The team's travelogue since the week of Thanksgiving until this past Wednesday – more than 13,000 air miles – and packed schedule didn't bode well for a team with four players who missed all or part of last season with knee injuries. But they not only survived it on the court – Tennessee is 8-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country in both polls – they weathered it in the training room.
Even Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, who was limited earlier this season because of chronic tendonitis in her left knee, has been fine. Jenny Moshak, the assistant athletics director for sports medicine, must monitor every player's condition and report to coach Pat Summitt if someone needs some rest time.
"She's doing great," Summitt said of Wiley-Gatewood. "She'll (Moshak) usually tell me, ‘You may want to limit here or there.' Nothing. She's been doing her rehab. One thing about being on the road they got more rehab in."
Leave it to Summitt to find a silver lining in a schedule that involved so much travel and so many ranked teams that she didn't really have anything to compare it to.
"We didn't get to practice, and we developed some bad habits. That bothered me more than anything," Summitt said. "I don't know that we've done anything like that. We've have hard schedules, quick turnarounds, but with the amount of travel – going to the Virgin Islands, going to the West Coast, going to the East Coast – that's … . I started thinking why would you do this at this time in your career. Obviously I have a lot of confidence in this team."
She also has a lot of confidence in Spencer, who she had to threaten to bench if she didn't shoot. Spencer passed up too many open shots last season, and Summitt didn't want a repeat to start this season. The message managed to penetrate Sidville.
Spencer is averaging 7.8 points per game in 15.8 minutes of play. She is hitting 44.9 percent of her shots (22-49) and 53.3 percent from behind the arc (8-15). Her free throw shooting is perfect at 10-10.
Summitt has stuck with the three-guard starting lineup of Wiley-Gatewood, Shanna Zolman and Alexis Hornbuckle for now, but the drop-off in rebounding is a concern for her. She could move Candace Parker to the perimeter, and play two bigs in the paint – Tye'sha Fluker would be the first option – but she also wants a charge from the bench. Nicky Anosike has been starting at center, but her tendency to get into foul trouble – she corrected the problem in the George Washington victory before the exam break – sometimes sends her to the bench early.
"It all depends on the rebounding," Summitt said of possibly tinkering with her starters. "That's the one thing. And then you've got the situation (of) foul trouble. And right now Sid is our most efficient offensive player. She's been a spark off the bench. We need somebody to come off the bench and spark this team. Tye does it for the post. Sid's starting to do it on the perimeter.
"I told her you're one of the best offensive players on our basketball team. Your responsibility is to shoot. It'd be like if Lex, who is one of our best perimeter defenders, decided not to defend. You bring what you do best, and then you try to develop all aspects of the game. I think she's understanding that. Plus, she's a hard guard. A lot of people are zoning us. She can shoot the three; she can get in the gaps. She can get to the baseline. I just like her range and her ability to shoot over people. I've been really pleased with Sid of late."
Summitt was relatively pleased Saturday after two days of practice. She kept the session relatively short Friday – under two hours – but put the team through a long workout Saturday. Summitt will give the players Sunday off so they can have additional rest and study time for exams, and they will return to practice Monday afternoon. On Thursday next week, they play Louisiana Tech in Knoxville. On Dec. 20, Princeton comes to town. After that the Lady Vols will break for Christmas and then reassemble in Knoxville on Dec. 26.
"We did give them Christmas off. I've mellowed so much," Summitt said with a wry grin.
Summitt should be smiling. Before this stretch of schedule started, she acknowledged that going undefeated – although a delightful proposition – would be difficult given the amount of travel and quality of the opponents. So did she feel a sense of relief upon returning home after the 59-43 win over George Washington?
"I got it long before we got back," Summitt said. "I got it as soon as that game was over. I knew they needed rest, and they needed to get back in the academic mindset."
Summitt also knew they needed practice time. It was apparent throughout the long stretch of games but most obvious in the George Washington game in which she felt her team struggled mentally for the first time.
"That's where I saw the mental part," she said. "I thought physically in the Maryland game early on we were a step slow. But when we got our backs against the wall, they picked it up."
The team came out a little flat Saturday – definitely not at game speed but a brief exhortation by Summitt to boost their enthusiasm – did the trick.
"After the first 30 minutes of practice, we picked it up," Summitt said. "We got good reps offensively I thought Friday. We got to work a lot on our transition and half-court defense today and still keeping our offensive reps in. Our guards need that a lot. Candace needs that. Sa'de didn't play that much last year. Getting her reps, getting Lindsey (Moss) more reps and getting Candace more reps inside."
