The exhibition season does start next weekend on Sunday, Nov. 4, when the USA national team comes to Thompson-Boling Arena for a 3 p.m. tipoff.
"I think they understand we play a week from Sunday and that's going to be a real challenging game," Coach Pat Summitt said. "We'll learn more about ourselves at that point in time."
A sense of urgency has settled over the staff – "I feel it from the coaches," Summitt said – and part of that means mulling over a starting lineup. Four starters return from last season and those are expected to be reinserted with Shannon Bobbitt at the point, Alexis Hornbuckle on the wing and Candace Parker and Nicky Anosike inside.
That leaves the small forward position to be filled, and Angie Bjorklund has been making a case to start by her practice performance. Summitt said the spot is by no means locked in yet, and one of its candidates, senior wing player Alberta Auguste, has been out of practice all week with a severe contusion sustained when she took an inadvertent foot to the right calf.
But Bjorklund, a 6'0 guard from Spokane Valley, Washington, hasn't drawn starting consideration by default and has "absolutely" done so by earning it, said Summitt, who added, "She's gotten everyone's attention."
The temporary loss of Auguste has given Bjorklund more practice reps, "and she's made the most of them," Summitt said.
"She's a player," Summitt said. "Bottom line. She's a player."
Another candidate for small forward in the starting five is junior Alex Fuller, but she's also better suited at the power forward position.
"She's been consistent, steady," Summitt said. "I like her better at the four than the three. That's a better defensive matchup for her. Of course we could always flip-flop that even if she played on the perimeter. She'll probably play both."
Fuller could play the four on defense and the three on offense in some lineup combinations. With freshman center Kelley Cain still out because of the aftereffects of a concussion she suffered a week ago, Fuller also is getting additional reps inside.
As far as starting positions, Summitt would keep Parker in the paint, at least for now.
"Candace and Nicky from the four and five spots if I had to decide today," Summitt said.
Freshman forward Vicki Baugh also will push for considerable playing time because of her ability to get on the boards, her touch around the basket and her interior defense.
Summitt could tinker with her starters depending on matchups and how she wants to set the player rotation.
"A lot of it is how you want to rotate," Summitt said. "There might be times when we want Lex on the floor and Alberta on the floor with her. That's two great defenders on the wing."
Bobbitt is the No. 1 point guard and will be backed up by Hornbuckle for now, because Summitt wants to see what freshman Sydney Smallbone can do on the wing.
"The thing I want to do now because she (Smallbone) shoots the ball well is work Lex there more, because Lex is experienced," Summitt said. "(Smallbone) had so much to think about. She needs to just go and play and give her a little more freedom. Not that she couldn't go there occasionally. When you learning so much sometimes that stifles your game. I want to give her a little bit more freedom at the wing spot."
It seems clear Summitt wants to get the freshmen in the mix and will rely on them for meaningful minutes this season.
"I want to get them experienced because come postseason they could really give us some quality depth," Summitt said. "And, of course, in postseason it's not like you're playing back-to-back games. You will be in the SEC Tournament hopefully if we stay around longer than we did last year, but, to me, it's important for us to get them a lot of reps."
The question remains as to when Cain and Auguste can return to practice. Cain worked out earlier Friday but was unable to practice.
"She worked out today with Heather (Mason) and Jenny and just didn't feel 100 percent," Summitt said. "I'm disappointed this happened and forced her into a situation where she's not able to practice because I thought she really was doing a great job. The good thing is she's smart. She's got a good feel for the game. She seems to be a quick learner. It's going to put her behind more physically because we're not teaching a lot of new things right now."
Auguste's injury is one that requires some time to heal because of the internal bleeding that occurs with a severe contusion.
"With Alberta, she was here a year ago so I am not as concerned about her (missing practice time)," Summitt said.
The players are officially listed as day to day and could return this weekend or later. It all depends on how they heal and how quickly.
"It is day to day," Summitt said. "With Candace I expected her to be out longer than she had to be out. Hopefully Alberta and Kelley will both come around sooner rather than later, but we don't know that."
Parker injured her right shoulder Tuesday while bringing her arm back to make a long pass. She was limited in practice Wednesday evening to non-contact work and then the team took off Thursday.
By Friday afternoon, Parker looked as if she had never been hurt. She played in the post and scored on underneath moves. She rebounded with tenacity. She played on the perimeter and drained a three-pointer. She crossed the line first during the wind sprints. And she dunked while Summitt stood nearby talking to Jenny Moshak, the Lady Vols assistant athletics director for sports medicine.
"We were doing shooting and they finished up with throwing the ball ahead and laying it up, and she dunked it," Summitt said. "I was talking with Jenny and Jenny goes, ‘Well, I guess her shoulder is OK.' "
Parker walked over to the pair with a sheepish look on her face.
"She came over and said, ‘I forgot.' We all started laughing," Summitt said. "She forgot about it. That's her personality when she starts playing."
It was that kind of session for the Lady Vols. They executed on both offense and defense and left their coach smiling afterwards.
"We had a review of our defense and placed a lot of emphasis on understanding this system, which I think helped our new players," Summitt said. "We tried to basically go back and teach and re-teach and talk about our points of emphasis on our defense and then go up and down with it."
Summitt got the defensive effort Friday that she wanted from Bobbitt, too.
"She hasn't played the kind of defense that I would expect her to come back and be ready to play," Summitt said. "I've addressed it with her. Today was her best defensive day."
With the ball in her hand, Bobbitt has done well. She is shooting consistently from outside, getting to the paint and running the offenses.
"She looks good," Summitt said. "She looks really good offensively."
Bjorklund also has looked very good on offense, but that was expected from a guard who averaged 25.8 points per game in her senior year at University High School. She shot 61 percent from the field, 55 percent from behind the arc and 85 percent from the free throw line. But it's her defense that has caught Summitt's eye in practice.
Did Summitt expect this early performance?
"Offensively? Yes," Summitt said. "But she's solid defensively, too. I don't think going into it I had the expectations of her defensive play being where it is. Because typically freshmen have so much to learn. She's just got really good awareness and her defensive play is pretty advanced for a freshmen. I think between her high school experiences and having a personal trainer and having a chance to play this summer and playing for Doug Bruno, I think that helped. I think that probably helped Vicki and Angie."
Bjorklund and Baugh played for Bruno as members of the 2007 USA U19 World Championship Team in Slovakia.
Summitt expects freshmen to need some time to get up to speed on defense. The preseason individual workouts emphasize offense. The defensive system is installed with the team as a whole once practice starts.
"We spent all of our time on our offense until we started full practice and then we did a little of both offense, defense," Summitt said. "But now we're really taking note of what we need to do defensively, and we've been teaching."
For example, Summitt will ask the freshmen specific questions about defensive strategy during their high school days.
"You can ask them, ‘How did you defend ball screens?' " Summitt said.
The answers don't usually produce much information.
"It's pretty vague," Summitt said. "And we're real specific (at Tennessee). It's like I told them, ‘We're teaching you a system, and you will know what to do in every situation.'
"On ball screens, we vary. We may trap for four minutes, we may show numbers and the next four minutes we're going to Velcro and then the next four minutes we're going to switch. So you learn two things and when we get those two in you're going to learn the other two."
The result is a steady progression until the freshmen can execute the concepts in concert with the veterans.
"This is like a classroom, and they need to make As," Summitt said.