Lady Vols hold open practice

Tennessee basketball fans were in applause mode Saturday.

They clapped when the Lady Vols took the floor, clapped even more when Pat Summitt walked onto the court and brought their hands together one more time when former player Nicky Anosike walked into the arena.

Summitt and Bruce Pearl held open practices at Thompson-Boling Arena, and more than 1,000 people got a chance for an up-close and early look at the Vols and Lady Vols.

"I think it's great to be able to bring out your student-athletes on the floor and have people in the stands," Summitt said. "As I told our team, sometimes we don't realize a lot of people don't play in front of this many fans during the season. I'm sure they were a little anxious to be out on the court but overall it was good to see them get up and down and communicate a little bit."

Communication has been a primary theme of Summitt's in the preseason and it's of particular concern because six newcomers are on the roster this year plus redshirt freshman Kelley Cain.

Summitt and her staff are using the month of September to hammer home the message of talking on the court. The hope is that it will be second nature by Oct. 17, when practice officially starts.

"Absolutely, because when the game starts it's hard to develop that habit in the course of a game," Summitt said. "You want to make sure in practice every day that they are communicating and they're having tight huddles.

"Eventually we'll arrive at who's going to be our leaders, and they'll take charge a lot of times in the huddles. But if you can get all of them to feel like their voice needs to be heard, if we can do that by the time we really get into it (in October), we will have made some good progress."

Teams are now allowed to hold full-roster practices – instead of no more than four on the floor per session – but players are still limited to two hours total a week of court instruction with the coaches.

"We're doing all team concepts," Summitt said. "Now that we can have the team together we can put in some of our offensive and defensive team concepts. That is a good teaching time for us. You don't want to rush this."

Summitt used the first 52 minutes of the allotted hour – the other hour was used Thursday – for half-court and full-court work and shooting drills. With 10 players available – Cait McMahan and Vicki Baugh remain in knee rehab – the last eight minutes were used to scrimmage five on five with Summitt stopping the action just twice.

"We were a little rushed today up and down but that's because we had people here," said Summitt, who wanted the fans to get a look at the team in a scrimmage setting. "A lot of times we'll stop and break things down for them. All in all I think our freshmen class is talented. They've got a ways to go to learn everything and first and foremost probably just to communicate. They've got so much thrown at them that I think sometimes they're a little overwhelmed in that regard. We'll take it back next week and start over again."

Several observations: Briana Bass, the 5'3 freshman point guard from Indianapolis, can push tempo and compares favorably to the speed of the departed Shannon Bobbitt. Cain, a 6'6 center from Atlanta, can finish at the basket and should give Tennessee a low-post anchor this season. Shekinna Stricklen has the potential to be very disruptive on defense.

"I think Shekinna, she's special because she brings it at both ends," Summitt said. "She outran people. Her defensive intensity is really good. She can shoot the ball well. She could be a very, very special guard for us for the next four years. I am excited about what I saw from her."

Bass' speedy development is critical, especially with McMahan still sidelined to recover from arthroscopic knee surgery earlier this month. Jenny Moshak, the chief of sports medicine for the Lady Vols, has taken the approach to ease in Bass – she had ACL surgery on her left knee in early March – by having her ease up at times.

"I don't know what percent Jenny has her at, but she looks pretty good right now," Summitt said. "I said when I saw her – she was I think a ninth grader and I saw her at AAUs – I thought she was the quickest player with the ball I'd ever seen. When you compare Shannon Bobbitt and Briana Bass, they're both not only fast but I think they make good decisions with the basketball and they shoot the ball well."

Freshman forward Amber Gray, who had been limited by a tweaked quad, was able to participate in the session.

McMahan and Baugh spent the hour with Moshak doing assorted exercises, including hopping from a height of about two steps onto a mini-trampoline, holding the position without a bounce and then jumping to a pad on the floor.

McMahan, whose surgery cleaned out her right knee and was considered relatively routine, is expected to be ready for practice in October.

"When it comes to rehab and working hard there's no one any better," Summitt said. "I am confident that she'll get herself ready."

Baugh's goal is to return this season, but she is recovering from ACL surgery on her left knee that was performed last May. Her status will be evaluated in a month – at that point she would be just over five months post-surgery – and her return hasn't been ruled in or ruled out. The prevailing attitude is one of optimism that she could play this season.

"Having had that injury and watching a lot of our players go through rehabbing an ACL injury, it's tough," Summitt said. "I think seeing our team out here today will be a big motivation for her. That's when they want to get back on the court and be a part of the action and the only thing they can do at this point in time is make sure they're dedicated to their rehab and doing everything that Jenny's asking them to do on and off the court."

The fans were happy to see all the Lady Vols and greeted them with applause just for taking the court to stretch and warm up. Did the newcomers notice they were being applauded at practice?

"Kids love attention," Summitt said with a smile. "You know they love it. They thrive on it."

Anosike, who was in town this weekend before leaving to play overseas in Israel, also was cheered when she walked into the arena after practice had started, and she hugged the support staff at the scorer's table. She was cheered again as she walked off the floor. Anosike and the returning members of this year's team were officially recognized at the football game, along with Summitt, Holly Warlick, Dean Lockwood and video coordinator Betsy McAllister.

The loudest applause, as always, was for Summitt, who didn't realize it was for her. Even the smattering of Florida fans who had come to the arena to watch the sessions before the football game applauded Summitt.

"I thought it was for the men," said Summitt, because the Vols were winding up their scrimmage and leaving the floor when she arrived. "That was very nice."

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