Team hanging tough in sessions

Pat Summitt was her own Monday morning quarterback. After watching Sunday's practice tape, she called Holly Warlick to talk about time off. The Lady Vols went for two-and-a-half hours Monday, as scheduled, but will take off today to let the freshmen catch their breath. Between early-morning extra conditioning sprints and up-tempo practice sessions in the afternoon the youngsters needed a break.

"I knew they were tired," Pat Summitt said after practice Monday. "I watched practice tape and I called Holly and said, ‘Let's talk about it as a staff, but I think it's time for a day off.' "

It was the fourth consecutive day of work – the players had a weight-lifting session with Heather Mason immediately afterwards – since practice officially started Friday evening.

"Overall I think they hung pretty tough," Summitt said. "We've still got, particularly freshmen, giving in to fatigue."

The returning players – all four of them in sophomores Sydney Smallbone, Angie Bjorklund and Cait McMahan and senior Alex Fuller – have looked sharp in practice. Sophomore Vicki Baugh went through a few half-court drills Sunday but was limited Monday to sideline rehab as she continues to recover from ACL surgery.

Smallbone, a sophomore who played limited minutes last year, has shown considerable improvement this preseason in her defense and in launching her shot quickly.

"My role is to play to my strengths, and I'm working on getting that shot off quicker," Smallbone said. "Obviously playing in the SEC and playing a hard out-of-conference schedule it's one of the points of emphasis to get your shot off quick because the teams we play are so strong defensively. It's something I've been working on."

Smallbone has been receiving the ball on the wing and firing without hesitation. It's something Pat Summitt wants to see her and the other deep threats do from the perimeter.

"Absolutely," Summitt said. "I'm really impressed with her improvement in two aspects of her game. Her defense is the best it's been. She's quicker. She has really gotten better. She's a better athlete because of her commitment to the conditioning and the footwork.

"She's shooting the ball really well. She's getting the ball off a lot quicker. The one thing she has to be so mindful of is ball security. She was the go-to player in high school as most of them were. She's having to become a better passer and read the passing lanes."

Smallbone had to catch up defensively once she got to college and last season was spent immersed in the terminology and principles of Summitt's defense in terms of traps, closeouts, presses and positioning and then absorbing the intricacies of man to man and matchup zones.

"Just knowing the whole Tennessee system helps a lot," Smallbone said.

Smallbone and the other sophomores are also hearing defensive instructions a lot more this season as seven freshmen are put through the paces. With the tremendous emphasis on teaching, the second-year players are benefiting, too.

"The more repetition you get with it in practice I think that helps," Smallbone said.

The player with the most experience in the system is Fuller, who was able to practice Sunday and Monday after getting tangled with a teammate Saturday and tweaking her surgically repaired left knee. It was a relief to the team when Fuller was deemed OK.

"We dodged a bullet," Summitt said.

Fuller has looked solid in the past two sessions, especially from the perimeter where she can create mismatches with smaller defenders this season. She also is a steady presence for a team full of newcomers.

"She's one of out biggest leaders, just her confidence with the ball and confidence at so many different levels," Smallbone said. "I think that helps us, calms us down a little bit. She's one of those players that we need out there as a leader."

The sophomores have already been called upperclassmen by Summitt, though they aren't by definition. That's usually reserved for juniors and seniors. But with no juniors on the roster and six true freshmen eager to learn, Fuller needs some help.

"Everything is so new for the freshmen," Smallbone said. "As sophomores we need to grow up and be upperclassmen."

Smallbone, whose nickname in high school was "Psycho," selected Tennessee because she wanted to play in an environment in which every drill was competitive. The 5'10 guard could have played in her home state of Indiana, but she wanted to measure herself against the best every day.

"The chance to come here and learn from the greatest coach in the country is something I wanted to do since I was a little kid," Smallbone said.

Smallbone hasn't settled on a specific major yet, but she's taking pre-business classes in a practical approach to education. She also could envision herself with a whistle.

"I would love to coach. Just be around the game and spend that time around the game would be something that I would love to do," Smallbone said. "I'm trying to keep it open, taking a lot of the pre-business classes and trying to figure out what I like the most and try to pick a major in that field. I've grown up around the game so it is something that I would love to do."

Smallbone takes a serious approach to the game of basketball and that attribute is what attracted Summitt.

"She's driven to be successful, and she brings great intensity to the floor," Summitt said. "That's who she is."

A good sign for Smallbone is that Summitt isn't hesitating to give her an earful of instruction at times. That means the coach expects production from the second-year player this season.

"You have to learn and every single thing she says you've got to take it to heart," Smallbone said. "You've got to know she's been around the game, she knows so much more than you do and as a player you should thrive on that, the fact she's so educated in the game."

Smallbone is more talkative on the court in practice this season – last year's group was so gregarious it was hard to get a word in edgewise – and she said the team has quickly drawn close together. The camaraderie makes the season one to be anticipated for the players.

"Just the fact that we get along so well," Smallbone said. "Last year we got along great but it's a whole new team it feels like. I want to go out and show people what we've been working on in the weight room, on the court, conditioning. We've been working hard as a team."

That closeness will be needed as a very young Lady Vol squad will find itself in everyone's crosshairs, especially the teams used to being pounded by Tennessee. But the current players intend to spring some surprises.

"I think we're going to upset people because we have that refuse-to-lose mentality," Smallbone said. "We're young, we want to learn, we bring the intensity every day."

To rattle some cages this year, Tennessee will have to lay the groundwork in October and November. That occurs in practice, and the coaches are trying to strike a balance between pushing the tempo and slowing down to teach.

"It's one day at a time," Summitt said. "As a coach and a coaching staff you want to gauge where they are and where they need to be. Sometimes you just can't speed it up because it's all about repetition. It may be constant repetition until they really just instinctively do what it is that you're asking them to do."

Getting the information to be instinctive and not overloaded is another step in the process that can't be fast-forwarded, especially with freshmen. Summitt saw signs of fatigue in her Sunday practice tape and watched the denouement live on Monday.

"The mind starts to fade," Summitt said. "While they're learning our defense and our offensive schemes, there're breakdowns, because we've thrown a lot at them mentally. Sometimes we have to stop and go back and re-teach. That's going to be part of it."

The team also is being pushed physically, especially post players Amber Gray and Kelley Cain. They both reported early Monday morning for extra conditioning with Mason, who has been charged with getting everyone ready to run this season.

"I'm thankful I have Heather," Summitt said.

All the post players and guards made their suicide sprint times after practice, and Cain and Gray have made progress. But, like everything else, conditioning can't be fast-forwarded. It takes time and repetition.

The coaches kept the throttle open for four days. They will give the players a day off Tuesday from the practice court and reconvene Wednesday afternoon. Summitt, Fuller and Bjorklund will represent Tennessee at SEC Media Days in Birmingham, Ala., on Wednesday and then fly back in time to join practice. The freshmen will likely already be on the floor.

"The challenge for our coaching staff is to know when to be patient and know when to be persistent," Summitt said. "That's just something you have to gauge and have a feel for. After 34 years I think I've got a little bit of a feel for it."


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