Lady Vols ink six from class of 2008

The last of the LOIs arrived Saturday when the smallest of the signees faxed her paperwork to Tennessee to complete a big class of 2008 for the Lady Vols. Pat Summitt isn't worried about signing such a crowded class for one reason: Every single one is her favorite kind of player.

The second Six Pack – the Lady Vols also signed six from the class of 2004 – made it official Saturday when Briana Bass sent in her paperwork. The other five had faxed their signatures on Wednesday, the first day of the weeklong early signing period, but Bass' high school coach was on vacation, and she waited for him to return so that he could be present for the big day.

The six signees are: Briana Bass, 5'2 point guard, North Central High School, Indianapolis; Alyssia Brewer 6'3 forward, Sapulpa, Okla., Sapulpa High School; Amber Gray, 6'1 forward, Lakota West, West Chester, Ohio; Glory Johnson, 6'3 forward, Knoxville Tenn., Webb School of Knoxville; Alicia Manning 6'0 guard/forward, Etowah High School, Woodstock, Ga.; and Shekinna Stricklen 6'2 forward, Morrilton Ark., Morrilton High School.

The class is being rated as the top one in the country, and it isn't hard to see why. The players are superbly athletic with either speed or size or both. Johnson could have attended college on a track scholarship with her sprinter's speed. The hometown star opted to stay home and will be the first Lady Vol basketball player to hail from Knoxville since Tanika Smith (1993-95). Stricklen has considerable shooting range. Bass is another speedster. Brewer is a lefty with touch. Gray is a physical player. Manning has a versatile skill set.

"We targeted this class as far as trying to get the people that we really wanted here," Coach Pat Summitt said. "Like Alicia Manning. She's been in our camp. We watched her. We definitely knew that we wanted to offer her. We'd been up to watch Amber. We told her early on we'd love to have her at Tennessee. She'd been down to watch us play.

"She called me Easter Sunday – I'm driving back from my mom's – and I looked down and saw it was her and said, ‘Hello,' and I thought she was going to say Happy Easter and she said, ‘Coach, do I still have a scholarship offer?' I said, ‘Absolutely. You do as far as I'm concerned, but I always ask my staff. Let me just call them and run it by them.' I called her back, and she said she definitely wanted to come here and I said, ‘When did you make this decision?' And she said, ‘When I went to Cleveland and I sat in the end zone at your end and just watched everything, and I just knew that's what I wanted.' "

Gray had been in attendance at the Final Four and was still thinking over her college choice. The two wins obviously left an impression on her, but the influence is going both ways. Summitt said she already sees "Mother Hen" qualities in Gray.

"I guarantee you she's been on the phone talking to everybody," Summitt said. "I see Amber and Alicia kind of stepping up already."

Summitt has identified some natural leaders in this Six Pack. She couldn't say the same thing about the last group of six as they tried to integrate with a team that had eight returnees. That resulted in a crowded roster of 14. It didn't help that three of them came in with serious knee injuries. Two ultimately transferred. Summitt later said a roster of 12 was ideal.

This group of six will likely join only two upperclassmen in Cait McMahan and Alex Fuller because Candace Parker will likely enter the WNBA draft next spring. Tennessee will graduate four seniors. So the six signees will join four sophomores – this season's freshmen – a fifth-year senior and a redshirt sophomore in her third year at Tennessee. That would be a roster of 12, and the freshmen will have playing time for the plucking.

"They know what we lose," Summitt said. "They know we need them to come in and help us out right away."

The 2008-09 edition of the Lady Vols will be incredibly young. Tennessee signed two junior college players after two members of the first Six Pack transferred following the 2005-06 season. That worked out well with both Shannon Bobbitt, the starting point guard, and Alberta Auguste playing key roles in Tennessee's national title season of 2006-07.

Is Summitt considering adding an upperclassman via the juco ranks to the class?

"At this point it's not in the plans if we get everybody healthy," Summitt said. "I'll just have to make sure I'm working on my patience."

