Lady Vols open with exhibition

The Lady Vols practiced taking the floor for warmup drills Wednesday. It's something they do before the start of every season, but with six newcomers on the roster and two players returning from redshirt years it was particularly necessary. Alex Fuller, who will start for Tennessee tonight against Carson-Newman, got everyone lined up correctly – something she will need to do come tipoff, too.

Pat Summitt will insert what returning players she has into the starting lineup Thursday in the first exhibition game of the 2008-09 season, though two of them didn't play last year while they recovered from knee surgery.

Alex Fuller, the lone senior on the squad, will start inside at power forward with Kelley Cain, a 6'6 redshirt freshmen, at center. The perimeter will open with redshirt sophomore Cait McMahan, a 5'4 point guard; sophomore Sydney Smallbone, a 5'10 shooting guard; and freshman Shekinna Stricklen, a 6'2 small forward/guard.

Tipoff is 7 p.m. Eastern (Lady Vol Radio Network, free video stream at Tennessee Lady Vols) at Thompson-Boling Arena.

"I think, more than anything, starting with as many veterans as we can, especially with Angie having to sit out and Vicki having to sit out," Summitt said of her reasons for the selections.

The stateswoman of the group is Fuller, who has readily accepted the role of guiding the youngsters on and off the court. It was Fuller who was lining everyone up correctly on Wednesday for the run-through on the pre-game warmup routine.

"I am really looking forward to the season, getting to know how everybody plays," Fuller said.

The redshirt senior is the last member of the highly touted high school class of 2004 that led to the arrival of the Lady Vols first recruiting "Six Pack." She came to Tennessee with Parker, Nicky Anosike and Alexis Hornbuckle, who all are now in the WNBA. Two members of the class transferred and were replaced by Shannon Bobbitt, who is also in the WNBA, and Alberta Auguste, who is graduating this December and then plans to play overseas.

"I try to keep in touch with everybody that was in the senior class last year," Fuller said. "It's not really weird (to not see them). I'm trying to focus on it being a new year."

It will be apparent to the fans that it's a new year – game program sales should be brisk – with so many new faces on the court.

Briana Bass, a 5'2 freshman, will see time at point guard, as will Stricklen. The first post players off the bench are likely to be Glory Johnson, a 6'3 forward who Summitt considered starting, and Alyssia Brewer, a 6'3 forward. All are newcomers.

Two familiar faces, sophomores Angie Bjorklund and Vicki Baugh, won't play because of a missed summer school class. Baugh will also miss Sunday's exhibition game for a second missed class, as per Summitt's rule of a one-game suspension for every missed class, even in summer school. Bjorklund is expected to be in the starting lineup Sunday.

Cain played in the exhibition game a year ago against Carson-Newman – she had 11 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, two blocks and three steals – and then sustained a subluxation of her right kneecap the next day in practice and ended up needing season-ending surgery to stabilize the joint. McMahan has knee surgery in June 2007 and sat out last season to recover.

Carson-Newman Coach Dean Walsh is expected to start: Mandy Mendenhall, 5'8 sophomore guard; Ashley Kyle, 5'6 junior guard; Ashley Tipton, 5'10 senior forward; Shari Buford, 5'11 junior forward; and Lindsey Eggleston, 6'1 senior forward.

The Lady Eagles lost to North Carolina, 114-64, in a Tuesday exhibition game in Chapel Hill. Mendenhall led Carson-Newman with 16 points, Buford added 10, and Tipton had nine points. Zoriah Williams chipped in eight off the bench on 3-6 shooting. As a team, the Lady Eagles shot just 5-22 from behind the arc (22.7 percent), but it's a strategy they may need to employ against an athletic Lady Vols team, too.

Carson-Newman, a private college located in nearby Jefferson City, plays in the South Atlantic Conference. Tipton, who played at Farragut High School in Knoxville, hit 48 percent from behind the arc last season, ranking her second in NCAA Division II. Eight players on the roster hail from the state of Tennessee – freshman McKenzie Wampler is from nearby Lenoir City – so a matchup against the Lady Vols means they will have family members and friends in the stands.

Walsh has said he schedules the high-profile exhibition games to gain exposure for his program and to let his players test their skills against the top teams in the country.

"We are hoping that some things we are trying to do work against the two top programs in the country, knowing that if we can have some success against them then we could have a lot of success against our schedule," Walsh said. "A few of the girls have really stepped their game up, and I'm anxious to see them perform on the big stage."

The Tennessee freshmen have acknowledged being nervous about their debut as Lady Vols but also excited to finally play a game after beginning individual workouts in late August and enduring a tough preseason regimen in practice.

"I'm a little bit of both," Bass said. "I'm anxious to get out there and see how things are going to go. It's a new level. It's the college level. It's not high school anymore. Just get out there and do what I can do."

