No. 9 Tennessee, 8-2, will take on No. 24 Rutgers, 6-2, at 5 p.m. Wednesday (Lady Vol Radio Network, CSTV) at the Louis Brown Athletic Center in Piscataway, N.J. Tennessee leads the series, 10-2. It is the first game for both teams after the Christmas break.
Candace Parker, a freshman forward for Tennessee, was only recently cleared to practice after having knee surgery in September. She experienced some swelling after her first practice Sunday and only did a light workout Monday. She was limited to riding a stationary bike Tuesday.
Parker's return will likely be in spurts as her knee gets used to full-scale practice sessions. She will not appear in the Rutgers or Old Dominion games, and her on-court debut will be delayed by at least a week to determine if her knee can withstand the rigors of the remainder of the season. Jenny Moshak, associate athletics director for sports medicine, said last week that she would not let Parker's season be lost by appearing in one game and losing a year of eligibility if a medical redshirt made the most sense.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Tennessee team practiced Sunday, but several members of the travel party were missing luggage because of travel snafus brought on by snowstorms that gripped the Midwest and parts of the South and snarled air travel across the country. Mickey Dearstone, the voice of the Lady Vols, was missing some of his radio gear. But everything had been accounted for by Tuesday afternoon. After practice Tuesday, the team planned to have dinner at the house of teammate Nicky Anosike. The freshman center is from Staten Island, N.Y., and her family recently moved to New Jersey.
Rutgers had planned to practice Sunday, but couldn't get a full complement of players as some of them were stranded by the same air travel woes that delayed the Lady Vols' luggage.
With Cappie Pondexter back Stringer said it was if the team had practiced for the first time Monday.
"The effect of Cappie on the floor can't be exaggerated," said Stringer who added the guard "looks rusty but anxious" to play. Stringer estimated that she would need at least two weeks to get in game shape.
Last season the 5'8 guard from Chicago averaged 17.9 points per game and was the undisputed floor leader for the Scarlet Knights. Pondexter was a third team All-American last season and a preseason candidate for the Naismith, Wooden and Wade Trophy awards this year.
"I think, Cappie, her presence is an air of confidence," Stringer said. "I see the whole group step up their confidence."
Pondexter sat out the first two months of the season for undisclosed personal reasons. Stringer, citing privacy issues, has declined to specify the reason but has said it wasn't related to pregnancy, drugs or academics.
The Tennessee game kicks off a trio of games that will test the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers will play next at No. 4 Texas on Jan. 2 and then host No. 1 LSU on Jan. 5. Stringer said she wasn't thinking clearly when she agreed to play perennial power Tennessee as the first game after a Christmas break.
"Texas is a monster. LSU is a monster," Stringer said. "Tennessee is a monster with two heads. I don't look at the schedule much. I wasn't paying that much attention (to the timing of the Tennessee game). Right now I'm calm. We can only do what we can do."
When one sportswriter in Stringer's media teleconference Tuesday asked if the Tennessee game was important because it represented the Scarlet Knights' best chance at a victory over the next three games, Stringer replied: "Why this is more important is it's the game in front of us. It's important we measure growth."
(Rutgers is running a poll on its Web site – www.scarletknights.com - asking which of four games will be the toughest at home. With 1,520 votes tallied, Tennessee has 34 percent of the votes; LSU, 25 percent; UConn, 37 percent; and Notre Dame, 5 percent.)
Stringer recently joined the elite club of coaches with 700 wins and now has 701. Combined with Summitt's 860, the coaches account for 1,561 victories between them. Both coaches, who are longtime friends, have been inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame.
Tennessee coach Pat Summitt is expected to open the game with the same lineup she has used lately: Alexis Hornbuckle and Shanna Zolman at the guard spots; Shyra Ely and Sidney Spencer at the forward positions; and Tye'sha Fluker at center.
Hornbuckle has been the starting point guard in place of Loree Moore, who had a tonsillectomy Dec. 10. Moore is scheduled to be evaluated Jan. 3 for a possible return to action. The earliest possible game she could play in would be at UConn on Jan. 8, if she were cleared to practice and able to get in game shape. Fatigue and nutritional issues are the biggest concerns following a tonsillectomy.
Rutgers is expected to counter with a four-guard, one forward lineup: Michelle Campbell, 6'2 junior forward, 14.6 points per game, Princeton, N.J.; Chelsea Newton, 5'11 senior guard, 11.5 ppg, Monroe, La.; Matee Ajavon, 5'8 freshman guard, 11.1 ppg, Newark, N.J.; Nikki Jett, 5'8 senior guard, 10.5 ppg, Columbia, S.C.; and Essence Carson, 6'0 freshman guard, 6.4 ppg, Paterson, N.J.
Carson is recovering from a concussion-like injury that left her dizzy but has been practicing and, according to Stringer, she "had an epiphany of sorts" after the blow to the head.
"She's just now beginning to be the player I thought she could be," Stringer said.
Carson is one of three newcomers to the Scarlet Knights program along with fellow starter Ajavon and Charese "Tudy" Reed, a 5'11 guard/forward from Chicago. Carson was a teammate of Tennessee's Parker on the 2004 USA Women's Junior World Championship Qualifying Team that won a gold medal in Puerto Rico.
Carson and Reed, like Parker, can dunk a basketball. Reed got her nickname "Tudy" when a family member thought she resembled a character from the old television sitcom, "The Facts of Life." Carson also is a speedster: she won the New Jersey state title in high school in the 400-meters in her first foray on the track. Carson is gifted off the court as well and is an accomplished musician. She plays piano, bass guitar, drums and saxophone and is seeking admission to Rutgers' acclaimed Mason Gross School of Arts.
Stringer said it speaks to the strength of Tennessee's other freshmen and returning veterans that the loss of Parker hasn't slowed the Lady Vols' march to March.
"Frankly they've got what they need right now," Stringer said. "Candace is just another big addition to that. This is the most-talented freshman class in the entire country. They look like they get along really well. They want to be there."
Stringer said Summitt deserves "a medal" for meshing all the talent and keeping everyone happy.
"There are a lot of people begging for time," Stringer said. "So they're not going to mess up."
"They could be great starters anywhere else," she said.
And although Tennessee has stockpiled talent, Stringer said it's still a multi-horse race to the national title.
"There's no clear winner this year," she said. "I still say that. I think that it's wide open. And I wouldn't count out UConn either. It's a great year for women's basketball."