"I ran a lot," Alex Fuller said. "I'm not really a sprinter. I like to run long distances mostly. I tried to run every day. I played pickup at least three or four times a week. And then I shot just as much as I played pickup. It wasn't on purpose. I didn't know I was losing weight because I don't weigh myself. I didn't have a goal to lose weight. It just kind of happened."
The coaching staff noticed when the team reassembled for individual workouts when school started.
"Alex, she is probably the most-improved player," coach Pat Summitt said. "She got her body in great shape. Her rebounding – she's just really going after the ball. She's a lot lighter, much more active. It's helped her game."
During a recent practice, Summitt singled out Fuller because of something she saw on the defensive end of the court. When Summitt notices a player's defense, it is rarely for a good reason, but in this case the coach used a break in play to point out how much Fuller was hustling.
During live action, Fuller said, she doesn't feel faster, but when she watches a tape later of practice she notices her positioning and footwork. She feels better-conditioned overall but noted that she is still seeking the level needed to sustain her at practice.
"Watching it on film that's where you see it," Fuller said. "I don't think I've made the transition from conditioning shape to practice shape yet."
Fuller has been aided by two other factors: her hip is completely healed, and she is playing more at her natural position of power forward instead of on the perimeter. She still takes practice repetitions at small forward – Tennessee is sorting through various combinations on the floor to exploit the players' versatility – but the coaching staff knows she is most valuable to the team in the paint.
"I'm still practicing at the three a little bit but that's where I'm most comfortable is the four," Fuller said. "It feels really good."
Fuller injured her hip last season in a Nov. 21, 2005, game against Tennessee-Chattanooga, and the nagging and painful injury limited her for months.
"At first I didn't know what was wrong," Fuller said. "I just knew that it was painful and it hindered me from moving the way I wanted to."
Now, Fuller said, she doesn't "have to worry about hurting or turning the wrong way or taking the wrong step … I don't have to worry about that anymore."
With the graduation of center Tye'sha Fluker, Tennessee already was going to have more minutes available in the post this season. Then, center Sybil Dosty, who was part of Fuller's signing class, decided last April to transfer to Arizona State and suddenly the post minutes were wide open.
"It means I've got to step up, put up points in the post, get boards – just be an aggressive big body for the post and for the team," Fuller said. "It's an opportunity for me to move up my role higher on the platform, a leadership role."
The first exhibition game is in just under two weeks – a Nov. 1 matchup with Carson-Newman. Summitt and her staff won't even think about a starting lineup at this point – and the one consistent is that it will likely change several times over the course of the season. Last season all-purpose player Candace Parker was the only one to start every game.
"Honestly, it's going to be hard to keep Candace out of the starting lineup, but our starters right now we have no idea," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "We have some idea of some people who are probably in pretty good shape, but I look at Alex Fuller and whether she starts or not, we think of her as a starter-type person with this team. She is going to get those type of minutes.
"Alex Fuller probably worked as hard as anybody on her overall conditioning. She came in in tremendous shape. She gets an A plus for that. She's very intelligent, a very smart player. She's got a toughness to her, a quiet toughness, a very gritty determined toughness. She's got excellent footwork in the post, excellent shooter. I think last year – and I told her this in the spring meeting we didn't help Alex, but it was out of necessity she had to do it for the team – she's not a natural three, and we had to play her at three a lot because of our numbers."
With the addition of junior college transfer Alberta Auguste, who can play the wing positions, Fuller can spend more time in the paint. So far in practice Fuller has shown soft hands and an ability to finish under the basket. She is around the ball and often in position for a weak-side offensive rebound. The post players also have been aided by the presence of point guards Shannon Bobbitt, another juco, and Cait McMahan, a freshman. Both players instinctively look to feed the post players. Bobbitt and Auguste, whose nickname is Bird, were well coached prior to their arrival at Tennessee – they are both fundamentally sound and are excellent passers with a knack for finding the open player.
"Shannon can bring quickness. She's a good shooter. Quickness, defense," Fuller said. Cait, she's hardnosed, aggressive, and Cait is very vocal. (Auguste is) real aggressive on offense going to the glass. On defense she's fast long, can get a lot of deflections.
"I'm really excited to play with those three and then Nicci. Anytime you get newcomers you're always anxious to play with them."
Speaking of freshman Nicci Moats, she practiced Wednesday afternoon for the first time since a brief stint on the first day of practice last Friday. Moats, a 6'2 forward who appears to be at least every inch of that, had missed the last three practices because of illness. Moats missed the majority of her senior season in high school after tearing an ACL in her knee so her return to the court was significant for Tennessee. Moats missed the individual workouts in the preseason and instead was put on a rehab regimen so that she could gain strength in her leg muscles.
"It was good to see her get out here," Summitt said. "Not bad considering how long she's been off the court. She's going to obviously have to have a lot of repetitions with plays and defensive schemes and then get in better shape. She's not in the condition of everyone else, but she can do some extra conditioning."
Summitt is still waiting for a full complement of 10 scholarship players at practice. Moats returned, but McMahan was sidelined and instead did a rehab routine. McMahan also missed her senior season because of knee injury and then she sustained a bone bruise to the same knee in mid-September. The plan put in place by Jenny Moshak, the associate athletics director for sports medicine, was to ease her back and schedule some off-court days when needed.
