The Lady Vols officially started practice this week, and Holly Warlick met with the media Tuesday to discuss the 2016-17 season with a small roster but big expectations.
Tennessee has a roster of nine – and two players haven’t played a single second in the SEC. That has meant a preseason of being careful in terms of how much time has been dedicated to conditioning and court workouts because it’s a long season.
Diamond DeShields was limited last season by chronic leg pain. This year, Coach Holly Warlick is mentioning her leadership, along with senior guard Jordan Reynolds and junior forward Jaime Nared.
“I will say this, the difference right now in us from last year is we have tremendous leadership from our upperclassmen,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “Jordan Reynolds has just been phenomenal. Diamond DeShields and Jaime Nared … they’ve done a great job of leading this basketball team.”
The Lady Vols have made three Elite Eight appearances in Warlick’s first four years. Last March, Tennessee entered the Elite Eight game with Reynolds sidelined by a concussion and Andraya Carter and senior Bashaara Graves playing with broken hands – all injuries sustained in the Sweet 16 matchup. Carter’s career has ended because of chronic knee injuries, and heir apparent Te’a Cooper is out this season with a torn ACL.
But the expectations for Tennessee remain Final Four and trimming nets. Getting so close and falling short seems to have affected the returning players in a good way.
“I think it was a major impact on us,” Warlick said. “I think it had a major effect on what we did this summer. It was probably one of the best summers we’ve had as far as dedicated to get better, doing things as a team and just all-around wanting to improve their game.
“This fall has been something different that we haven’t seen with the togetherness. There’s a feel right now with this basketball team, and I can’t explain it. I think last year at times, everybody felt a little bit of disconnect. You don’t feel a disconnect with this team, and that’s a great thing. That starts with great leadership and people buying into the system. I think right now they are doing just that.”
While nothing is official, DeShields, a redshirt junior, is likely entering her last season as a Lady Vol. The professional opportunities both in the WNBA – she is already the presumptive No. 1 pick if the season goes well for her – and overseas would be lucrative enough to forego a fifth year. Given that she is on track to graduate and barring unforeseen circumstances, DeShields would be wise to start getting paid to play basketball sooner rather than later, especially with contracts overseas paying well into six figures.
To say that DeShields is motivated this season is an understatement. Reynolds is expected to have a sense of senior urgency – the junior’s play was at times uneven last season – and graduate transfer Schaquilla Nunn has one season at Tennessee and wants to prove herself in the rugged SEC. The other newcomer is true freshman center Kamera Harris.
“Everybody is getting a chance to play since our numbers are low,” Warlick said. “Everyone gets that opportunity, and I’m pleased with that. Are we where we want to be condition-wise? Absolutely not. I thought it was important for us to work on different things, and I wasn’t really worried about us being out of shape right now. I was very concerned about the wear-and-tear on our bodies, so we did some different things instead of getting up and down in the summer and the fall.”
With just nine players, Warlick has been cognizant of time – even going so far as to put a stopwatch on practice Monday.
“With our numbers low and a veteran group, I promised them I would keep it to two hours,” Warlick said. “I think that was plenty of time.”
It was not unusual in the past for practice to extend past two hours, but Warlick has said she is going to hold shorter sessions this season. All nine Lady Vols are available now after a summer of some rehab for several players.
“Knock on wood, we’re healthy,” said Warlick, who also noted the staff wasn’t going to fret about injuries. “We’ve got to practice. We’ve got to teach. We’ve got to learn.”
Warlick singled out Nared for her work this summer – especially getting shooting repetitions. Nared is a projected starter this season. Her offense would be a boost, because Nared already will defend and rebound.
The Lady Vols will practice early Wednesday morning and then take a few days off for fall break, another indication of Warlick’s willingness to not overdo anything early. Warlick, so far, seems to have developed a level of trust with this team. After sputtering a year ago in the regular season, Tennessee turned the corner in postseason. The returning players want to build on that momentum.
“I think what’s better and what’s different is we are more vocal,” she said. “We are playing hard in every drill. People are listening, and it’s not a leadership where I’m telling you what to do. It’s a supportive leadership. I love the effort and the communication that we are having.
“It’s really positive, if it is talking among each other, you don’t feel like it’s a put-down or a negative. It’s more so them helping each other. That’s probably what I mean the most. It's a feel of ... we ended on a great note, and let’s carry that into this season.”
Tennessee will host Carson-Newman on Nov. 7 in an exhibition game and then open the season on the road against James Madison on Nov. 11. The home opener is Nov. 13 against Navy.
“Their energy and their effort is solid, and I don’t know if I could have said that last year on a consistent basis,” Warlick said. “We were a very good practice team last year and didn’t carry it over onto the court. That remains to be seen.”
While the schedule is challenging, Warlick likes seeing all of the Sunday afternoon tip times in Knoxville.
“I love Sunday afternoon games because our fans come out for those games,” Warlick said. “I think it’s a great time to showcase our team. The schedule is very, very difficult. Our kids are going to have to be together and focused.”