Kortney Dunbar all in at new position

The Lady Vols officially open the season Sunday against Central Arkansas. Kortney Dunbar talked to InsideTennessee about her comfort level at her new position of stretch four. Go inside for the latest on the Lady Vols.

The first of eight consecutive games at home – with two sets bunched close together over the next two weeks – will give fans plenty of chances to see the 2015-16 team. Tennessee takes on Central Arkansas at 2 p.m. Eastern (SEC+ Network access online) at Thompson-Boling Arena.

One question is when will the Lady Vols be at full strength? Jaime Nared (broken hand) is out but could be back within two weeks. Nia Moore (ribs) is day to day and would seem unlikely for Sunday, but that would be a game-day decision. Diamond DeShields (leg) has been limited and is being eased back slowly; however, she is expected to play at least a few minutes Sunday to test the leg.

Add to that Holly Warlick’s willingness to stick to Pat Summitt’s rules about curfew and class attendance, and it may be later in the week – Penn State is in town Wednesday, followed by Syracuse on Friday in a short turnaround – before fans get a more complete look at the team.

Tennessee tuned up with a 101-59 win over Carson-Newman in the preseason’s sole exhibition game. Three-ball and transition defense left plenty to be desired, but some positive notables were the willingness of Andraya Carter to shoot, the return of Mercedes Russell and the debut of Kortney Dunbar at the stretch four.

It is a position that Sidney Spencer played to perfection for the Lady Vols. Interestingly enough, some of the cognoscenti counted out Spencer in her freshman year as she adjusted to the pace and physicality of college basketball. Dunbar heard the naysayers, too, last season.

“I will do my role,” Dunbar said. “If coach wants me to rebound and post up, I’ll do it. If she wants me to come in and hit five threes, I’ll do it. I just want to win. I tell people to stick around for the ride, and it will be really fun to watch.”

Over the summer, the coaches lauded Dunbar for buying into the shift, and the accolades continued in preseason with Dean Lockwood noting that Dunbar would be put in position to help the team. The 6-2 forward has two things in her favor – Tennessee needs post players and she can drain the three ball.

“I bought in because I know they brought me here for a reason,” Dunbar said. “I am coming in from high school being basically the one through five.”

In other words, Dunbar was open to suggestions about how to deploy her skills at the collegiate level. The first step was getting stronger, so the weight room was a focal point and will be a work in progress going forward. Dunbar is noticeably leaner now.

“I knew I trusted them, and I trust this process,” Dunbar said.

The trip to Italy aided in Dunbar’s comfort level as she got repetitions inside in game settings, not just practice. Dunbar also is more comfortable setting up inside on defense, rather than on the perimeter. As a freshman, she could be bewildered on defense – and she has a lot company in that regard, especially in a trapping and switching scheme such as Tennessee plays. Defending inside is much more defined for a post player with less distance to cover.

It is precisely for that reason that Dunbar can be a matchup issue for opposing defenses. She can drift well out of the paint and beyond the arc. She will pull a defender with her, which can open up operating room for Mercedes Russell at center and dribble penetration by guards. If those get cut off by help defense, Dunbar will be wide open at the arc and is welcome to fire away with the blessing of Holly Warlick.

“That is one thing I have been working on a lot,” said Dunbar, who hit a long three against Carson-Newman. “Dean lets me step out a lot in the post. I am still getting a lot of reps at the three. Holly has given me the green light. She told me that in our one-on-one meeting. She wants me to do what I do best – and that is shoot.”

A stretch four isn’t a back-to-the-basket position, but the player must develop footwork, moves and countermoves inside. Dunbar is a work in progress in that regard, too.

“That has been the toughest part. In high school, you never needed that for-sure move,” said Dunbar, who was taller than any of her opponents.

The learning process comes with reps in practice with Tennessee’s trio of true posts – Russell, Moore and Bashaara Graves – sessions with the assistant coaches and a lot of film study.

The film work with Kyra Elzy includes cuts of defensive and offensive clips from practice with game film from Italy and more recent vintage now from the exhibition. Dunbar played 25 minutes, shot 7-8 overall and 1-2 from the arc for 15 points against Carson-Newman. More importantly, she grabbed eight boards. Granted, the opponent was overmatched, but Dunbar showed a willingness to get on the glass and work in the paint.

“I am a visual learner,” Dunbar said. “She breaks it down in slow-mo and rewinds it three times. She will tell me to pick out things I could have done better. She will pick out one thing I did great. Being able to watch myself and know like, ‘Why did I do that?’

“Now that we have time to break it down and go against the practice guys, I can really watch myself and play better on the floor.”

The realization that Dunbar is now a post for the Lady Vols was apparent during warmups before the Carson-Newman game. When the players split into position work, she went inside. As a freshman, Dunbar would warm up with the guards.

“I was like, ‘OK, here we go.’ It was kind of like a new beginning,” Dunbar said. “When we go in drills now and the coaches say, ‘Guards, posts’ I automatically go with Dean. It doesn’t mean I come down and get on the low block. A lot of the times I sneak out to the arc or I will pick and pop instead of roll like Cedes.”

Dunbar needs repetitions and confidence – and the two go hand-in-hand. She knows she hasn’t arrived at the post position – and one of Summitt’s truisms was that a player never arrives and can always get better – and is willing to work and be patient. But she is confident, and that will go a long way.

“That is one of the main things I’ve built on,” Dunbar said. “I am getting better on defense, so I am more confident in that. In general, my confidence has risen, and that helps on the floor, in practice and off the court with my teammates.”

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