeast. The Lady Vols return home for a day and then head to California to take on UCLA and Stanford.
Simmons does have experience at the spot, but she is a sophomore thrust into a difficult position on the road. The Lady Vols' senior-laden team has been lauded all season. That leadership will have to step forward starting Sunday.
That starts with Stricklen, Glory Johnson and Vicki Baugh.
"They are kind of like the lead horses," Lockwood said. "When the lead horses are working and you see the snow flying, everybody else is coming."
If Simmons and senior Briana Bass can handle point duties, that means Stricklen can spend most of her time at small forward, where she has flourished this season and earned her All-American stripes.
"Which we've known all along and we've said all along, but we've had to do it out of necessity," Lockwood said of Stricklen's nearly full-time responsibilities at the point spot in her first two years on campus. "It's so refreshing to see her comfortable. You can just see it in her face and her body language. She's happy. She's not a nervous player. She was so tight at point guard at times.
"I would feel for her. It's like making me the president of a chemical company. I have no idea what I am doing. I just hope that the 5 o'clock bell rings and I can get in my car and go home. You can see her confidence is up, her comfort level is up."
With Stricklen at her natural spot on offense, the coaches have been comfortable demanding more from her on defense, and the senior has responded.
"What I have been most impressed with is her (getting through screens), because that is the sign of a tough defender," Lockwood said. "You see a lot of defenders, I call them imposters, they are (aggressive in posture in a stance) and then the first time there's contact, they die on the vine.
"It's just like football players. A weak football player, they're hit once, they're down, no second effort. Strick is making a second and third effort even to get through screens – we call it lock-and-trail action so that means if you're guarding a great shooter, you lock into her and when she comes off that screen, you stay with her. You don't take shortcuts. In the past, she took shortcuts.
"She is showing some real toughness on the defensive end of the floor now, which we love."
Now, the coaches will need another step from Stricklen. She will have to raise her voice on the floor and help Simmons be effective at the point spot by staying in her ear, if needed, since Stricklen does know the position quite well.
Another Lady Vol who can step forward in the leadership spot while the freshman floor leader has to watch from the bench is junior Taber Spani. The team does have one advantage for the rest of this month – classes are done and exams are completed. The focus can be completely on basketball.
"We had to work around that … but we're done with school so that is great," Spani said. "We're excited because we know that we have two good opponents."
Spani is not, however, fully healed herself. She sustained a bone bruise/sprain to her left knee in the Virginia game and, while she can play, she is on crutches anytime she is not on a basketball court.
The sight of her on crutches as she has made her way around campus has caused consternation among those who don't know why – they see her on the court and then see the crutches – and led to daily questions.
"All the time," Spani said with a smile. "If I am not on crutches outside of this, then I can't play. So it's one or the other.
"Jenny (Moshak) was saying every time you step it's three to four times your body weight on that, so if I want to be on the court – bone bruises are about healing and rest – if I can minimize the amount of steps I take outside with crutches then I will be able to do this."
The loss of Massengale is disappointing, too, for a freshman looking forward to playing her first game in New York.
"I cannot wait," Massengale said a couple of days before her injury. "I have never been to New York. I have never been to the East Coast."
Massengale also was excited about playing in the World's Most Famous Arena.
"I know it's a huge arena," Massengale said. "You usually see it on TV. I am sure the first time I walk in there I am going to be shocked and in awe. But coming to a program like Tennessee you want to play on the big stage and that is what you get by coming here.
"I am a little disappointed that we have to play DePaul in New York instead of in Chicago."
That is because DePaul would have been a home game for Massengale, who is from Bolingbrook, Ill. She was speaking to the media on Monday when she was selected SEC Freshman of the Week.
Her disappointment exceeds even that now, but Massengale at least got to make the trip.
"Outside of the basketball court, we can have fun and be a team, be average college girls out there," Massengale said. "But I feel like once we step onto the court, we have to realize we came down here for business, and that is first and foremost on our list."
The team arrived Friday and had practice Saturday at the New York Athletic Club, a hotel and facility so swanky that there is a dress code for public areas and athletic attire is allowed only in the gym areas.
