"Each coach has their own niches that they want to work out with you; they have their own techniques," freshman Sydney Smallbone said. "So it's good to get in before actual practice starts and know what they want you to do as a guard. It's a good opportunity to learn from the other guards and see the things they do. It's overall a good opportunity."
Official practice began last Friday, and the most-welcome sign for Pat Summitt was that the four freshmen, Smallbone, fellow guard Angie Bjorklund, forward Vicki Baugh and center Kelley Cain were ready for the tempo and instruction.
"We did a lot of teaching," Summitt said. "That's what you do in the first four days. You're trying to get the freshmen to know what to expect and you're doing a lot of teaching and repetitive offensive and defensive things. For the most part, very pleased. Now did we get up and down as much as we're going to get up and down? No, but we've got time to do that."
Bjorklund said the early workouts were key in helping prepare the freshmen for the official practices.
"They just break down the game for you," Bjorklund said. "It's great to have that before the team practices because they'll take the guards aside and teach you little parts of their plays, and they really break it down, which helps before you get to the practices."
Summitt and the coaches took it one step further when practice started and brought the freshmen in 30 minutes earlier than the upperclassmen for some extra teaching.
"They're looking like we expected them to look," Summitt said. "I think they are getting better with each practice, more comfortable, getting more reps and for the most part they've been able to pick up things. We brought them in early for the first three practices, which I thought was beneficial. I think they're starting to settle down. Their awareness of offense and defense is getting better."
By the fourth practice, the freshmen were starting at the same time as the veterans. In fact, on Monday, Summitt dismissed the team about 25 minutes earlier than expected, "which is unusual," she said. That means the staff is getting through the practice itinerary "at a much quicker pace," she added.
Summitt attributed that to not only the preparedness of the freshmen, but to the male practice players.
"We've got a good practice squad," Summitt said. "The practice guys have been there and that helps."
Summitt has broken down segments into four minutes – roughly mirroring what happens in a game with media timeouts – and the freshmen are expected to keep pace at what is intended to simulate game speed.
"We've been doing a lot of four-minute segments, so they're having to stay on the floor for four minutes," Summitt said. "Vicki Baugh thought she was going to pass out the first day we did it, but (Monday) she was going hard at the end of four. I told her, ‘You can play four-minute segments, and if you can't we'll move it up to eight and eventually you'll get to four.' "
The implication, delivered with a smile, was clear: Go hard for four or face an even tougher time test. The fact that Baugh adjusted after two practices is indicative of what Summitt has said since the workouts started: The freshmen are not hindering the overall development of the team.
"I think we're able to progress and not hold the upperclassmen back," Summitt said.
Summitt has followed through with her summer comments that she wanted to play Candace Parker more on the wing this season. Last year, Parker was needed inside to give Tennessee a low post presence that could score. Now, Cain and Baugh are on board to help Nicky Anosike in the paint. Alex Fuller also can play inside-outside for Tennessee.
"I've been playing her at the three," Summitt said of Parker. "She looks good at the three. She can play multiple positions. Obviously if we need paint points we know from a year ago she's tough to defend in the paint. I like the versatility."
If the freshmen keep flattening out the learning curve so quickly, Summitt will have assorted lineup combinations at her disposal. She could use three guards with Shannon Bobbitt, Alexis Hornbuckle and Alberta Auguste or go big with Hornbuckle at the point and Parker on the wing.
"We'll look at a lot of different lineups," Summitt said. "We can go small on the perimeter, or we can go big on the perimeter. We haven't done enough with our full-court pressure yet to know what our best combinations are there. If you wanted to go athletic, you could go Lex, Shannon and Bird and that's a quick perimeter game, or you could go Lex, Bird and Candace on the perimeter and two bigs inside. A lot of options."
The inside development of Baugh and Cain is one key to opening up that versatility for Summitt. Baugh also can play on the wing in the open court.
"Our team is really tall," Baugh said. "We're really versatile. We can all run to the ball. I don't really see it as straight positions, except for Shannon. That's the only one I see that has a downright pat position."
That was said with a big smile after an early season workout in which Baugh glanced onto the floor and saw the diminutive point guard shooting jumpers.
Bobbitt can push tempo, and Tennessee will look to run again this season. And if Bobbitt doesn't have the ball in her hands, the four other players have the green light to get the ball down the floor. That up-tempo style was appealing to Baugh.
"I love it," Baugh said. "That was another reason why I was willing to go across the country (to attend school). They run the ball, and they're willing to let big people push the ball. Basically, they let you play to your strengths, and that's what I like about it."
Bobbitt's backups at the point position are Smallbone and Hornbuckle. Smallbone has handled the responsibility so far, but the next step is to remember to look for her shot within the offense. Bobbitt's ability to hit from behind the arc was key last season and especially in the postseason against Rutgers in the title game.
"I think she's learned the offenses, but I think it has taken away from her outside game," Summitt said of Smallbone's development. "I think she's thinking so much. I told her (Sunday) after practice, ‘I can just tell you're out there running the plays and the last thing you're thinking about is your shot. You're a shooter and a scorer.' So (Tuesday) I put her at the off guard. She shot the ball the best she's shot since she's been here."
Hornbuckle also gets repetitions at point to keep her current on that position.
"I'm just looking at making sure we've got enough people in case we had an injury at that spot," Summitt said. "Every other spot I feel good about our depth."
Last year's backup point guard, Cait McMahan, had off-season knee surgery last June and is likely out for the season. Her practice regimen is courtside rehab.
Bjorklund also could play the point position, but Summitt indicated she would prefer to leave the pure shooter off the ball.
"She could, but she's just so strong offensively," Summitt said. "She could go there because she has a lot of court awareness. I just remind her what her strengths are over and over: She can put that ball in the hole.
"She's a smaller version of a Larry Bird type. She's got a good little step-back move. She can play off the dribble. She can shoot the three-ball. She doesn't force things. What I like about her is she lets the game come to her. She's aggressive but when you watch her sometimes, you don't think she is aggressive. But she is. She looks for every opportunity to score, but she's also a very good passer. As a player, she's got the all-around offensive game and feel for the game."
The Lady Vols will practice Wednesday afternoon in Pratt Pavilion with a Thursday session scheduled for 2:45 p.m. at Stokely Athletics Center. Thursday's session will be open to the media and the public.