Summitt encouraged early by practice habits

After four days of practice, coach Pat Summitt will give the team a well-deserved day off Tuesday. It wasn't deserved because of the number of consecutive sessions – four days isn't a lot before the season even starts – but because of the performance of the players overall over those four days.

The roster remains shortened – freshman forward Nicci Moats has missed practice because of illness – but Pat Summitt has two reasons to be pleased: She is not having to ask for effort and the players are communicating on the floor. In fact, the sessions are remarkably crisp in execution considering it's still October.

There are four newcomers for the 2006-07 season – Moats, fellow freshman Cait McMahan and junior college transfers Alberta Auguste and Shannon Bobbitt.

"I think they've got really good chemistry, and that helps," Summitt said after practice ended Monday. "They're all on the same page in terms of communicating and responding to each other. As far as what we've been able to get in, it's been a significant amount in a relatively short period of time."

The newcomers are not slowing down the teaching process, an offshoot, Summitt said, of junior guard Alexis Hornbuckle taking Auguste, whose nickname is Bird, and Bobbitt under her wing over the summer. McMahan also arrived early – she attended both summer sessions – and got acclimated to her teammates.

"I think they're just receptive to each other," Summitt said. "I think the upperclassmen obviously are doing a lot of talking. I think Shannon and Cait have both been vocal and Bird, she obviously is starting to speak up. I think Lex has really helped Shannon and Bird. She spent a lot of time with them throughout the summer. Throughout the conditioning, they all encouraged them and Cait."

The players also started a "team night" over the summer to facilitate getting to know each other and coming together. It was hoped that would carry over to the court and early indications are that it worked. The destination of choice is usually the off-campus residence of seniors Sidney Spencer and Dominique Redding.

"We always get together once a week and have team night," McMahan said. "We go over to Dom and Sid's and they cook for us. We all bond that way. Dom can cook it up. Sid always does the dessert."

Summitt was pleased to hear of the team-led get-together, and she agreed that the process started too late last season. That team also had to endure the midseason transfer of one player, a situation that was emotional and forced players into different positions.

"I'm not sure last year they really thought that they had to do that," Summitt said. "They thought they might could win on talent alone. Absolutely doesn't" happen that way.

Tennessee still has considerable talent and one of the best players in the world in sophomore Candace Parker. But there are also several questions that have to be answered, specifically who can hold down the point guard position so Hornbuckle can play on the wing and how quickly the jucos will adjust to the higher level of competition and fit into a new team.

Bobbitt and Auguste are earning raves from the coaching staff because of their eagerness to be coached and their willingness to listen. They also are absorbing what they are told and executing where it counts – during practice repetitions.

"I think sometimes they (jucos) get a bad rap," Summitt said. "And these two players they're players, and they want to learn, and they knew from the very beginning that they could help this team. We told them, ‘We've got to teach you, you've got to listen, you've got to learn.' Because we need the two of them to help us to be the kind of team that we need to be to be in the hunt."

Tennessee is starting the season lower in the polls than in previous years. The players also know they are fewer in numbers and smaller in size so everyone needs to be ready to contribute.

The Lady Vols also have to avoid the rash of injuries that have plagued them in recent years – Hornbuckle went down in practice Monday when she turned her right ankle, but she turned out to be OK, if not a little sore. Monday was Hornbuckle's 21st birthday, but when she said she was OK to Summitt, who sang Happy Birthday to Hornbuckle before practice started, it was a gift to the team. Injuries are out of a team's control, but Tennessee can hope that its luck is finally turning in that regard.

"When you look at the precarious nature and how quickly things can change because of injuries and when you look at the field now – I come from that in the men's side – everybody has made the commitment, the power conferences, very few schools aren't loaded for bear now in terms of women's basketball in terms of funding, in terms of facilities, in terms of the commitment that they've made and the players that are out there today," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said.

"I'm not surprised, but at the same time you sit there and say, ‘We're so close.' That's one of the exciting things of being at Tennessee. Every year you're in that circle of people who can play for a national championship. But you've got to have things fall right, and you've got to take care of your house to get it going. As we move into this next phase (official practice) that's what is so important – just keep building, getting better and better and building that momentum so you're moving in this direction. It is a very hard thing today because of the balance that is out there. It is a very challenging thing."

At least one of the Tennessee newcomers is thrilled that the Lady Vols are in the top 10 but are not the preseason favorites to win it all.

"I love it. I love being the underdog," McMahan said. "I love beating the best. I think we'll surprise a lot of people. Polls are polls. You can put us at 25. It doesn't matter. I like it like that. It's what happens during the season and then come March. That's when polls matter – after the season."

Tennessee has gotten its other senior back on the practice court – Spencer returned Sunday afternoon after being given two days off because she was in the wedding party for former Lady Vol Shanna Zolman in Indiana – and she picked up where she left off last season: drilling threes from the perimeter, picking up weak-side offensive rebounds for putbacks and displaying her versatility by lining up at the three, four or five spots on the floor.

"She brings a different dimension," Summitt said. "With her size at the three she can shoot over people. She spent a lot of time in the gym in the off-season."

Spencer heads the list of players on this team who are self-motivated. Others, such as Hornbuckle and Nicky Anosike, also don't need any encouragement to give effort.

"You have to look at the returning players," Summitt said. "Look at Nicky and Alexis. You take those two for example. They're on the downhill side of their career."

By downhill Summitt meant they had two years left in college, not that their skills had diminished. Hornbuckle spent the off-season shooting from the perimeter, and Anosike worked on her offensive game in the paint. The two of them succeeding from those different vantage points is key to Tennessee's chances at championships this season.

The players also are motivated by losing in the regional final last year in Cleveland, Ohio, and falling short of the Final Four, Summitt said. So she is not surprised to see the team leaders step up to rectify early what hurt the team a year ago so that later this season they have a legitimate shot to get back to Cleveland, the site of the 2007 Women's Final Four.

"Last year we weren't all on the same page all the time," Summitt said. "They all appear to be on the same page. It's early, but that's positive."

Lockwood said any perception that Tennessee wasn't a contender this year would benefit the team, especially given the competitive nature of the players.

"I'd love nothing better for people to count us out," Lockwood said. "I love to be told you can't do something. As passionate as I am that will ignite something even more for me. I'd love to hear and read that Tennessee is not the team under consideration to be in Cleveland. It gives us more fuel in the tank to motivate and drive us. Honestly, we need to reestablish some credibility on the college basketball block. We do need to establish that we belong in that group every year."

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