"The practice facility is in the hotel so that's really convenient so it will be faster for us to go shopping," Johnson said.
Johnson and the upperclassmen have played in the Garden before – the opponent was Rutgers in 2009 – so that part of the trip won't be new, but freshman Isabelle Harrison will be a newcomer to the city.
"I know it's a big city with a lot of things to do and a lot of shopping," Harrison said. "That is what my teammates were talking about so I am looking forward to it."
She also was excited about playing in the storied arena, and the observant Harrison compared it to what she sees on the walls in Thompson-Boling Arena.
"It's kind of like the history here," Harrison said. "You see how many people have come through there and what they are doing now when you go to a place like that. When you have the opportunity to play in a place like that it gives you pride, and it humbles you. It gives you all of that."
Harrison needed her walking shoes Saturday. She was Johnson's shopping partner.
"Izzy is my younger version of me," Johnson said. "I bought her some heels, some pumps, they're like silvery glittery pumps. I think they are so cute and I got them for her for secret Santa day, and she loved them.
"She loves to shop, too. Vicki Baugh, I don't know where she will shop more, New York or California."
Johnson enlisted Stricklen's help when they played in China last summer at the World University Games. They set the shopping equivalent of screens for each other, along with scouting reports.
"In China we did that," Johnson said. "We had some people over here looking out and some people over here (for price comparison), saying, ‘What's the price over there. They're lower over here. Awesome.' We went shopping three times."
The team also saw a Broadway play on Saturday, "Stick Fly," which featured recording artist Alicia Keys as a producer and composer.
According to the website, broadway.com: "Set at the elegant Martha's Vineyard summer home of the well-to-do LeVay family, Stick Fly begins when two adult sons bring their significant others (one a fiancée, the other a new girlfriend) home to meet their parents for the first time. Soon, secrets are revealed, civilities are dropped and identities are explored in a harsh new light. Race and rivalry, class and family, all come together for an explosive comedy of manners about today's complex world."
The team intended to enjoy the down time while in the city.
"I like the fast lifestyle, just walking around and seeing everything, a little bit of shopping, and I want to see the big tree," Manning said.
"I have to go to Central Park," Stricklen said. "I want to see the big tree. That's the main thing. While they're shopping, while we're walking I literally stop at every corner and get a hotdog. I love New York hotdogs. They are just so good. I love them."
From freshman to senior, the players did seem to understand when playtime ended and play began.
"We have to be ready to come out and play," Harrison said. "That Virginia game taught us a lot. You don't let up. Anywhere is home for us. We just need to keep on learning how to play hard no matter where we're at and what kind of schedule we're facing."
"I would say gut check," Stricklen said. "Being mentally and physically prepared. We've got four big games, and they are all on the road.
"We will see how strong this team is together and how we can pull together as a team and hold each other accountable and work hard each game."
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Meighan Simmons, 5'9 sophomore guard, No. 10 (8.5 points per game, 2.2 rebounds per game); Taber Spani, 6'1 junior guard/forward, No. 13 (12.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 senior guard/forward, No. 40 (16. ppg, 8.7 rpg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 senior forward, No. 25 (12.8 ppg, 9.5 rpg); and Vicki Baugh, 6'4 redshirt senior forward/center, No. 21 (10.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg).
DePaul Coach Doug Bruno is expected to start: Brittany Hrynko, 5'8 freshman guard, No. 12 (9.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg), hails from Philadelphia, Pa., second freshman point on team, other one is Chanise Jenkins, who played for a rival high school in Chicago against UT freshman Ariel Massengale and has been out with an ankle injury, played in high school with teammate Keisha Hampton; Anna Martin, 5'9 junior guard, No. 5 (20.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg), hails from Nicholasville, Ky., tallied 15 points in Friday's win over SIU-Edwardsville, scored a career-high 31 points against Syracuse last season; Deanna Ortiz, 5'10 senior guard, No. 34 (4.1 ppg, 3.0 rpg), hails from Chicago, has earned All Big East academic honors every year on campus, tallied nine points against St. John's this season in Big East opener; Katherine Harry, 6'3 junior forward, 51, (7.3 ppg, 8.4 rpg), hails from Columbia, Mo., started season sixth on school's career block list with 97, selected to Big East All-Freshman team in 2009-10; and Keisha Hampton, 6'2 senior forward, No. 24 (17.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg), hails from Philadelphia, unanimous All Big East selection, also named to Wooden and Wade Trophy watch lists, has reached double figures in nearly 71 percent of her collegiate games, has earned All Big East academic honors every season.
