The players have been issued their Lady Vol notebooks – the text for the season, as it were – and the first test is a week away in the exhibition game against Carson-Newman on Nov. 6. The quizzes start this weekend.
The notebooks, which are added to as the season goes on, contain offensive plays and defensive alignments and concepts. They diagram the plays to commit them to memory and will engage in discussion with the coaches about the concepts and philosophies behind them.
"I think we'll learn a lot when we get their feedback on all of our sets," Coach Pat Summitt said.
Freshman forward Amber Gray, who missed practice Thursday because of a sprained left ankle that remains swollen, stood courtside with her book to take notes.
"Anytime a player has to sit out and they're a freshman in the program it's a bit of a setback but to her credit she's over there taking notes," Summitt said. "She asked me if she could and I said, ‘Absolutely.' "
Freshman forward Glory Johnson returned to practice Thursday. She needed treatment on her right knee for two days after a collision early in Tuesday's practice. Vicki Baugh had some mild swelling in her left knee so she sat out Thursday for precautionary reasons, as the protocol continues to be not to rush back the sophomore post player.
The entire team will get a day off the court Friday and then will reconvene Saturday and Sunday as practice dovetails from general concepts into specific work.
"We're going to do a lot more game situations and continue to work baseline to baseline on our offense and defense and getting up on people from a defensive standpoint," Summitt said. "I think we'll try to get a lot of game situations that we haven't worked on. We've got to get our end out of bounds, our side out of bounds, special situations."
Thursday's session lasted about 2.5 hours in Pratt Pavilion and ended with conditioning sprints and shooting drills. A good portion of practice was spent full-court at top speed.
Summitt and her staff are trying to take a team of six true freshmen – two of whom are in the starting lineup in the first exhibition game in Johnson and Shekinna Stricklen – and get them ready for the rigors of women's college basketball. Their initiation into the next level comes at a time when the Lady Vols seem vulnerable to opponents because of the loss of all five starters from the national championship team last season.
"People are licking their chops to beat us," Summitt said. "They're thinking this is the time. They'd better get us early. I think we'll be a lot better late. It all depends on how this team responds to what it is we're asking them to do."
Summitt was a tad late to practice Thursday, but it was for good reason.
When arriving for a scheduled appointment she noticed a senior citizen in the four-story parking garage. After leaving her appointment shortly thereafter she saw the same woman. The layout of the garage was such that it was confusing if the person forgot the parking level or got off on the wrong floor.
Summitt stopped her car, introduced herself and offered to help find the woman's car. The woman, grateful for the help, told Summitt that she knew who she was and got in the passenger seat.
"I didn't want her to be afraid if she didn't recognize me," Summitt said. "She'd be afraid to get in the car. She was walking up and down inside the garage. She reminded me of my mother."
Summitt drove through the garage until they found the vehicle, and then the coach scooted to practice.
The players were already in full-court mode when Summitt arrived, and this time they broke the pre-practice circle with the assistants and got to work. A week ago the team, minus Alex Fuller and Angie Bjorklund who were at SEC Media Days in Alabama with Summitt, struggled with effort and ended up facing a 6 a.m. practice the next day. Summitt exploded because of what she saw as disrespect of her assistants.
"She's so loyal to us," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "Any leader when they feel their people are being treated that way they'll bow up like that. That's so Pat. She talked about disrespecting the staff and disrespecting the game.
"In our players' eyes that wasn't their intent but she helped them be aware that indirectly that is what you're doing. The game demands a high level of respect and preparation."
That preparation standard is going to ratchet up this weekend, as the coaches determine a pecking order as to who starts the two exhibition games and who comes off the bench in what rotation, despite not knowing how half the team will actually react in a game.
The next several practices – since they will shift to more game simulations – will give the staff some hard data in terms of efficiency and production to help make those determinations.
"Number one is effectiveness," Lockwood said. "Who is effective with their minutes? Whose minutes are quality and productive? We do four-minute segments and rotate. Time after time after time it may vary how many shots you made, but you know what we're doing, you're defending, you're rebounding, you're setting great screens, you're able to know the concepts and the system, that's being effective.
"Now, who can be productive? Part of it is making plays. I think a combination of effectiveness, understanding what we're doing, and then your absolute competitive level, your level of competitive toughness, where you can press through adversity and you show an unbelievable desire to compete."