Summitt will need a lot of patience with six freshmen and four sophomores. Even with a veteran group this season, with four freshmen on the roster, the coaches have to explain drills more and stop more frequently to make corrections at practice.

The surprise among the six signees, at least to outsiders, was Brewer because recruiting sites didn't even list Tennessee among her teams. But Brewer, who Summitt called by her nickname of "Lyssi," came to Knoxville with her team over Christmas break, and the Lady Vols were definitely on her radar.

"We had talked and she told me it was between us, Oklahoma and Southern Cal," Summitt said. "I went down and watched her play at the Nike Nationals, and she called me after she got off the road (last summer) and told me she wanted to come here and wanted to know if I had a scholarship for her.

"She had been here with her high school team. She came for practice and watched a game. I think they had thought about Tennessee. Lyssi's high school coach, Darlean (Calip), had worked our camp for years. I think she was familiar with us through Darlean, and Darlean brought her team up to watch a practice and watch a game. The thing about Lyssi, she indicated to me that she thought it would good to get away from home. I told her it's a matter of what kind of program you wanted and where you wanted to live."

Summitt outlined her impressions of each player with the following observations:

Briana Bass: "Bri reminds me an awful lot of Shannon Bobbitt, not just in size but style of play. Shoots the three ball. Pushes tempo. Gets after it defensively. They are so much alike. It's really amazing.

"When I saw her play in Clarksville, she and Sydney Smallbone were playing together that summer and I thought, ‘Wow, she is small.' At the time I was looking at her as a Temeka Johnson (pre Bobbitt's arrival at Tennessee). I'm sitting there with (Nikki) Caldwell thinking, ‘OK, Nikki, what do you think about her size? Does not concern you?' And she goes, ‘Not with that quickness and that speed and that range.' "

Alyssia Brewer: "She shoots the three. I like the fact she's left-handed. It is a different look. I think she does a great job off the dribble for her size. She can play the three, four and five. She can play the three because she can shoot the three ball, but I see her more as four, five."

Amber Gray: "She's got some bulk to her. I would like her better at the four. Could she score from the three spot? Yes. If you took Amber and you took Alicia and you took Lyssi, they're interchangeable parts in my opinion. Glory is the same way. I like her (Gray's) skills. She's got good offensive skills. She plays hard. She doesn't mind using her body."

Glory Johnson: "There's no better athlete. She can defend all five spots. She's the quickest of the bunch. With her quickness and her size and her range with her arms I see her having potential to guard all five spots. She's got a toughness that I like. She's going to elevate our team."

Alicia Manning: "I liked her in AAUs at the four. She can play two, three and four. A lot of people look at her as hard-nosed, competitive, gutsy, but I see her as someone who can play off the dribble. She's got a good pull-up. She can shoot the three. She loves the game."

Shekinna Stricklen: "She's a big-time guard. Could she play the point guard? Yes. She can play the point guard, she can play the two guard, she can play the three. She's got deep three-point range. I like the fact she is skilled and she does have great range, but she also is athletic and can play off the dribble. She's got size. She's thin, but she's got good size. She can shoot over people. We can post her up at the guard spot. She's got the potential to be a great guard for us. With the versatility of Shekinna on the perimeter, we could go with a big lineup."

It's a big class, but Summitt isn't concerned about bringing another six onto campus. She likes the overall personality of the group and the fact that she can already identify the potential leaders. The previous Six Pack had some personality conflicts that were only completely resolved before last season.

"They're different personalities and they're coming in healthy, knock on wood," Summitt said. "I think it's pretty apparent who I would expect to take on more of a leadership role. Briana, she's quiet, but Bri is a leader on the floor. She's the soft-spoken one. Amber is going be the one who is going to police everyone. This is just my first perception. She and Alyssia are very outgoing. You look at Glory, and she's outspoken. They're aggressive if you think of their style of play and watching them all play their personalities are a lot alike in terms of speaking up and how they compete on the floor.

"They love basketball and I'm not convinced that everybody who comes in here loves it. They love the idea of playing at Tennessee, but with this group I just think they love the game. This group? They're in the gym."

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