"I always believe you've got to have fresh legs before we play the game or you've got to expect to play (more people) a lot more minutes," Summitt said.
With just four players on the bench and two of them, Vicki Baugh and Sydney Smallbone being freshmen trying to absorb the system, the starters are logging a lot of minutes sometimes, although three are under 30 minutes per game – Candace Parker at 29.2, Angie Bjorklund at 26.6 and Nicky Anosike at 23.1
The other two starters are not far over the 30-minute mark – Shannon Bobbitt leads the team at 31.5 minutes per game followed by Alexis Hornbuckle at 30.8. All nine players are averaging double digits in minutes.
Tennessee wants to nearly always push tempo, and that means the players can't get too fatigued before tipoff. Last week, Summitt gave the team days off on Monday, Thursday and Sunday. They practiced Tuesday and Friday and played Wednesday and Saturday.
"People are playing a lot of minutes so we're going to give them days off, but when we practice we're going to challenge them because we've got to keep their level of conditioning up, we've got to keep the expectations high, and we've got to keep repetition as a priority depending on what we need to work on," Summitt said.
Monday's session emphasized defense, starting with drills – two players were joined together with sashes that tied around their waist and clips that broke free if the defender played too far off of the player with the ball or didn't stay in front – and then full-court work against a male practice team that set a rapid pace. The Lady Vols had to get three consecutive stops before rotating off the floor and an egregious breakdown – such as a middle drive or not stopping the ball – set the stop count back to zero.
Practice ended with a full-court offensive drill and then conditioning sprints. Heather Mason awaited after practice for a weight-lifting session. Needless to say, the players earn those off days.
"We have got to shore up our transition defense," Summitt said. "This team because we are long and rangy and quick and athletic, if we can get people out of the transition attack and into the half-court game, our defense is going to get better. People are attacking us off the dribble because they're having a hard time making the passes. We're in the passing lanes. Now we've got to shore up our defense in terms of the dribble potential."
Another area of emphasis Monday was boxing out. Failure to do so meant a stoppage in practice, and Summitt asking anyone who didn't box out to identify herself. The recidivism rate was very low. Summitt was hoarse after Monday's practice, a stark contrast to a practice after the Christmas break in which she sat in silence. On Monday she offered a lot of vocal instruction, both encouraging and correcting.
"The next thing we have to understand as a team we don't have people that have a sense of urgency to box out," Summitt said. "Our defensive board play is weak. Our offensive board play has really gotten stronger, but we put a lot of emphasis on it.
"And now our emphasis – that's what we spent the majority of practice on – is defensive rebounding. Five people should always rebound on defense, but invariably you've got guards who don't think they have to rebound. We stand around and watch Candace rebound. That's somewhere we can get so much better if we are all committed to the defensive boards."
Summitt was pleased after practice with the energy and effort. Like last year's team, this squad has shown a willingness to get to work.
Before the team departed on last week's two-game road trip Summitt said she wanted the team to show her that it had learned from the Stanford loss. After the 102-68 beat-down of DePaul, Summitt said her attitude was still one of wait and see. Tennessee ran away from Notre Dame, 87-63. Has the team turned the corner?
"I think we're better, but it's not time to throw up my hands and cheer yet," said Summitt, who launched back into a defensive discourse. "I just think we've got to get better. I would feel a whole lot better about this team if their one-on-one defense was better and their rotation defense was better and their defensive rebounding.
"I'm not as concerned about our offense. We're giving up more points than we should be giving up. The problem is if Candace and Lex, if you take both of them out at once, that affects our defense. I want Alberta (Auguste) to be better so that's not an issue. Nicky has really had a strong presence for us on defense. We've got to get Alex (Fuller) playing better off the bench defensively. Alex did a great job offensively, but there's a big difference when Nicky comes out and Alex goes in defensively. Alex can obviously come in and score a lot of points."
A strong one-on-one defender is Cait McMahan, but she is rehabbing from knee surgery and taking a redshirt year this season. She practiced some Monday as part of the plan to ease her into the up-tempo sessions. The benefit for McMahan would be that she could run offensive sets with the team. It also allows the Lady Vols to substitute five for five when rotating against the male players.
"She came out of high school she was a point guard, but she was a scoring point guard," Summitt said. "She got to just play, and here she's learning how to run plays."
SEC FROSH OF WEEK: Angie Bjorklund earned Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week honors for the third time this season.
Bjorklund averaged 14.5 points 3.5 rebounds and 4.5 three-pointers in the Lady Vols' outings at No. 15 DePaul and No. 14 Notre Dame. She shot a sizzling 75 percent from behind the arc, including 7-9 against the Irish. Her seven treys in that game tied her school record, which she set earlier in the season against Gonzaga.
Bjorklund, the first Lady Vol from the state of Washington, is averaging 10.7 points and 3.6 rebounds per game and shooting 46.3 percent from three-point territory (31-67). That accuracy, along with Alexis Hornbuckle's 54.5 percent marksmanship (18-33) is underpinning a 41.1 percent mark by the team (90-219) as a whole, which stands as the best three-point field goal percentage in program history. The 1987-88 team holds the official record of 40.9 after connecting on 27-of-68 attempts.
No other rookie in the SEC has been named the league's newcomer of the week more than once this season. Bjorklund's three nods are the third-most in the history of the award, as teammate Candace Parker nabbed the honor five times, Sha Brooks of Florida earned it four times during the 2005-06 season, and Georgia's Ashley Houts picked up four acknowledgements during the 2006-07 campaign.
"I think she's a great shooter," Pat Summitt said. "I like her offensive shot selection. She's not one to really force shots. She only went through that early in the season, just was being a little overanxious. I think she has great shot selection and composure.
"I think she's growing with each road game. In the Stanford game she did not shoot the ball well and just watching her in that game and then watching her at DePaul and Notre Dame, you could just see her confidence level has gone up. I think she's moving better, too, without the ball. And then you've got to get her teammates credit. They got her the ball."
Bjorklund followed up a scoreless outing against Stanford with solid outings on the road.
"I did struggle in the past on the road and hopefully this is a turning point for me," Bjorklund said. "Just getting shots in before the game, getting mentally prepared, I think that helped me a lot. I think the more we play on the road and the more I play on the road, hopefully it will go up from there."
LESSON LEARNED: Tennessee moved up to No. 2 in the AP poll after Stanford lost back-to-back Pac-10 games to UCLA and Southern Cal. The Cardinal fell to No. 7.
Tennessee lost to Stanford on Dec. 22 in overtime in a game in which the Lady Vols had poor effort on the boards, turned the ball over too much and broke down defensively, especially in the second half.
The team talked about the aftereffects of wins and losses on Monday.
"You have to learn in this game – you never arrive – but you better understand how to handle success and failure," Pat Summitt said. "Most teams will respond better coming off of a loss, which is exactly what we did.
"But if we go now and we have two big wins and we don't show up to play at a level to be a 40-minute team against Auburn, we get beat. I've always been open and very straight-forward about handling both success and failure."
The Lady Vols play Auburn at 7 p.m. Thursday (TV: Fox Sports Net South) in the SEC opener for both teams. It will be the first home game for Tennessee since Dec. 16.