The bad news: Tennessee is running out of time.
"Is it worth it to Candace to give up a year?" coach Pat Summitt asked Sunday. "Time is not on our side, and it doesn't look favorable, but we're certainly not closing the door."
Earlier Summitt had said that if Candace Parker weren't able to play "much past March" then a redshirt year would be the only option. The post-season begins March 3-7 when the SEC holds it conference tournament in Greenville, S.C.
Does the door really remain open for Parker to play this season?
"Absolutely," Summitt said.
Parker had surgery in September to repair the lateral meniscus and the lateral articular cartilage in her left knee. She practiced Dec. 26 for the first time, but was pulled a week later because of swelling in the knee.
On Sunday, Parker continued her rehab regimen in the weight room and then watched practice from the sidelines.
"It's still a little bit swollen," Parker said. "It's obviously not as good as I would like it to be, or I would be playing right now if it was."
Parker has no idea if she will be able to play or not.
"I don't know," she said. "My answer to everything is ‘Ask Jenny.' She knows my knee better than I do. I never give up hope."
Jenny Moshak, associate athletics director for sports medicine, said Parker remains day-to-day and won't be cleared to practice until the swelling is gone. If she were allowed to return, Parker's practice time would be limited to monitor the knee. Her court time would increase if her knee responds well.
Summitt would need about two weeks of practice time to observe Parker and get her up to speed on the court. It would appear by that timetable that if Parker can't make it to the practice court by mid-February, then she would not be able to play this season.
Another freshman, Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, has been able to play this season – she made it onto the court in mid-December – after battling a severe case of tendonitis that nearly cost her the season. At one point Wiley-Gatewood thought she might need surgery because of microscopic tears in the patellar tendon.
Wiley-Gatewood logged 17 minutes against South Carolina last Thursday and then practiced for three hours Friday. On Saturday she was pulled from practice duty and spent the afternoon in rehab.
"That knee is not a happy camper," Moshak said.
Wiley-Gatewood has been playing through pain and is learning to differentiate what she can push through and what requires rest.
"This is what I told her. It's best if you take a day here and there versus pushing through everything and then you're out a week," Moshak said. "We need to really listen to what this tendon is telling us. She needs to communicate with me on a daily basis so we know what's going on. She's got to know what pain she can play through and what pain she can't and not get to the can't part before we have to pull her out."
Wiley-Gatewood did practice Sunday – it was less than an hour of shooting and in-bounds plays with no full court work – and is cleared to play Monday against Georgia.
"She seems OK," Summitt said after a practice "so light it was like two days off for her."
Tennessee has been bedeviled with injury problems this season starting with Parker and then fellow freshman Alex Fuller, who had reconstructive knee surgery in October and is taking a redshirt year. Wiley-Gatewood missed a lot of conditioning work in the pre-season and then was pulled from practice shortly after it started in mid-October because of pain in her knee. Freshman post player Sybil Dosty sustained a concussion and then injured her foot and has also missed practice time. Senior Loree Moore had to have her tonsils removed in December and missed a month.
At one point during Saturday's practice every freshman except Nicky Anosike was getting ice treatment for their left knee. Dosty is wearing a knee brace because of an old ACL injury, and Alexis Hornbuckle also battles tendonitis.
Another player will likely not be available for the Florida game this week because of an illness in her family. Junior center Tye'sha Fluker is leaving for Pasadena, Calif., on Tuesday morning after the Georgia game to see her grandmother, Summitt said Sunday. Fluker's grandmother, Charlotte Creamer, has been hospitalized with kidney failure. Tennessee plays at Florida on Thursday and then at home Sunday, Feb. 6, against Ole Miss. Fluker probably won't return to Knoxville until Friday, Summitt said.
If Fluker isn't available against Florida, Summitt has options in Dosty and sophomore post player Sidney Spencer. Anosike, who starts in the high post position, also could shift to the low post. Senior Shyra Ely, who starts on the perimeter, could return to her old position in the high post.
Summitt has used various starting lineups this season because of injuries and practice performance and trying to find the right combination of players to get the Lady Vols off to a fast offensive start without losing defensive intensity. After three losses – one in November and two in December – Tennessee has settled down and is ranked No. 5 in the country. They remain undefeated in conference play.
"They're doing well," Parker said. "I'm proud of them."
If Parker were to return, she wouldn't upset the balance of the team, in part, because Tennessee doesn't rely on one go-to player. Fluker has become a dominant presence in the paint, and Ely is the leading scorer. Long-range shooters Brittany Jackson and Shanna Zolman have won games for Tennessee this season. Hornbuckle also has been a big factor. Parker could rather seamlessly blend in with Summitt's rotation system and provide a post-season spark.
"We do have go-to's," said Summitt, emphasizing the plural use of the word. "I like the fact we have a lot of people we can run options to. Late in the Auburn game, we went to Tye. Obviously Shyra's been more of a go-to player than anyone else, but we run options to Brittany. We run options to Zolman. Those would be the main ones, but in the LaTech game we ran everything to Hornbuckle.
"I like the fact that as the game unfolds we can at least watch and see match-ups that we might want to try and take advantage of, and if you can exploit those in the course of the game with different options and different personnel, to me, that's a real plus."
Despite the influx of new players and the shuffling of the starting lineup, there have been no disruptions of team chemistry or eruptions of ego among the players.
"They want to win," Summitt said. "I think the way they started out they know it needs to be just a team ego. That's all we can afford to have."