Maggie Dixon, for whom the classic in the Garden is named, was an assistant coach at DePaul - she recruited Chicago native Candace Parker, who chose Tennessee but remained close with Dixon - before taking over at Army. She died of a heart condition in the spring of 2006. Her final collegiate game came against Tennessee in the first round of the NCAA tourney in 2006, which was Parker's redshirt freshman year.
Summitt, who revealed last August she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia and will continue to coach, is the 2011 recipient of the Maggie Dixon Courage Award and will be honored by the Dixon family during a second half timeout in the Classic's first game between Baylor and St. John's.
Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick handled the scout for the Tennessee-DePaul game. Here is her assessment.
Offensively, Head Coach Doug Bruno makes use of the court dimensions.
"He spreads the floor," Warlick said. "They shoot the ball well. They are great passers. They move without the ball. They're a difficult guard for us because we're so aggressive, and he's going to have a counter to everything we do. He is a very good offensive-minded coach.
"He has kids that can post up and then kids that will screen up high and pop. We'll have to use everything. We'll have to use some zone, we'll have to use man and we'll have to press."
Defensively, the Lady Vols have seen quite a bit of zone from opponents this season, but the Blue Demons are likely to tilt the other direction.
"I haven't seen a lot of zone," Warlick said. "They are man to man."
Keys for Tennessee: Warlick had expected DePaul to try to force Ariel Massengale to give up the ball so someone else would bring it up court. That will be a given now with Massengale out, and Warlick had noted before the freshman's injury that at least the Lady Vols had experience in that regard with Meighan Simmons and Shekinna Stricklen.
With the athletic Glory Johnson and Vicki Baugh in the paint, Tennessee will want to get the ball inside.
"I think against DePaul it's very important that we establish an inside game because we are bigger than them," Warlick said.
But the Lady Vols also have been able to connect from outside. Of the 161 made field goals, nearly one-third have come from behind the arc with 51 made treys. Taber Spani (16-33) and Stricklen (16-37) are nearly identical in accuracy.
"Everybody tends to be jamming up the middle so we have had the opportunities to shoot threes," Warlick said. "This is a team that it's very contagious. If one hits them we all get on a roll. We are going to shoot the three if it goes in. If it's like Virginia, we've got to get the ball inside."
The Lady Vols need to be efficient on offense and a nuisance on defense.
"We have to play one on one," Warlick said. "Our defense has to shut them down. We need to get easy baskets. We need to run. We need to press them. We can dominate the boards if we focus on what we are doing with our aggressiveness.
"And I am sure that is his goal to keep us off the boards. It's going to be a matter of will."
SEC PLAY Five other SEC teams are in action Sunday in the following matchups: Alabama at North Carolina State; Arkansas-Pine Bluff at Kentucky; Alabama State at LSU; Mississippi State at Louisiana Tech; and Furman at South Carolina.
ODDS AND ENDS
Tennessee leads the series with DePaul, 18-0. This will be just the second game at a neutral site. The first was in an NCAA Tournament game in 2004. The Lady Vols are playing in their third game at Madison Square Garden, and the opponent each of the previous times was Rutgers. Tennessee won in January of 1999, which was New York native Chamique Holdsclaw's homecoming game; and again in January of 2001 and December of 2009. Tennessee's current juniors and seniors, except Vicki Baugh who was recovering from her second ACL surgery, played in the Garden in that 2009 game. … Tennessee is 3-1 in games played on Dec. 11. The last win on this date was against Middle Tennessee, 81-52, in 2008. The first win on December 11 came against Stephen F. Austin, 76-67, in 1982. The lone loss on this date was to Texas, 91-60, in 1984.