The players are comfortable with the offense and, more importantly, with each other.
"I think that is an accurate way to look at it," said sophomore guard Alexis Hornbuckle, who was one of the freshmen who was counted on early last year and had to learn on the fly. "Everyone pretty much knows the offense. Lindsey, of course, our true freshman and Alex and Candace, our redshirt freshmen, are the only three that weren't within the offense and playing in it. Everyone else got comfortable.
"I think that has a lot to do with it. Last year we're trying to get to know each other as freshmen, get good with the upperclassmen so they can help teach us the ropes. With everybody being here, with the exception of Lindsey, it just helped from last year and it carried over. And then we just kind of picked up Lindsey, and she was here all summer. It just kind of went into flow as soon as preseason got under way."
Hornbuckle also credits the new NCAA rule that allowed the full team to assemble for four hours a week. Previously, only four teammates could take the floor at one time for individual workouts before the official start of practice in mid-October.
"That four hours a week really helped out a lot," she said. "I think that's been the biggest difference – being able to start early and be able to go through plays and drill them with having (everyone) on the court. Last year, individuals, you could only have four people. It's hard for everybody to get in sync and run different positions."
Last season, Hornbuckle learned three positions – point guard, wing and small forward. A preternaturally gifted player in terms of creating her own shot, Hornbuckle had to seek a balance between playing within the offense and knowing when to go off script.
"I feel a lot more comfortable because I know the offense, I'm well-acquainted with the system, and I know what coach wants from me," Hornbuckle said. "Last year as a freshman I know I can play, but I have to learn the system, I have to know the plays, I have to know when I can play outside the play, when to just keep the flow of the offense. I've kind of got that down pat a little more at this point in the season."
The other difference in her game is the development of an outside shot. Coming in as a freshman, Hornbuckle acknowledged that her strengths were rebounding, defensive pressure and penetration. She cited shooting as the weakest part of her game. If Hornbuckle can consistently hit a short- to mid-range jumper and uncork some three-pointers when open, the Lady Vols will add yet another offensive dimension to their overall game.
Hornbuckle spent the off-season taking care of two matters: her need to improve her shot and her need to rest. Like a lot of young players, she battles tendonitis – for Hornbuckle, it's the right knee – and must strike a balance between rest and repetitions.
"Over the summer I tried to stress my jump shot," she said. "They were stressing rest so a lot of my repetitions were standstill shooting. Catch it, shoot it, mechanics. I was in the gym and tried to get in there at least three times a week, if not more, and just getting up shots and just worrying about how many I make."
In other words, she was concerned about makes, not takes. If her goal was to make 12 shots, she made them from a certain spot and moved on. There was no need to take dozens of shots if she was hitting them, and her body needed the rest.
The approach worked, at least if early returns are an indication. Her mechanics are significantly improved, and her shot is falling. Hornbuckle hit an assortment of jumpers Monday, and when the defense didn't pick her up, drove baseline to baseline and dropped in a soft layup.
Hornbuckle and the rest of the Lady Vols spent a lot of time in Knoxville this summer to work Summitt's camp, take classes and forge team unity. Familiarity doesn't always breed contempt; sometimes it fosters togetherness.
Assistant coach Dean Lockwood said it appeared this team was extremely close both on and off the court, but he added the question was best answered by a player.
"I would think that they are, and they seem to be," Lockwood said. "I think you have to be a player to really know that. My experience and us as a staff when you watch them and observe them and listen to players as they talk about the team, I think this group is a special group in that sense in that they are close. I don't think you can ever underestimate the value of that (summer). As much as they could they were around each other this summer. I think that just lends itself to good team chemistry. I would hope that we are a close team. I think that element is there, and I think we can still travel further down the road and become closer."
So what does a player say?
"We took it upon ourselves to hang out with each other more off the court, even if it's just to go to someone's house and watch a movie or go out to eat and then go our separate ways," Hornbuckle said. "We tried to spend more time off the court, because that shows on the court. A lot of people say it doesn't matter if you like your teammates; you just have to respect them on the court. But I truly believe that if you have the good chemistry off the court it's going to carry over to on the court."
So far, it's apparent.