The Lady Vol basketball team will practice twice this week – early Thursday morning as they have done for the past several weeks – and again Saturday morning. The mini-sessions will give way next week to the official start of the season, but the benefits should pay off all year long.

A new NCAA rule allowed teams to assemble their full squads for practice in the preseason instead of the old system of restricting the sessions to four players on the court at one time. With only two seniors and four players coming off of knee injuries – including two redshirt freshmen – the sessions allowed coach Pat Summitt and her staff to teach the team as a whole and see how the players responded on the court to each other.

Summitt expects her team to play better earlier in the season, something that should make the fans happy. She also expects to be able to shorten practices during the regular season, something that should make the players happy. And the staff, which tried to cram a lot of teaching in a little bit of time last season, can spread out the lessons.

"It's a good rule," Summitt said. "My own professional opinion is we should have been trying to get this into place long before we did. It will allow you to teach more at an earlier stage. I think it will improve our game early. I think our games should be a little more efficient and play should be better because of this rule. When it comes time to practice, you don't have to be out here for three, three-and-half hours. I think you can cut down on the amount of time once you get into full practice. At least that's what I hope to do. Fresh legs, fresh minds, fresh players and staff. Everyone should benefit."

The sessions this fall started at 7 a.m. before the players had to attend classes. At first the players were a little bleary-eyed at that hour but soon embraced the early start.

Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, a sophomore point guard and one of the players bouncing back from knee surgery, said the team initially wasn't quite ready to play Summitt-style ball so soon after sunrise. But after the first session or so, they were good to go. They also like getting the work in and then having the afternoons free for academic work or some personal time before the season gets underway.

"It gets it out of the way," Wiley-Gatewood said and added, "It gets our team ready."

The first practice of the regular season is Oct. 14 at 7 p.m., the official start by NCAA rules. Anyone wanting a sneak peek of practice can show up at Thompson-Boling Arena this Saturday at 10 a.m. when the Lady Vols hold another preseason session. If you like waking up early, the team will practice Thursday at 7 a.m.

SA'DE'S KNEE SAGA: Wiley-Gatewood, a pure point guard by Summitt's assessment, has battled a severe case of patellar tendonitis since last fall after being plagued by pain before arriving on campus. She played through a lot of pain last season but finally opted for season-ending surgery in the spring.

Since then Wiley-Gatewood has rehabbed and played ball. She also has to take some time off on occasion – tendonitis often means chronic inflammation that can only be treated with rest – and has accepted the fact that pain is part of her playing equation.

She already has skipped some practice time this preseason so as to not miss conditioning sessions. For now, Wiley-Gatewood must strike a balance between getting ready for the season and making sure she can play all season. She has accepted the fact that she will endure some discomfort.

"I don't think this can keep me off the court," Wiley-Gatewood said.

She also isn't fixated on her knee and can practice without worrying about it. That is a stark contrast to last season when she constantly checked her knee and never felt confident about how it would respond.

"I was focused on my knee more than basketball," Wiley-Gatewood said. "I was afraid to play on it. Now I'm focused on playing ball."

If Wiley-Gatewood can remain healthy enough to play, she has the potential to take the Lady Vols to a level at point guard that even Summitt says is one for the record books. Her court vision is not something that can be taught, and – as the players noted last year – she instinctively knows how to find the open player, even if that teammate doesn't know she's open yet. She will easily fill the role of leader on the floor, an expectation made easier knowing that it's what Summitt expects.

"Just knowing this is what Pat wants me to do – everytime I walk on the court I know I have to be ready," Wiley-Gatewood said.

CANDACE PARKER'S D: Freshman forward Candace Parker's offense has never been an issue. The 6'3 (official)/6'5 (unofficial) forward from Naperville, Ill., can play in the paint or on the perimeter. She can dunk, pass, run the floor, hit the outside shot and finish under the basket. So what about her defense?

"I really think Candace can be a terrific defensive player," Summitt said. "I think she'll be focused to do that. I can see her playing in the perimeter or playing in the post. She's got such great arm span. Her reach is enormous. Imagine her guarding another two or three player."

That's not hard to envision. During a practice session last season – Parker participated in a few but preseason knee surgery limited her mobility and ultimately led to a redshirt year – she twice left her defensive assignment after another offensive player got open for an uncontested three and planted the ball out of bounds before the shooter knew what hit her.

Summitt remembers the practice plays and knows it means she has a lot of defensive options, including letting Parker play on the perimeter and junior Dom Redding play inside when they're on the floor at the same time. She also won't hesitate to move junior Sidney Spencer and possibly sophomore Nicky Anosike out of the paint on defense.

"She can cover a huge area on the floor just because of the arm span," Summitt said of Parker. "We've got an option there because Dom can play post defense, and Candace can play perimeter defense. We can interchange some with Sid and Candace, and possibly Anosike can play on the perimeter."

FINAL FOUR: The 2006 champion will be crowned in Boston, and the crowd of teams trying to get to Massachusetts gets more cluttered this season. Summitt has preached parity in recent years, but a few naysayers didn't believe. Seems she was right. In 2005 two teams that had never won a national title – Baylor and Michigan State – were playing for the program's first championship, and defending champ Connecticut didn't make it out of the Sweet 16. Tennessee made it to the Final Four but crumbled in its semifinal to Michigan State in a loss that Summitt watched only three times before putting it out of her mind and presumptively herself out of misery. Baylor went on to beat the Spartans to claim the trophy.

Her focus this fall has been her own team, but when asked she agreed to scan the landscape.

"I really haven't thought about it. I've been so focused on ours," Summitt said. "You've got to start with Baylor. Georgia is really talented, LSU is really talented, Stanford is really talented. Rutgers and North Carolina, two of the most talented and most athletic teams in the country. Connecticut is going to be right there. Ohio State. Michigan State. I think UCLA is going to be good this year. There's a long list. I think for the first time there should be a greater number of teams that realistically have a shot at winning it all."

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