As the eight games played out, the Lady Vols got tighter. But not in a good way. They were too close on the court.
"We didn't make hard cuts, our spacing … everything started to move inward on the floor," Summitt said. "We started to bunch up instead of space out."
Offensively Summitt wants more production from Fluker and more comfort in the half-court set from Wiley-Gatewood.
"Tye is doing a really good job offensively, but she's not getting to the free throw line, and she's not rebounding the way she should," Summitt said. "She falls away more (when shooting instead of squaring up). I like the fact (Sybil) Dosty and Anosike are getting to the free throw line. They're going after people. I think Tye can add that dimension to her game."
Summitt also reemphasized that the perimeter players can't just run down the floor and hoist a shot. The post players lose interest in that style of the play.
"I think this team is getting the ball inside better," she said. "I think the last two games they did a much better job. (Prior to that), I don't think they got involved. We quick shot the ball a lot. We didn't really establish an inside game and now we want to do that. I've always believed you don't get post players involved, they're not going to do other things for you. If you don't get the ball inside and they don't get touches and they don't get involved, then they're going to stand and watch. Some of them pout. And then they come out and somebody else gets to go in and stand and watch."
One key to keeping the post players engaged is getting Wiley-Gatewood at ease at point guard in the half-court game.
"I think Sa'de has to become very comfortable in the half-court game running sets," Summitt said. "She is terrific in transition, and she's very good in the half-court game if she's just playing off the dribble. But what she has to learn is there're going to be time and score and possessions where she has to manage the clock. And all she needs is repetition. She's just growing every day. She's turned her volume up. The team has got to hear her voice more. I think we're seeing that. I thought the last two days she did a great job of that."
Another point of emphasis at Saturday's practice was defense. The offense has been ahead of the defense all season but has made strides. Against George Washington, Summitt saw some backsliding.
"Our defensive post play has been outstanding at times and then we've been lazy," she said. "We've let the ball come into the high post. Against George Washington, we didn't deny the high post, and that was one of our key points of emphasis going into the game. It's interesting. You can always watch players and find out they're going to rest somewhere. They pick their places to rest. And with this team we shouldn't be resting. We should be calling for a sub and staying focused and intense the whole time."
That focus and intensity will be needed to get through the next part of the season. Tennessee takes on Louisiana Tech and Princeton at home, and after the Christmas holidays, the road schedule heats up again. Temple and Notre Dame await at their places, and the SEC games get underway. On Jan. 7 in Knoxville, archrival Connecticut comes to town. Summitt will need to deploy different defenses.
"Defensively, absolutely," she said. "Just to have multiple options – zone, man, straight up, trapping, switching man, chasing with your zone, calling cutters. There's a lot that we can do. We just had to get the foundation in, and I think the foundation of our man defense I think they understand it, and they've been pretty good. When they had to be good, they've been very good. They just need to have a greater sense of urgency and everybody taking pride in every possession."
Sometimes it won't matter so much what defense Tennessee is in; sometimes the Lady Vols just need a stop. As a means to succeeding to that end, the team ran a drill Saturday against the male practice players in which the Lady Vols had to get multiple stops in 30 seconds. If they got a stop, the clock didn't reset. With the guys shooting about every 10 seconds, it generally took three possessions to clear the clock. If the guys scored or got the offensive rebound, the shot clock was reset to 30 seconds. The same five Lady Vols remained on the floor until the shot clock hit zero.
It was one of the most-spirited parts of practice and resulted in teamwork – communication during live action and shouts of encouragement on dead balls.
"We're going to have to make stops in games, and I think this will have a valuable carryover," Summitt said. "They know when they have to make a stop. In this drill you have to do it, and there are going to be many times in games where they'll be in a situation, and they're going to be talking just like they are when they have the clock running."
FULLER'S STATUS: Forward Alex Fuller sat out both Friday's and Saturday's practice sessions to rest a sore right hip flexor that has bothered her since the UTC game. Fuller has tried to play through it – albeit sparingly – but her mobility has been severely limited.
When asked how Fuller was doing, Summitt said, "I'm hoping she's getting well."
Summitt is sold on Fuller's game and even included the redshirt freshman in her mix of possible starters before the season started.
Fuller did some light rehab on the sidelines and iced her hip. Summitt will hold her out from practice until the hip feels better, and her basketball activity has been curtailed to say the least.
"She's standing out there passing with one hand," Summitt said, nodding toward the court during a shooting drill. "That's all I've seen her do."
Although Fuller snuck in a few shots on a side basket, that's all she will do for now.
"She's a player, and we need her to be able to play," Summitt said.