The Lady Vols will be shorthanded for the SEC opener as sophomore Cierra Burdick is out with a broken right hand. She sustained the injury Monday while working out on an off day.
Tennessee does get back sophomore Jasmine Phillips, who last played Nov. 25. Phillips didn't play during the month of December - she had quad and hip issues and also was under coach's orders to get her academics in order - but she will be in uniform in her home state of South Carolina.
Head coach Holly Warlick said Wednesday after the Lady Vols' court session at the Gamecocks' volleyball/basketball practice facility that she had not predetermined whether or not Phillips would get in the game - she has played in just two contests this season for a total of 18 minutes - but she hoped to be able to deploy the juco guard.
The Lady Vols are down to just nine players. Burdick was in warm-ups with her right hand wrapped. She is undergoing evaluation still, but, generally speaking, injuries to the metatarsal bone in the hand are a four- to eight-week recovery. Specifics about Burdick's case will likely be available later this week, but Warlick did say she expects the sophomore forward to return this season.
With Burdick sidelined, Warlick expected to start senior Taber Spani at the small forward spot.
When Warlick took over as head coach last April, she inherited a roster of nine players. She quickly added Phillips from the juco ranks and then freshman forward Nia Moore, who had signed with Illinois but was released when her intended head coach, Jolette Law, was not retained by Illinois and instead joined Warlick's staff.
Had Warlick not boosted the roster, the Lady Vols would be starting SEC play with seven players. As it is, she has nine, and after the initial jolt Tuesday when the team and staff learned of the injury, they have rebounded.
"I think they were kind of in shock, but I think they are going to respond like that did with Andraya," Warlick said.
Andraya Carter, who, along with Burdick, is on the road trip with the team, has started shoulder rehab after surgery last month. The freshman guard is out for the season.
"It's something that this team has been dealing with," Warlick said. "We've been dealing with it for a couple of years, and it is frustrating. It's frustrating to me, but it's part of the game and other teams are dealing with it. We're just going to have to move on."
Burdick hovered around the court Wednesday and encouraged her teammates. She stood in place for demonstration purposes only during shell drills on offense and defense.
"Cierra is still going to be a part of practice and stay in shape," Warlick said. "Other people are just going to have to step up."
Tennessee coach Holly Warlick is expected to start: Ariel Massengale, 5-6 sophomore guard, No. 5, hails from Bolingbrook, Ill. (8.1 points per game, 2.5 rebounds per game, 3.9 assists per game); Meighan Simmons, 5-9 junior guard, No. 10, hails from Cibolo, Texas (16.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg); Taber Spani, 6-1 senior forward, No. 13, hails from Lee's Summit, Mo. (6.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg); Bashaara Graves, 6-2 freshman forward, No. 12, hails from Clarksville, Tenn. (14.0 ppg, 8.8 rpg); and Isabelle Harrison, 6-3 sophomore forward, No. 20, hails from Nashville, Tenn. (10.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 2.1 blocks per game).
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley is expected to start: Ieasia Walker, 5-8 senior guard, No. 2 (8.5 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.9 apg), hails from Amityville, N.Y., averaged 5.0 steals in last four games, had eight assists vs. Louisiana Tech, took No. 2 this season to honor teammate Shelbretta Ball, who was medically disqualified to play in the fall of 2011, the entire team wears a No. 2 patch; Sancheon White, 5-10 senior guard, No. 20 (4.1 ppg, 2.1 rpg), hails from Hammon, Ind., lockdown defender, grabbed 11 boards last season against Auburn, previously played at Central Arizona College; Tiffany Mitchell, 5-9 freshman guard, No. 25 (11.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg), hails from Charlotte, N.C., shooting 45.1 percent from the field, had 21 points, 11 boards against South Carolina State; Aleighsa Welch, 6-0 sophomore forward, No. 24 (12.3 ppg, 9.2 rpg), hails from Goose Creek, S.C., shooting 68.2 percent, leads SEC with 4.8 offensive boards a game, has six double-doubles this season; and Ashley Bruner, 6-0 senior forward, No. 21 (9.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg), hails from Norman, Okla., averaging 3.5 offensive boards a game, has 523 career rebounds, including 18 past season versus Penn State.
MAMA KNOWS BEST: Bashaara Graves nearly quit playing basketball after the eighth grade. Her mother, not to mention Holly Warlick, are thrilled the freshman stuck with the game.
"That is when people started putting a lot of pressure on me," Graves said. "I didn't understand it at the time. I didn't know that much about competitive basketball. I was playing just to be there.
"That was when colleges started (watching). I was overwhelmed and said, ‘Mama, I can't do this anymore. It's not fun anymore to me.' "
Tennessee would have been one of those schools Warlick said with a smile.
"The last four years the first day we could go out we went out to see her," Warlick said. "So we were putting the pressure on her."
Graves' mother, Keinya Graves, advised her daughter to play one more season and then evaluate if she wanted to continue.
She recalled her daughter going to school when preseason drills were scheduled to start.
"The first day of conditioning I asked if she was going," Keinya Graves said. "She said she was just going to watch but she changed her mind when everyone was dressing."
Bashaara Graves now calls it "definitely" the best advice she ever got from her mother.
"I was eventually like, ‘I can do this,' " Graves said. "I can't imagine. I don't know what I would be doing if I wasn't playing basketball right now."