"Jenny said she'll let her go some days and she might have to pull her," Summitt said. "I'm just listening to Jenny."
Later Wednesday night, Moshak said that McMahan has been experiencing some swelling in her right knee, and a decision was made for her to have the knee scoped on Friday.
"Dr. Greg Mathien, UT team orthopedist, will perform arthroscopic surgery on Cait's right knee," Moshak said. " … It is the same knee that was surgically repaired for a torn anterior cruciate ligament she suffered last year."
The procedure will allow UT's medical personnel to peek directly into McMahan's knee and determine its condition. Speaking in general, swelling in a knee is indicative of inflammation. The reasons range from an injury to repetitive movements that have aggravated the knee. The solutions range from surgery to scaled-back activity to rest and rehab.
The other Lady Vols – nine scholarship players plus walk-on Elizabeth Curry – held their first practice of the season following a day off Tuesday. In years past those practices tended to be sluggish. Tennessee wasn't quite as crisp throughout – Wednesday's session was the longest of the young season and included a lot of full court work – but the drop-off wasn't too glaring.
"I think we had a little bit today, but not like last year," Summitt said. "They're pretty committed to coming in here and getting the job done."
Another positive has been the display of leadership by Parker. Last year, when she was redshirt freshman, Parker deferred to the seniors, but she is taking a primary role this season. She was very vocal in a team-called huddle after the defense broke down on consecutive possessions and when she felt a teammate wasn't giving enough effort, she made it a point to engage the player one-on-one and implore her to pick it up.
"She's a lot more assertive," Summitt said. "The best thing that can happen is they police themselves. That's the best thing that can happen to a team and be receptive to it."
The team will return to practice Thursday morning on short rest at 6 a.m. They also are scheduled to practice Friday afternoon and then at 8 a.m. Saturday. All sessions are at Thompson-Boling Arena. With the exhibition games edging closer – the Nov. 1 game and then a Nov. 5 matchup with the Houston Jaguars – practice repetitions, especially for the newcomers, becomes more important.
"With 10 players, let's face it: There are going to be nights when we're going to need every one of those 10 players, and there are going to be nights when we're going to need more from some than others," Lockwood said. "There may be nights when Nicci Moats has to play more than we anticipated, be it foul trouble or injuries. We need her to hold her own. We don't necessarily need her to lead us in scoring, we need her to hold her own. She's got to get up to speed and get solid real fast."
Lockwood said a roster of 10 plus Curry was a gamble – and the news of McMahan needing exploratory surgery underscores that – but the coaching staff had a numbers plan, specifically with regard to the high schools classes of 2007 and 2008. The coaches can't discuss specific players until they sign with Tennessee, but they can outline a recruiting philosophy.
"It's called rolling the dice," Lockwood said. "If the wrong person gets hurt, we could have major problems. It's by design and plan. With the '07 and '08 recruiting classes being as good as they are, the worse thing I think you can do is recruiting is to settle, to take somebody just because we need this and I feel OK about her. I think everybody you recruit – even if they're role players – you should feel wonderful about having them in your program. We looked at it, and we didn't want to feel like we were settling.
"We wanted to plan knowing specifically who we have in mind in '07 and '08. We wanted those players to be able to see opportunity here. If we get the players we like in those two classes, we can become very strong very quickly at different places and positions on the floor. It's by design; we can't say we got caught in this.
"But the thing that surprised us is a couple of the transfers, having Sybil leave and having Lindsey Moss leave. I think Sybil was maybe more of a surprise because she was in line to get tremendous playing time. I think Lindsey's situation was still a little doubtful about minutes, but Sybil had a tremendous opportunity to play minutes. That one surprised us. That being said we still planned to not have a high bulk of kids so the '07s and '08s could see opportunity and then also we didn't want to settle. We didn't want to take somebody just to say we got them. We want to feel great about everybody we bring in."
In an earlier interview this summer, Summitt was asked for her reaction to the end-of-the-season transfers of Moss and Dosty.
"Disappointed, just disappointed," Summitt said. "I thought Sybil was in line to see quality minutes. With Tye (gone), that's 20 minutes there that somebody's going to get. From that standpoint losing an inside player that we've worked with for two years and made great progress, I was really obviously disappointed. If Lindsey wasn't happy and Sybil wasn't happy I hope they find happiness at their next stop. I think Sybil's main reason was that she really hadn't been satisfied with her playing time, and she wanted to leave."
They followed the midseason transfer of Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood and left Tennessee scrambling after the loss of three young players.
"I think the whole landscape is different right now in women's basketball," Summitt said. "More kids are going to transfer; if they're not happy they're going to leave. And there's always varying circumstances – it's not just one thing – but typically it's playing time or lack of."
Of course, the transfers led to the arrivals of Auguste and Bobbitt, who are the first jucos at Tennessee in three decades.
"It's interesting," Summitt said Wednesday. "Our two junior college kids, if you looked at Shannon and Bird, you wouldn't come in here and have any idea that they hadn't been here for a long time. I am really pleased with how they have fit in. Cait, too. She learned all of our sets and defensive schemes. Those three have been really quick learners and of course Nicci just hasn't had the reps they've had. She's good to go. It's just a matter of getting her in better shape and her learning all of our offensive and defensive schemes."