Kelley Cain gives Tennessee a classic back-to-the-basket center who can rebound, finish at the rim and hit jumpers in the lane and along the baseline. Cain also is coming back from major surgery to realign her right kneecap, which continued to slip and sustain subluxations last fall, the last of which in November caused her to be shut down for the season.
Cain, in recognition that there is a psychological as much as physical adjustment to surgery, must now learn to trust her repaired knee on the basketball court. After years of compensating for a misaligned kneecap the surgery meant moving a structurally changed knee.
"It's just me getting used to my knee," Cain said. "I have to gain confidence in it, which I'm doing gradually. Basically it's believing I can do it without something happening to my knee. When I was on crutches I thought, ‘OK, this is going to be weird. I have to learn how to walk again. I have to learn how to run again. I have to learn how to bend my knee again.'
"Everything that I took for granted basically was hard for me to do at first, but once I started doing it I gained more confidence and gradually went from straightening it out to lifting it to walking to jogging to running to jumping. It's getting better."
Her kneecap essentially was tilted and interfered with the knee's ability to track correctly – a condition she was born with – but Cain was thrilled to get the surgery done, even if it meant sitting on the sideline for a season while a senior-laden team led the Lady Vols to the program's eighth national title.
"Definitely," Cain said. "I believe I would have to get the surgery anyway and I would rather get it now and actually get a year back than be in the middle of a season and not get that year back."
Cain was in the locker room when the rings arrived last February for the players and staff on the 2007 national championship. The freshman class, which included Sydney Smallbone, Angie Bjorklund and Vicki Baugh, had the same reaction.
"We want one. We've got to get one," Cain said.
The freshman class ended up celebrating less than two months later in Tampa when Tennessee won number eight – and they all earned rings for that win. For Cain it was the culmination of a season spent in rehab and rooting from the bench.
"It was hard, but I was there cheering on my teammates, helping every way possible that I can," Cain said. "It just makes me hungry to do it myself – 10 times as bad. I like to play and I haven't got a chance to do it in a year.
"Sometimes I wonder how on earth did I do it? But just the motivation of knowing my knee is going to get better and I get to play with a great group of girls, and I got to learn from the best in Candace (Parker) and Nicky (Anosike). I want to do it myself."
A DVD that commemorated the 2008 national title had a scene in which Cain was in tears. She said it was a mixture of joy and pain.
"It was a combination of us winning – as a freshman I had never experienced that – and jumping on my knee, which I shouldn't have been doing," Cain said. "I was just so excited. I was jumping. It wasn't a big shock because I knew we could do it, but it was, ‘Wow, it actually happened to us freshman year in college."
Cain continued her rehab regimen and was released in July to begin basketball-type activities. When individual workouts began Aug. 21 with the assistant coaches, Cain was cleared to participate.
"That's my biggest thing is getting used to basketball," Cain said. "In conditioning we run straight and back and forth. But actually posting up, running down the court, cutting, that's what I'm getting used to."
Cain also is participating in team conditioning sessions with Heather Mason. Her development off the court is key to the team's success, Summitt said.
"Her presence could be a tremendous advantage for our team overall – her size, she's got great hands, she's got great shooting touch," Summitt said. "But we don't want to have to put on the brakes and wait on her so it's important for her – and Kelley understands this – that she has got to be a sprinter, not a jogger."
Being off the basketball court for eight months would take a toll on any player's conditioning. It is especially exacting on post players.
"Nothing compares to actually doing it," Cain said. "Conditioning is a big part. I'm excited to finally be back doing basketball stuff. Instead of sitting on the side rehabbing I'm actually with the girls. I'm excited for this upcoming season. We're a completely different team. We might be young, but I think we're going to have fun playing with each other. I think it will be a good season."
After two weeks of individual workouts it's apparent the coaching staff wants to get the team ready to run with the basketball.
That strategy was in place before redshirt sophomore point guard Cait McMahan had arthroscopic surgery on Wednesday to eliminate loose bodies, smooth out joint surface irregularities and fix a small lateral meniscus tear in her right knee.
It was McMahan's fourth surgery on the knee – two major; two minor – after she tore the ACL in November 2005 in high school and then had a lesion repaired on the articular cartilage in June 2007. McMahan also had arthroscopic surgery in the preseason in 2006 after the development of a bone bruise in the knee.
Summitt had returned Tuesday evening from Los Angeles where she and Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick went for a special Tennessee event after a Los Angeles Sparks game – three former Lady Vols play for the Sparks in Candace Parker, Sidney Spencer and Shannon Bobbitt – and other alumni festivities because of the football game with UCLA. She learned then from Jenny Moshak that McMahan, who had been able to participate in the workout on Tuesday afternoon, needed to have the knee scoped to determine the source of her discomfort.
"When I talked with Jenny (Wednesday) night, it really put my mind to ease," Summitt said. "I'm thinking, ‘What's going to happen here?' And Jenny was very optimistic, felt good about it and obviously the doctors did. Cait has to be really in tune with exactly what she can and cannot do. I think she has that personality (to push herself), but you've got to admire her personality. At the same time she has to be very aware of what she can and cannot do in practice."
