Cait McMahan returns to practice

Freshman point guard Cait McMahan returned to practice Monday and the reverberations will be felt from player rotation to guard positions in ways that are positive for the Lady Vols. Once McMahan got permission to take the floor, a huge smile spread across her face as she joined her teammates. After practice the smile belonged to her coach.

"I'm excited," Pat Summitt said.

She has reason to be so. After a year in which one point guard transferred at midseason and the other broke her wrist before the postseason, the position is on solid footing as the preseason ends.

Junior college transfer Shannon Bobbitt has earned the starting job with her speed, quickness and ability to run the offense and press on defense. Junior Alexis Hornbuckle, who stepped in for the past two seasons to relieve injured or absent point players, has been handling the job again, along with Bobbitt, while Cait McMahan was out. But the freshman's return means the junior can play on the wing.

Bobbitt played 30 minutes in the second exhibition game and with Tennessee wanting to push tempo and press 94 feet this season, that amount of time could lead to diminished returns on the court.

"It's going to change our rotation a little bit, but I think that'll be a good thing," Summitt said. "It's going to give us a chance to not have to play Shannon as many minutes and rotate more the two of them and keep the pressure on, both from a transition standpoint offensively and defensively. Because they have a lot they have to cover."

Summitt meant space on the court, but she could just as well have been speaking of information.

Bobbitt's and McMahan's ability to absorb Summitt's system and translate that into on-court performance meant the coach was confident enough to trust one of the most important positions on the floor to two newcomers.

Summitt said last month that an observer at practice would never pick out McMahan as the freshman on the team because she had readily accepted the role of leader and – because she studied the playbook – she had learned the schemes.

Bobbitt has shown a willingness to learn that Summitt has repeatedly praised. She seeks guidance from the coaches and then applies what they tell her when she takes the court.

"She's been everything I expected and more," Summitt said. "She's so coachable. Not once does she question. She's like a sponge, and she just soaks it up. She trusts the system. There is so much to be said for that."

That sounds like a blessing for any coach.

"In this era of young kids? Yes. It's amazing how much they know when they get here," Summitt said with a wry look that conveyed that a know-it-all player is usually anything but.

Bobbitt and McMahan have used their time to listen and learn. The rapid development of the two guards means Hornbuckle can play on the wing in the two or three spot.

"I would like to leave Lex on the wing, and I don't know of any reason why not because I think Shannon and Cait can get the job done at the point, and that will allow us to do just that," Summitt said. "I think she does a great job of breaking down the defense, getting in the gaps, creating for herself, creating for her teammates, and I think if you look at what she had to think about on the court last year it was, ‘Gee, I've got to do this. I've got to do that for the team.'

"She was constantly trying to organize people and run things. It's like being the coach on the floor. That takes a lot out of you."

Hornbuckle is an electrifying player who is so much more effective when she is sprung to run the floor and hit the boards.

"She's so instinctive," Summitt said. "She's a very instinctive player."

McMahan's knee – she had arthroscopic surgery to debride her right knee after having ACL surgery last year – will dictate how much she can practice. She did some exercises with Jenny Moshak, assistant athletics director for sports medicine, and when she was cleared to take the floor Monday afternoon, she was smiling and got a shout-out welcome back from sophomore Candace Parker. Parker knows what it is like to come back from major knee surgery. She had to take a redshirt in her first year in college to rehab her left knee.

With the season opener this Sunday – Chattanooga comes to Knoxville for a 3 p.m. tipoff – Summitt will tailor practice accordingly this week. She watched the game tape after the 101-51 wipeout of the Houston Jaguars this past Sunday.

"I saw good and bad," she said after practice Monday. "I think it was good for us to have to guard dribble drive as much as we did. I thought we fouled entirely too much on help. I liked our aggressiveness. I think we're getting better on our closeouts. We're a more defensive-minded team than we were a year ago at this point in time. That's one reason we wanted to go ahead and put in our matchup today and just try to use our man-to-man principles within our matchup.

"Offensively I thought we just started quick-shooting some, particularly in the first half. I did not think our bench played well in the first half, played much better in the second half. You have to learn to come off the bench. If you're Alberta she hasn't been in that role, and so she's having to learn that. Most players that we recruit come here and have to learn that. We were a lot better coming out of the locker room second half as a team overall."

Alberta Auguste, also a junior college transfer, is another reason the Lady Vols intend to ratchet up the defensive pressure this season. In some cases Auguste needs to throttle down a little, but Summitt said it's a nice problem to have.

"She's trying too hard," Summitt said. "I'd much rather have that than trying to start somebody's engine. She's revved up everyday. That's because she's very serious about her game, and she wants to help this team."

The return of McMahan means Summitt's desire to increase the defensive intensity gets a boost. To do so she needs quick players and the ability to substitute without a drop-off in performance.

The first two exhibition games revealed this team can run, but the real test starts when the competition gets stiffer. It won't take long. November alone has UCLA, Arizona State, Stanford and Louisiana Tech on the schedule. Chattanooga and Middle Tennessee State University, the other opponents this month, both made the NCAA Tournament last season. December starts off with North Carolina.

For that reason Summitt's assessment of her team's ability to extend its defense is one of wait and see.

"Let's wait until we get challenged," she said. "What I saw the last two exhibitions game I don't know how much I can bank on that. All I had to do was go home last night and look at the schedule. I don't know what I was thinking."

But coach you say that every season.

"I knew you were going to say that," Summitt said. "I say that every year."

But she was still smiling. With the point guards on the floor that Summitt has now, she has reason to.

Inside Tennessee Top Stories