Candace Parker joins team for practice

Candace Parker was supposed to wait a few more days before taking the practice court, but she apparently couldn't take being sidelined any longer.

On Saturday morning, the junior All-American who was on mandated rest after helping the U.S. Senior National Team qualify for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing in September, walked onto the practice court at Pratt Pavilion to the surprise of Pat Summitt. The head coach immediately turned to Jenny Moshak, the head of sports medicine for the Lady Vols.

"I turned around and she was going up and down the floor," Summitt said in an interview after practice. "I said, ‘Jenny!' She said, ‘Coach, I'm ready.' "

Candace Parker correctly pointed out that it had been two weeks since she last played basketball, even if it took a little longer to actually get back to Tennessee from Chile.

"She said, ‘It's been two weeks, Coach, since I played.' She just got out on the floor," Summitt said with a big smile. "I said, ‘Wait a minute. What are we doing here?' And it has been two weeks, but we'll watch her. I told her we obviously need to communicate on this (to monitor her return)."

Parker watched the team Friday evening as the coaches implemented some new defensive schemes and offensive wrinkles. She didn't want to get behind so she made the decision to get on the floor.

"Obviously she's in great shape," Summitt said. "Even the time off didn't affect her overall conditioning."

The individual workouts of September had an emphasis on offense. Saturday's session was used to introduce defensive principles to the new season.

"Today was a lot of defense, and we worked on our ball-screening action, our help. We put it all together," Summitt said.

Defense is typically the toughest part of the learning process for the freshmen because they never had to guard anyone at this level before. Overall, they did OK, especially for the first day, according to the coach.

"Some of them understand but typically that's a place where you need a lot of reps," Summitt said. "Plus, we put in a lot of different offensive wrinkles for them. Today was kind of overload for them. Today when we started four-minute segments, some of them gave in to fatigue. Overall pleased with where they are, but they've had so much to think about and then they haven't had to play the tempo that they're going to have to play.

"We'll up their minutes. Typically we play in four-minute segments. We'll probably need to dial it up to six and seven, maybe eight minutes and then four minutes will seem like a breeze."

Summitt acknowledged that she is "absolutely" loading up the team with concepts and information. That is partly because this team is steeped in veterans and partly because the freshmen have to get ready to contribute.

"With a veteran team I don't want to hold them back," Summitt said. "I think they've done a great job of trying to help our new players. Lex has been an incredible leader. If you just had to pick out one person that has taken our four young players under their wing, it's been Alexis.

"She's a great leader, and she's a giver. She also wants to win, and I think she understands that this is the way to get these players to learn and to help them be more comfortable and contribute at an earlier time than perhaps if they were a little shell-shocked, and no one was there. I'm really pleased with her leadership."

When Alexis Hornbuckle was a freshman, then-senior Loree Moore took responsibility for the young guards and called them "my girls." Last season, Hornbuckle took Shannon Bobbitt and Alberta Auguste under her wing – she is called the "mother hen" of the team – to make them feel welcome. The freshmen are now the beneficiaries of Hornbuckle's recognition of the basketball version of the pay it forward philosophy.

"Lex calls us her kids," freshman Angie Bjorklund said. " ‘What's up kids? You need help today?' "

So far the freshmen have both accepted the help from the upperclassmen and handled it all on the court.

"They don't appear to be overloaded at all," Summitt said. "I think that goes back to if you look at the programs they came from. They've all been in successful high school environments, they've had good coaching, they've played a lot of AAU basketball, and they're all four pretty much gym rats."

Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone stayed after Friday's two-and-a-half hour practice and shot in Pratt Pavilion for about 45 minutes before calling it a night. Saturday's session started at 11 a.m. and also ran for 2.5 hours.

"There's a reason they stay in the gym," Summitt said. "They've done that their entire careers."

Last May, Summitt was asked what the team needed to do to be in position to repeat as national champs. She noted that a team could get complacent after success and settle for what has already been accomplished. Given the reports of summer conditioning and the team's initial attitude and focus in the preseason, Summitt hasn't seen any signs of it.

"I think the energy and focus have been very strong for the most part," Summitt said. "I don't have any reason now (to worry), but it's early. The first week everyone is excited. That second week, we'll wait and see."

Summitt knows that freshmen will have up and down days in practice and sustaining the level of competition and performance that she demands is challenging. But she also truly likes the latest crop of talent, both for the ability and the attitude.

Summitt, who is 55 and starting her 34th season with Tennessee, also isn't showing any signs of slowing down. She mentioned in interviews this summer that she would coach at least five more years and then reevaluate her status.

"In recruiting I think it's important that I have somewhat of a plan because apparently there are people out there suggesting that I am getting ready to retire," Summitt said Saturday. "Nobody knows what I am going to do because I don't know. How could they know?

"I feel great. Obviously I love what I do. My energy level is exactly where I would hope it would be. I really like this group. We have the student-athletes that really are invested in not only the academics – obviously that's first and foremost – but in this program. I've got a staff that has done an incredible job in recruiting. That's what makes this a lot easier for me to stick around is having people like Holly and Nikki and Dean work so hard. It's amazing."

Inside Tennessee Top Stories