The goal is to have McMahan return to the court by the official start of practice on Oct. 17. In the meantime she will undergo rehab sessions under the direction of Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine.
"We go into it with an open mind of watching Cait, and Jenny will be the voice to me," Summitt said. "I'm going to listen to what she feels like Cait can do. There may be days she can do a lot and there may be days she's limited. It's an unknown right now until she gets back on the floor. It's day to day as far as I'm concerned as to what she might be able to do. I just want to get her back and get her well."
Summitt has talked to McMahan, who she felt was relieved to learn what was causing the pain and how readily it could be addressed.
"I think she's OK. At least you know," Summitt said. "They went back in and took care of some problem areas that Jenny felt like needed to happen. As I told Cait, ‘You've just got to listen to Jenny and do exactly what you're supposed to do in rehab. If less is more then that's what you do.'
"Cait has the mentality more is better. I think she has to understand there will be days that she may be limited, but as I told her, ‘You're my point guard. I'm counting on you, but I want you to listen to Jenny and understand there may be days you have limitations, but that's not going to affect you come game time.' "
The message to McMahan is her playing time won't be affected if she has to sit out sometimes at practice to rest her knee. It's an approach Tennessee has taken in the past with players with creaky knees.
It also means the development of freshman Briana Bass is paramount. Bass, who had surgery on her left knee last March to repair a torn ACL, has been able to participate in the workouts and has shown a deft shooting touch from the outside.
"Bri looks good and she's certainly not 100 percent," Summitt said. "Even if she's 80 percent I like what I've seen. I think we've been pleasantly pleased with her progress."
But the head coach has no intention of turning over such a young team to a freshman point guard. Asking a newcomer to shoulder that load alone would be too much, Summitt said.
"It's going to be by committee early on," Summitt said. "We want to get all our perimeter players, even our posts, we want to get everyone comfortable with handling the ball and starting the break and getting us into our offense. Our post people won't get us into it as much but obviously with our perimeter game I think we've got a lot of versatility there."
That means every perimeter player – McMahan, Bass, Smallbone, Bjorklund, Alicia Manning and Shekinna Stricklen – must get comfortable with the ball in her hand. The post players – Alex Fuller, Glory Johnson, Amber Gray, Alyssia Brewer and Cain – must also be ready to push tempo. (Baugh remains out of workout action while rehabbing her left knee after tearing the ACL in the national title game, though she is doing a lot of shooting.)
Several players on the roster have played both inside and outside, and Summitt and her coaches want to capitalize on those capabilities.
"We've got skill players that have played different roles for their team offensively," Summitt said. "That's what I see here. If we can incorporate them in as ball handlers, passers and decision-makers at the beginning of our practices that should enhance our opportunities to have multiple people handle and not feel like you've got to depend on a point guard."
Cain is the seventh freshman on the roster, but her redshirt year means she knows what to expect. She also completed a preseason, three weeks of practice and two exhibition games last fall before injuring her knee after stepping on the foot of a practice player while making a post move. That subluxation of her loose kneecap ended up ending her season.
"I definitely think it's a benefit because I went through the whole preseason last year and going through the practices so it's not a big shock," Cain said. "I know what to expect. It's like getting a head's up on the plays – learning them, sitting there watching them. I do learn better playing but sitting there watching also helps when I get out there and actually do go through the plays."
Cain is aware of the fact that national expectations have been lowered. Tennessee is the defending champion, but five starters have departed, and four of them are playing significant roles in the WNBA this summer. The Lady Vols will not be ranked preseason number one and may not be in the top four either. But the players believe they will still contend for a championship.
"The pressure is there because we put the pressure on ourselves," Cain said. "We have a standard to live up to. The seniors left on a good note, and they taught us everything they could so we're going to try and take what we learned from them and teach it to the freshmen and do our best.
"Work hard. Play hard. Have fun."
LADY VOL WEST: Pat Summitt and Holly Warlick traveled to Los Angeles last weekend and took in a Sparks game at the Staples Center from courtside seats, along with Joan Cronan, Tennessee women's athletic director, and Nikki Caldwell, a former Lady Vol assistant who is now the head coach at UCLA.
"She's doing great," Summitt said. "I think Nikki is enjoying LA and excited about her team."
Los Angeles, which is battling to hold onto a playoff spot, beat San Antonio, 58-53, on Saturday in a game that wasn't decided until the final minute. The TV commentators at the game noted that Summitt occasionally was directing traffic from her seat.
"Holly and I were both trying to coach a little bit," Summitt said with a smile. "Joan didn't try that."
It must have felt odd to be sitting on the sidelines but not actually coaching, especially with three former players on the court, including two in Shannon Bobbitt and Candace Parker that Summitt and Warlick had just coached in April.
"I was just enjoying the game, but you can't help but get caught up in it," Summitt said. "We were talking about what was going on and the action. It was very close. It was a heck of a game."
Is Summitt glad to be back in Tennessee?
"Oh, yeah. Always," she said.