Practice officially starts tonight

Basketball practice officially starts this evening, and one of the first orders of business for Tennessee will be to install a press.

That's a big indicator of how the Lady Vols intend to play this season with a stable full of freshmen. Pat Summitt and staff want to turn them loose.

"Pressing is going to be a priority for us. Right away. Friday night," Summitt said.

The preseason workouts were completed Tuesday with a two-hour session, the first in several days because of a fall break last week and NCAA limitations on court time. The staff started in August with individual workouts and then shifted to team sessions in mid-September. The last two workouts were held in two-hour time periods once a week.

"I like that a lot better than two one-hour," Summitt said. "It's almost like you get started, and then you've got to stop. That's a good preview of what's going to come when we start full practice."

That starts this evening at Pratt Pavilion and will be followed by sessions on Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before a day off is scheduled for the players. The next four days will offer the freshmen the first experience of back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back practices. It will show them what it takes to compete at Tennessee. It will reveal to the coaches who is getting ready.

With the exit of five senior starters from last season, playing time and starting positions are there for the plucking in 2008-09.

"I think a lot of that will start to bear itself out once we get into competition," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "These first two to three weeks are critical. They know that they're all vying for spots now, and this is where the rubber hits the road.

"We're going to see will and skill combined and see who can put those two things together and keep driving on when everybody else might be tired or you're going through long practices and it's grueling. We're going to now see."

The preseason workouts were devoted to teaching, and that theme will continue throughout this month and well into November.

"I think they'll be a lot more teaching, a lot more repetition of what we want to do, whether it's running through our offensive sets or our defensive sets," Summitt said. "We're going to go right into transition and we want to look at what we do in the full court both offensively and defensively."

Coaches also can schedule film sessions with players once practice is officially under way, and players can request one-on-one court time for extra repetitions. One player who kept Lockwood on speed dial during her tenure at Tennessee was Candace Parker, who summoned him to Pratt or the arena on a regular basis.

Practice also will be used for extra conditioning sessions with Heather Mason, such as Tuesday when five players went full court against the male practice team while the other players ran sprints.

Pratt, with its multiple baskets and two courts available, has been ideal for spreading out players with assistants and Mason. But the team will schedule sessions in the arena soon because with seven freshmen on the roster they need to get used to those rims and the floor.

"We don't want it to be like an away game," Summitt said.

Redshirt sophomore Cait McMahan and redshirt senior Alex Fuller are the only upperclassmen on the roster – the others are six true freshman, a redshirt freshman and three true sophomores – and they planned to gather the youngsters before Friday.

"We're going to have a meeting with them to let them know what to expect," McMahan said. "I know when I was a freshman I had jitters – no matter what you're going to have jitters – but they recruited you for a reason and that reason was not to back down and be scared of a three-hour practice. We're going to be fine. That's not any worries of ours."

The preseason workouts gave the coaches a gauge on conditioning – one of the biggest challenges for freshmen – and Glory Johnson, Shekinna Stricklen and Briana Bass passed that initial test.

After the last workout ended Tuesday, Summitt gathered the team at half-court and told them what to expect Friday.

"The one thing we can't have is a couple of people not playing hard or not doing their sprint work," Summitt said. "I'm not going to tolerate that. We've got to get everyone up to a certain level of conditioning so we don't have anybody jogging down the floor or stopping at the free throw line and not rebounding.

"Glory Johnson, she got it. Right now she's a rim-to-rim player, but not every one of those freshmen understands what it takes. That's what I told them at half-court. We're not going to wait on people."

Summitt did acknowledge that freshmen often enter college having never worked so hard on the court or in the weight room.

"In some cases it's not their fault," Summitt said. "They've never had to do it. A lot of it has to do with the pace of the game that they play. I've been really pleased with Bri. And Stricklen."

Johnson noted that the intensity was new to her, too, but the forward's level of conditioning and athleticism is ahead of her first-year peers.

"It's a huge difference," Johnson said of the level of work from high school to college. "We just have to keep going. In high school if you got tired my coach would see that we were all tired and she'd give us a break or two. But in college if you're tired you just go harder until your break comes. If your break doesn't come, you go hard until the end of practice."

The players have built-in breaks as they rotate in and out of drills because of the amount of instruction the coaches must impart. While one group executes on the court, the others watch, listen and wait for their turn. When everyone has seen it demonstrated, they break into smaller groups with the assistants for repetition. They reconvene and take the drill full court against a stout defense of male practice players.

"We have so much teaching to do that when it comes time to go up and down you've got to push yourself," Summitt said. "It's almost like a classroom setting on the court. But then when it comes time to take what you've learned and go up and down with it that's where this has to come in – the mind has to be ready to comprehend what it is that we want to do while the body has to be going all out."

Tennessee has a roster of 12 – a large one compared to past years – but six players are returning from various knee surgeries so the coaches have to adjust to players needing to miss some sessions, too. Fuller has battled chronic knee pain and will have to be gauged day to day, as will McMahan, who had arthroscopic surgery in September. Kelley Cain is coming back from major surgery last December to realign her right kneecap. Vicki Baugh, who is being eased into practice after ACL surgery last May, will be withheld at times because of swelling or pain. Bass had ACL surgery last March and will also have to be monitored. Angie Bjorklund had arthroscopic surgery in July.

Still, the coaches are excited when they see the talent that takes the floor. The team is low on experience, but the athleticism in the paint and on the perimeter lends itself to matchup issues for other teams. The coaches just need to figure out what combinations to deploy.

"We've got a lot of unfinished furniture," Lockwood said. "They look great, but I want to know where it fits and how it's going to match. I'm excited about them as a group. I think we can put a lot of different combinations together that give us some really different looks. It's exciting to us because it changes the look and dimensions of your team, and it also changes how your opponent has to defend you.

"The thing we've got to get now is get them all at the same level of preparedness where they're ready and well-versed in what we're doing and physically and mentally ready to compete at the level we need them to compete at. If we can get that, we're going to be happy."

Daedra Charles-Furlow, the new assistant coach and a former Lady Vol who won two national titles in 1989 and 1991, envisions a team on the run.

"We're definitely going to be talented," Charles-Furlow said. "Our kids are very athletic. The biggest thing and the challenge for us is how are we going to score, we need to control the boards and we need to run. I think our best offense could be our fast break. That's how quickly we get out. We want to attack the basket every time down the floor.

"Everybody is on a clean slate here. Anybody could start. Who's going to bring it every day in practice? That's the biggest challenge. Every moment seize the moment and play hard every possession. That's one thing Pat preaches. She teaches that all the time."

The moment starts Friday.

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