Tennessee clearly summoned enough offense last season to win 34 games and claim a national title.
Candace Parker was a go-to player in the paint, and Sidney Spencer and Shannon Bobbitt provided the long-range missiles that opened up the inside. Alexis Hornbuckle and Nicky Anosike had some breakout performances – Hornbuckle's 29 points against LSU last March and Anosike's 14 against North Carolina in the Final Four come to mind – but scoring was not their strength. In fact Pat Summitt told Hornbuckle that Tennessee won a title last season in spite of her offense.
If a player or two had a bad game – for example, when Parker and Spencer were both 2-11 from the field against LSU in the SEC tourney – Tennessee found itself in trouble. The Lady Vols lost that game despite the career high tallied by Hornbuckle, who hit 4-5 from behind the arc.
So Hornbuckle got in the gym this summer to add an offensive element to her all-around game. Summitt doesn't expect Hornbuckle to be the go-to player from three-point range, but she does expect the senior guard to become a scorer. Anosike focused her off-season efforts on keeping the ball high and finishing shots under the basket. The early indications are that the extra work has been beneficial to both.
Parker has extended her game to well beyond the paint. She has a consistent outside shot that extends to 20 feet. At practice Friday she scored inside and outside both on fast breaks and in the half-court sets. She hit shots underneath the basket, in the lane and from the wings.
During one fast break, Hornbuckle fired a pass from mid-court that found Parker's out-reached hands just as she cut to the basket. She laid the ball in with one smooth motion. The play brought a smile to Summitt's face.
Shannon Bobbitt is running the offense like she's been there a year. Her shots from the deep corners look the same as last year – parabolas that swish through the net. She stole the ball at mid-court Friday and took off down court with the practice player in pursuit. She came to an abrupt stop, faked the shot, faked a pass and then flipped the ball behind her to a trailer for the basket. The flummoxed defender ended up out of bounds while Bobbitt's teammates cheered.
Alex Fuller got lots of reps in the paint and showed why the staff liked her so well in the sixth woman role: She got on the glass and scored inside.
Freshmen Angie Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone, who will be called on to replace the departed Spencer, can drain shots from long range. Bjorklund's offense and defense have earned her Sunday's sole opening in the starting lineup against the USA national team.
Freshmen Kelley Cain and Vicki Baugh are active around the basket and on the glass. Cain completed Friday's practice and is expected to be cleared to play Sunday. She suffered a concussion that had kept her out of practice for nearly two weeks.
"I'd like to get every healthy player some minutes (Sunday)," Summitt said. "I think that's important. Certainly if Kelley Cain is ready to go I want to see her against Lisa Leslie on the inside and get her some minutes there."
Senior wing player Alberta Auguste remains out of practice and will not play Sunday. She suffered a severe calf contusion two weeks ago, but is getting better and was able to do some courtside rehab exercises Friday.
It's early, and it's practice. No player this season has hit a shot in a game. But Tennessee did not have this many players last season who were consistently hitting shots in a practice session. The Lady Vols look to be a team much better equipped to weather an off game by one or two normally reliable scorers.
Parker got her first look at the arena with the new floor in place on Friday. She squinted a little, missed a few short jumpers and then found her stroke. Her frown turned to a smile.
"I haven't gone out there with the court down yet," Parker said minutes before practice started. "So it will be my first chance as we practice today. I'm really excited. I saw all the skyboxes and the black seats. It's an amazing facility. It really is."
The black seats and black ceiling force the focus downward to the floor. The center scoreboard is reminiscent of the one used in Cleveland at the Final Four and puts off quite a bit of light with the information and graphics.
"It seems like the lighting is a little stronger and that may be because of the black seats, but that's something we can get used to in a short period of time," Summitt said. "Coming in here it's like wow. As far as I'm concerned it's the greatest facility in the country."
The team appeared to get used to it in a hurry Friday. The session was split into half-court and full-court work – Summitt told the team to get ready for a "track meet" against the USA national team – that focused on getting back on defense and pushing tempo. The practice was upbeat and energetic, a vibe that could be attributed as much to the new building as to Sunday's opponent.
"I love it," Hornbuckle said. "I was a little worried about how the black seats were going to look to be honest. I love orange so I was kind of on coach's side about the orange seats."
Summitt had wanted to keep the orange seats, but she acquiesced to the architects' persuasive arguments that the seats and ceiling would direct the attention to the court. Once Summitt saw the arena for the first time she was convinced it was the right decision.
"It looks official," Hornbuckle said. "That's what we keep saying. It looks more professional. I feel like it's going to feel different playing in there because it doesn't even look like the TBA that you grew up watching all the other women play in and my previous three years here, but I'm anxious to play in the new setting."
The players have been practicing for three weeks and seem ready for a game, even an exhibition one that doesn't count in the record books. The fact the opposing team will have USA on its jersey makes it even more appealing.
"I think as we've been moving closer to playing a game I think it's certainly been an attention getter (in practice)," Summitt said. "At the same time I think this team understands that playing the USA team is going to be a really good test for us. With Candace having played with them and then knowing we have (Kara Lawson) coming in, how could you not be excited about it? And opening up in a brand new arena, as far as I'm concerned. That, too, is a great motivation."