On Saturday, shooting drills and defense were the points of emphasis and included some spirited five-on-five sessions with lots of contact, especially in the paint.
"We threw defense in there last night," Pat Summitt said of Friday's practice. "They were just playing; they weren't defending. They were just trying to be aggressive. We really got down to the fundamentals and the teaching of it today."
Defense may win games, but the Lady Vols also have to score, and another point of emphasis is team field goal percentage. Last year the team averaged 72.2 points a game, the fifth-worst over Summitt's 31-year history, and shot 41.6 percent from the field, the worst shooting team ever for Summitt. The previous low was 44 percent in 1992-93.
The last three Tennessee national title teams shot 46.0, 44.7 and 48.1 in 1996, 1997 and 1998 respectively. Tennessee finished the 2004-05 season 30-5 and held its opponents to 60.1 points a game and a 38.9 field goal percentage. Defense wins games indeed, but the point is still simply to score more points than the opponent.
To tackle Tennessee's shooting woes, an assortment of shooting drills – shooting off penetration, stop and pop after a pass and moving around the floor – are built into every practice with extra time allotted when possible.
"We're doing at least a half-hour a day and probably did a little more than that today," said Summitt, who added that weekend sessions, which tend to allow for longer practices, will have more shooting drills than weekday ones. "It's going to be a priority."
The third point of emphasis is improved play in the post. Tennessee got a lot of offensive opportunities in the paint last season, and by the coaches' assessment squandered too many. This year's team has a lot of options in the post with three classic centers in terms of size and body type in Tye'sha Fluker, Nicky Anosike and Sybil Dosty; two players who can play high and low post and also step out on the perimeter in Candace Parker and Sidney Spencer; and two players who can play small and power forward in Dominique Redding and Alex Fuller.
"Our post game has got to really anchor down and be more consistent in their performance game in and game out," Summitt said in a wide-ranging interview before practice officially started. (For the complete interview, please see the November issue of Rocky Top News). "If we can establish our inside game I think that it will take our team to another level. You've got to make shots in the paint, and that's across the board. And if they can't get the job done we'll be playing forwards in the paint instead of post players. We've got a lot of options. The versatility of this group is outstanding and certainly we can go with a smaller lineup, maybe a little more mobile lineup, but we have to be efficient in the paint."
"I like what I've seen when they've been on the floor together," Summitt said of the guards. "With Sa'de and Shanna, they shoot the ball very well. Alexis, to me, she's really strong off the dribble. She and Sa'de both are."
If Summitt wanted a bigger lineup, she said, "Candace could go to the three, as opposed to the four. We could go big in the frontline."
One of the best post matchups in practice has been Anosike and Fluker squaring off in the paint in five-on-five drills.
"With 11 players we can present a lot of different looks and a lot of different matchups," Summitt said. "I think the fact that this team is long and rangy, and they cover a lot of area defensively – I think that if we can play against our own defense – then hopefully we won't be surprised when we run into other teams who are like us – athletic, long, rangy."
That 11th player, Dosty, was held out of practice again Saturday for treatment of a strained left quadriceps muscle. Dosty spent the session with Jenny Moshak, assistant athletics director for sports medicine, doing various drills that included running. Since it's early in the season, the approach has been cautious but hopeful.
"It's taking a little longer than I would have hoped, but this isn't something that I would want to rush at this point in time," Summitt said. "Jenny's optimistic, so when Jenny's optimistic I am. She's moving a lot better."
Wiley-Gatewood tweaked her left knee Saturday and sat out the latter part of practice. She wanted to stay in, but Moshak brought her off the floor. The knee was iced, and Wiley-Gatewood was smiling and OK after practice. It's part of the plan to handle her chronic tendonitis so that she is available all season.
"We've got to be more cautious than aggressive at this point in time," Summitt said.
If such a tweak occurs in a game, Summitt said Moshak would decide if Wiley-Gatewood could remain on the floor.
"That would be Jenny's call," Summit said. "The good thing is that Sa'de is very vocal about what she's feeling. She always wants to stay in. But I think her communication has been great. As long as she's open and tells us what she's feeling, we know what we dealing with. She has matured on and off the court tremendously. You just see a whole different approach with her. She's not walking around in pain, and she can concentrate on what she's doing. We know that was a major distraction for her."
One player not showing any signs of coming off of major knee surgery is Spencer, who tore her ACL last February.
"I thought today was her best day since she's been back full speed," Summitt said. "She's got really good fundamentals and good footwork and knows she's not having to run the point or defend out on the perimeter that much so she's not covering the distance that guards are covering. But aside from that, she's in there where it's physical, you're pushing and that's where you think you might see her shy away from competition, and she's not."