McMahan has had four surgeries on her right knee – two major ones and two arthroscopic ones since high school – and she missed the entire 2007-08 season to rehab after having the femoral condyle repaired. She was able to practice with restrictions occasionally last March with the team and then was released to work out over the summer.
"I thought I was go in the summer," McMahan said. "I was doing great and then I had that setback and my knee hurt. I've just got to keep telling myself I'm in God's hands. Everything is going to be all right. I've just got to keep a smile on my face because why worry about it?"
McMahan felt some tweaks in the surgically repaired knee in July and went to Jenny Moshak, the Lady Vols chief of sports medicine. They started a regimen of rehab and on-court restrictions, and the knee got better, but the pain lingered. An arthroscopic surgery in early September cleaned up the knee, and brought relief to McMahan – both physically from the pain and psychologically to know exactly what needed to be done.
"We did everything possible without going in with the knife," McMahan said. "Going in with the knife just gave me, ‘Cait, this is what your future looks like. This is what you need to do. This is what you don't need to do.'
"It's life. I'll go with what I'm dealt with. Four surgeries, that doesn't mean anything to me. I don't want to have any excuses, ‘Well, she's had four knee surgeries.' I'm not going to let it be an excuse. I'm going to go in like I've had no surgeries."
Part of the protocol for McMahan will be to let off the throttle and hold her out of practice sessions or limit her participation if need be to lessen the wear and tear on the knee. That likely will be the biggest adjustment for the 5'4 guard who is not known for backing down or easing up in practice.
"It is going to be hard, but that's why people do it," McMahan said. "That's why people play basketball because it's hard. I'm going to give it all I've got, and I'm going to have to communicate with Jenny.
"If it hurts, I'm just going to have to bite the bullet and sit out."
McMahan didn't mean the expression in terms of enduring physical pain. (A battlefield soldier would bite down on a bullet in the absence of anesthesia to try to endure the pain.) In her case she meant finding a way to tolerate being forced to the sideline to protect her knee.
Her ability to play through pain – McMahan did it for the entire 2006-07 season and put off knee surgery so that her terminally ill mother would see her only daughter suit up for the Lady Vols – is something Tennessee won't allow now. (Teresa McMahan died a few weeks after the 06-07 season ended after a long battle with cancer.)
So if told to do nothing, McMahan will fill it with something.
"I'm going to have to do everything 10 times," McMahan said. "I'm going to have to watch 10 times more film, watch 10 times more practice but if that's what it takes to stay on the floor (this season), then that's what I'm going to do."
The good news for McMahan and for Tennessee is that her knee has responded well to the last surgery and rehab. She is expected to be released in time for the official start of practice.
"The knee is great," McMahan said. "I'm excited to be able to come back and practice soon."
With six true freshmen and redshirt freshman Kelley Cain on the team this season, the short practice sessions – the NCAA limits a team to a total of two hours per week in the preseason – are being used to put in team concepts on offense and defense.
"Most of the stuff they're going over right now is stuff that I already know because I've been in the program two years, but I learn every day," McMahan said. "Every day I come to learn and this refreshes my memory because I have a terrible memory to begin with."
McMahan said her biggest challenge is committing the offensive plays to memory. She is a player – Alexis Hornbuckle and Shannon Bobbitt also come to mind – who would rather walk through the play on the floor than read a diagram on paper.
"I am exactly the same way," McMahan said. "That is why I can't wait to practice because I can sit here and watch and I know to go there but when you're on the court there are nine other people out there instead of the one person you're looking at. You don't just read your offense. You've got to read the defense as well to know which play you're going to take."
McMahan has one year of experience on the 2006-07 national championship team as a backup to Bobbitt, now with the Los Angeles Sparks, so she's the most experienced point guard on the roster even after sitting out a year.
McMahan's absence the past month has meant more reps for freshman point guard Briana Bass and freshman guard/forward Alicia Manning. Freshman guard Shekinna Stricklen also could play some point as even the short sessions have revealed her athleticism on the perimeter.
"I wouldn't hesitate to play Shekinna at the point," Summitt said. "She's just a great player."
But getting McMahan back at practice does put a point guard on the floor with collegiate playing time. With such a young team having a vocal leader is critical, and McMahan doesn't hesitate to use her voice. Her return could help the team accelerate its overall development.
"I think that's key," Summitt said.
The head coach and her assistants are in teaching mode – the sessions are filled with explanations and repetition – but Summitt also made it clear the players have to keep up with the methodical process.
"If a couple of them are lagging behind, we're not going to wait," Summitt said. "We're going to keep moving. So they're going to have to work on it themselves. I think they will. I think they talk among themselves about what we're trying to do and what they need to do a better job at."
Summitt didn't let shoulder surgery slow her down. She had arthroscopic surgery a week ago to repair the joint after dislocating it in an encounter with a raccoon last March and also used the opportunity to operate on her right hand in a clean-up procedure to fix general wear and tear from her athletic past as a basketball player.
She will be in a sling for six weeks – the black sling matched her black adidas outfit Tuesday but she said she won't be color coordinating it on the sidelines – and hopes to start shoulder rehab this week once she gets clearance from the surgeons. She has already started rehab exercises with her hand.
The team practiced for an hour Tuesday and will use its second hour of the week on Thursday to install some more offensive concepts.
"So far we've just put in triangle and our motion," Summitt said. "I told Holly (Warlick) on Thursday I'd like to put in a couple of quick hits (high-percentage shots early in the shot clock that attack the defense at its soft spot)."
So far one of the highest-percentage offensive plays has been getting the ball inside to the 6'6 Cain, who also is coming back from knee surgery after missing last season. After Tuesday's session, Cain stayed with Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood for extra work in the post. Cain's presence in the paint has been just that so far – a presence.
"Kelley's size, she's got great hands, she's got great composure, she can finish around the basket," Summitt said. "I'm really pleased with her."
The post play overall has been a bright spot even with Vicki Baugh still out as she rehabs her knee surgery. The 6'4 sophomore forward could be cleared by the official start of practice. Freshmen forwards Alyssia Brewer, Glory Johnson and Amber Gray are on fast forward to get ready, and senior forward Alex Fuller is a steady force who can direct traffic inside.
"I like our post game," Summitt said. "Kelley obviously has such a great presence. Lyssi and Kelley are starting to play pretty well together and then you've got Glory right now along with Alex. You can play any combo thereof of those four right now before Vicki gets back. Vicki gets back and that might give Alex a chance to play some three for us and defend at the four because Johnson can defend all over the floor."
Fuller, Gray and Johnson are versatile forwards who could play inside or out, while Baugh, Brewer and Cain take up vertical space inside.
Some players will also have to emerge who can direct traffic from the top of the key. For now, it's two true freshmen, Bass and Manning, with Stricklen on standby, at what the coaches said will be a position by committee as McMahan watches and waits for word from Moshak that she can take the court.
It's a date that can't come soon enough for her.
"I might cry when Jenny tells me when I'll be able to practice," McMahan said.