"She loves it now," Warlick said. "Her mother is a smart woman. I think her mother understood the importance of where basketball could take her and how good she could be."
Keinya Graves' motivation went beyond maternal wisdom.
"I love watching her play," Keinya Graves said. "I told her I was her biggest fan, not just her mom."
REAPING REWARDS: Bashaara Graves was the SEC freshman of the week for the third time this season after posting double-doubles against Davidson and Rutgers.
With Graves' start, the SEC All-Freshman Team seems like a goal set too low. She has the talent to be All-SEC period.
"I don't look at it like that," Graves said. "I just take it game by game. Listen to the coaches. I just want to come out and do my best every game. I don't look at it as me trying to get an honor or me trying to be this and do that. I just try to get wins and do what I have to do."
Holly Warlick concurred with Graves' approach to the court.
"That's not her," Warlick said. "She is thinking about how she can get this team where they need to go. I totally understand.
"But, oh, God, yeah. She has potential to be an All-American, but she just needs to focus on what she's doing and continue to play hard. Every day is a gift, and she understands that."
Grave is grateful to be at Tennessee. She even misses her dorm room, as freshmen stay in a Knoxville hotel between semesters because the dorms are closed.
"I am really ready to get on campus," Graves said. "I am ready to get back in my dorm. I felt like that was my little home because I had my pictures on the walls.
"The bed is nice at the hotel. But there is nothing like the dorm and seeing the everyday people and new faces that you see."
Keinya Graves raised her daughter to be gracious and humble. Bashaara Graves works hard in practice, handles her classroom responsibilities and comes ready to play.
"She raised me to never complain because I had nothing to complain about," Graves said. "I am living. As long as I am here I should never be complaining. I am playing D1 basketball and I am in college for free. I shouldn't be complaining about anything."
Graves' explosive start is reminiscent of that of All-American Glory Johnson, who started her freshman season with a flurry of double-doubles.
Johnson sat courtside at the Tennessee-Rutgers game, and the two players later chatted.
"We just talked and said hello," Graves said. "We got to see each other again."
Once enough scouting film got dispersed, teams began to scheme to stop Johnson, and she got stymied at times that first season.
Graves stays after basically every practice to shoot with Dean Lockwood.
"All the post players stay after practice and we get a lot of jump shots in," Graves said. "He tells me that I have to get my jump shot consistent. That will help me a lot."
Graves has been working on sticking shots from the baseline and the elbow. That will force defenders to come away from the rim and then she can shoot or drive.
"I am trying to get my jump shot down consistently," Graves said. "I've got to get consistent."
Graves also knows that the SEC presents a stiff test every game, especially for a freshman. It is a physical conference that is full of athletic players.
"I think I am aware of it just by watching the games in the past," Graves said. "When South Carolina beat Tennessee last year and Arkansas beat them, too, they can come out and play just as hard and win these games.
"I think I am prepared for it. I am going to keep trying to play like I've been playing and hopefully it pays off."
EYE OPENING: Just like SEC play freshmen aren't completely prepared for new experiences until they see them firsthand.
For the newcomers it was the wrath of Holly Warlick after an abysmal performance on both sides of the ball in the Stanford loss, and especially on defense.
Practice shifted to nearly all defense, and Warlick didn't simmer down until the post-Christmas wins over Davidson and Rutgers to close out 2012.
The freshmen had their eyes opened.
"It did, especially for the freshmen because they weren't really expecting that," junior Meighan Simmons said. "We warned them if we get in a situation like that the coaches are going to come in and they're going to force us to play good defense.
"They're going to force us to make changes and change our attitudes and our mentality. It was a rude awakening because they didn't expect it. But now they know what to expect when a time like that comes."
GAMECOCK VISITOR: Former Lady Vol Nikki McCray paid a visit to the Tennessee team near the end of its practice session Wednesday.
McCray, who graduated in 1995 and is an assistant for South Carolina, is eight months pregnant, and got hugs from the entire staff, including former Lady Vol Kyra Elzy.
"It is great to see her," Holly Warlick said. "She looks great."
Warlick recruited McCray when she was in high school. So does a pregnant McCray walking into practice make Warlick feel a bit like the years have zoomed by?
"I can remember Pat and I going on a plane to see her play, so I do feel old," Warlick said. "But I felt old hiring Kyra."
ON TAP: All 14 SEC teams are in action Thursday. The other matchups are: Arkansas at Auburn; Florida at Kentucky; Missouri at Georgia; Ole Miss at LSU; Mississippi State at Vanderbilt; and Alabama at Texas A&M.
Tennessee leads the series with South Carolina, 45-3. The Lady Vols are 18-1 on the road. The Gamecocks snapped Tennessee's 20-0 record against them in Knoxville with a 64-60 win last season. The Lady Vols got their revenge in the SEC tourney with a 74-58 win. The series began in 1972, and the win in Knoxville was the first for South Carolina since 1980. … Two members of the Lady Vols program are in their home state for the game. Sophomore guard Jasmine Phillips is from Hartsville and assistant coach Jolette Law is from Florence. South Carolina counters with Nikki McCray, a Lady Vol All-American and Olympian on their bench as an assistant. … South Carolina is playing stout defense. The Gamecocks are third in the nation, allowing just 45.5 points per game. Ten of the Gamecocks' 13 opponents have scored under 50 points and five of the 13 shot under 30 percent from the field.