"Great feeling on the first day," junior guard Alexis Hornbuckle said after the session at Stokely Athletics Center ended. "It went fairly smooth. You're going to have your mess-ups, you're going to have your missed communication, but it was limited today, and that is very key."
The most-striking aspects of this team are its size and its speed compared to last year. With the graduation of 6'5 center Tye'sha Fluker and the transfer of 6'3 center Sybil Dosty, the team is smaller in stature. But the players are strikingly fast, especially with the addition of juco guards Shannon Bobbitt and Alberta Auguste and freshman guard Cait McMahan. Sophomore forward Alex Fuller is noticeably quicker and appears to have undergone a complete turnaround in terms of strength and conditioning.
Bobbitt, a 5'2 point guard, has speed and quickness that is difficult to describe. While back-pedaling on defense, she stayed with 6'5 forward Candace Parker, who was running forward, during one full-court press exercise.
"She reminds me, quickness-wise, of (former LSU great) Temeka Johnson because as soon as that ball hit her hands she was full go, and Shannon is exactly like that," Hornbuckle said.
"We're quicker, and we're faster. We're not as big. We lost a lot of size, but it's tenacity, it's energy, it's hungry when it comes to rebounding, when it comes to the hustle plays. You can be 6'5 and outrun a 5'2 guard if you want it more than they do. All it is is our energy, and we pretty much have that across the board. We've just got to stay high-spirited, stay level headed and open communication."
The team spent September and early October in conditioning sessions with Heather Mason and in individual workouts with the coaching staff. After Friday's practice, coach Pat Summitt noted that the early work had paid off.
"First of all, we've got a physically fit group," Summitt said. "I think Heather Mason did a great job of getting them ready for tonight. And then I think we have a team that has a good understanding of what we want to do from an offensive standpoint, and now we're dialing up the defensive intensity. We're a much quicker team than we were a year ago. We're mobile, and we're quick. I like the looks of this group."
Hornbuckle said she was impressed with how well the four new players – forward Nicci Moats is the second freshman, but she has been limited on the court as she continues to rehab her knee after tearing her ACL in late December – have adjusted to collegiate basketball.
"Our newcomers came in ready to learn, ready to get better and ready to work hard," Hornbuckle said. "Preseason was a testament for all newcomers. You can work out all you want, but nobody's ever been through a Heather Mason workout, and they handled that real well."
The low numbers – there are 10 on scholarship plus walk-on Elizabeth Curry, who was a manager for two seasons – mean the staff will have to balance early season preparation with rest.
"I think once we get the bulk of the teaching in, then we can look at the quality of reps and not be so concerned about extending our practices," Summitt said. "We've talked about that as a staff. We may be able to accomplish a lot more in less time because of numbers. We'll have a lot of time, too, to just get skill work in."
Part of that balance was apparent in the days leading up to Friday. The players practiced last week – the last time was Oct. 5 – and then were given several days off.
"Taper down," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "Get legs fresh, get bodies fresh and get minds fresh. Physically your body is putting out and mentally you have to be engaged. What we'd like them to do (before Friday's first practice) is mentally and physically disengage. There's a point where you have to disengage. I think people who are even more into it and more passionate need that even more because you are so engrossed it, you dive it so hard and deep. Candace really had to do that for her own physical and mental well-being. If we want to get out of the gate and have three great practices, we've got to let them disengage. It's good for our kids."
Parker took off for two weeks prior to Friday's practice because she spent nearly the entire month of September with the USA senior women's team in Brazil for the World Championships. She appeared to be in mid-season form already and wowed the several dozen in attendance with a dunk during post drills. The dunk drew applause from the onlookers, as did an Auguste pass behind her head to Parker, who was cutting to the basket.
"I just see a lot of great things coming from this team on both ends of the court," Hornbuckle said.
Part of the reason for Hornbuckle's optimism is the way the team has come together off the court.
"We spent a lot of time together this summer," she said. "We had a lot of team nights one night a week just set aside to have fun outside of basketball, just go to somebody's house. Most of the time it's Sid and Dom (Redding). So we have fun, play games, sit around and talk, just be normal outside of basketball.
"What that does, though, is the chemistry it makes it click a lot faster. I think last year we waited too long to try to pull together. So this year we wanted to start off right from the summer on into the preseason and just keep it going throughout the season."
SHOOTING FORM: Hornbuckle has earned raves for her defense and rebounding and, most especially, for her toughness after she finished a game last season despite breaking her wrist and then gamely came back for the postseason. But the weakest part of Hornbuckle's game has been her outside shooting and, in an odd way, the broken right wrist became a godsend.
"I spent a lot of time in the gym," Hornbuckle said. "I had to, for one, coming back from my broken wrist. I had to make sure things felt right. I didn't want to step on the court with any frustrations so I put in a lot of extra work in the gym.
"A lot of people will play me off a lot – they really thought I was going to pass or try to drive – so this season I'm looking more for my jump shot to open up stuff. Now it's going to open up the post, now it's going to open up the drive game. It's going to allow me to drive and kick out because now they have to play me honestly. That's what coach has been griping on me the past two years. It took an injury to get it through my head I guess."
Hornbuckle has healed and no longer has to wear any type of brace while playing.
"My wrist is doing really well," she said. "As you see, no limitations, no brace; I am full go. As with any broken bone sometimes it's going to ache when it rains, when it's cold, but other than that I'm blessed to recover this quickly and this strong."
ODDS AND ENDS: Senior forward Sidney Spencer was permitted to miss practice Friday and Saturday because she is a member of the wedding party for former Lady Vol Shanna Zolman, who is getting married Saturday in Indiana. The two are best friends. Spencer will be back Sunday. … Freshman forward Nicci Moats was limited Friday but did participate in some post drills. "I think we have to be patient," Pat Summitt said. "I don't think it's something we fast-forward. We have to rely on what she feels and what she's telling us. She has to be the judge of that. If she's ready to get on the floor everyday, we want her out and involved in as much as she can be involved in. … Briana Bass, a 5'3 point guard from North Central High School in Indianapolis who has verbally committed to Tennessee, attended practice. … Saturday's practice session is set to begin at 2 p.m. at Thompson Boling Arena. The team also will practice Sunday afternoon.