The players were able to practice on their home court Monday and Wednesday – Tuesday was an off day – and the arena looks basketball-ready with media rows set up and the scorer's table, team benches and courtside seats in place.

Brewer sat at press row for an interview this week, looked around at the empty seats and imagined fans in them with what was a touch of awe and wonder.

"All of us are definitely ready for the games to be here, for people to be in the stands to watch us," Brewer said. "We're ready to put this hard work to the test. We've been looking forward to Thursday since school started August 22."

But Brewer also will remind herself to not let the aura of Lady Vol basketball affect how she plays. She hopes to solidify her role on the team and earn a spot in the rotation, which Summitt has said will likely be nine players this season.

"To give my best effort, to not let all the surroundings get to me," Brewer said. "I've just got to stay focused. I'm definitely going to be nervous with thousands of people here, but it's something that I came here for. That's what I wanted – for people to be here."

The coaches are eager to see a young team in a real game, even if the stats and outcome are not official since it's an exhibition contest.

"I'm anxious to see how we're going to carry over practice to games with as much youth as we have," Summitt said.

Summitt scheduled one-on-one meetings with all the freshmen to talk about the importance of effort – which will determine how much they play this season – and to assess how they viewed the team.

"I have them do a questionnaire and fill out the hardest workers, the best shooters, the best defenders, the best rebounders," Summitt said. "Who would you want to take the last shot? I let them have up to three players."

Reading their responses and then talking about them are valuable sources of information for the head coach.

"You learn a lot," Summitt said. "They know. They were very candid about it. It was a good thing."

Summitt noted one player who, in a show of self-awareness, didn't list herself as one of the hardest workers on the team but expressed a desire to be able to do so.

"She put down the people she really thought," Summitt said. "I said, ‘What do you learn from this?' And she goes, ‘I want to be able to put down myself.' "

The team remains a work in progress, but the coaching staff has noticed incremental improvements. Summitt spent the weekend watching practice tape and before Sunday's scrimmage began she walked over to where media sits and noted that her team couldn't guard a middle-aged writer right now. She felt a little better after the scrimmage.

"We've made progress," Summitt said.

The two exhibition games this week – Tennessee plays Love & Basketball on Sunday – will be beneficial because the coaches will have game film to use as a teaching tool.

"It's huge because films don't lie," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "We preach certain things but until they see them on tape then that's when they truly believe us. It's an evaluation of where we are and each kid gets to see that. So it's huge for us.

"And then we jump right into our season. It's amazing. I wish we had about two more weeks, but everybody's in the same situation. But I'm anxious to see them. I think it's a great time for our basketball program."

The 2008-09 team did get an endorsement from former Lady Vol Candace Parker, who was in town last week and stopped by twice to watch practice.

"I think that they're going to be a great team," Parker said. "I think they're going to surprise a lot of people. They're not going to surprise me at all because I know how talented they truly are. They're going to work very hard this year and it's going to be a great time. Look at what they'll have for the next four years. You can look at how young they are, but they're going to be so experienced in a few years."

The coaches might like to fast forward to that experience, but they also are enjoying having what is essentially a blank slate of a team. That means the coaches can create good habits early and build a foundation that will support the team in the future.

"Absolutely," Warlick said. "And that's why we're taking a lot of time teaching and getting it right. We're going to play defense and we're going to rebound. Those are the staples to our program.

"Everybody thinks, ‘Where are we going to score?' If we can spread it out, we'll spread it out. If we can score off our defense, we'll score off our defense. We're working really hard on the defensive end to where we need to be and hopefully we'll get there soon."

Tennessee has options on offense with Cain inside and Stricklen's range extending at least an arm's length behind the three-point line. Of the 12 players on the roster, nine are legitimate three-point threats in McMahan, Smallbone, Fuller, Stricklen – who are all starting Thursday – Bjorklund, Bass, Brewer, Amber Gray and Alicia Manning.

The post rotation off the bench includes the uber-athletic Johnson – the equivalent of tossing a hand grenade on the floor as a sixth woman – Gray, an excellent interior passer, and Brewer, whose solid build should allow her to withstand the battles in the paint. All three also have a natural knack for getting on the boards.

"Lyssi Brewer and Amber Gray have to dial up their intensity and be consistent with it because they're two very, very skilled post players that certainly could help us out," Summitt said.

Add Baugh, whose motor is always running, to the mix when she returns, and the offense doesn't look as anemic as preseason stats would indicate with Tennessee returning just 22 points per game.

But the team defense is nowhere near Summitt's standards yet. The returning players have performed well – Smallbone is quicker and stronger this season – but the freshmen sometimes look as if their heads are on a swivel as their player or the ball goes by.

"The defensive philosophy they have to really understand it," Summitt said. "They go out there and play, but they may be up in the passing lanes one out of three times instead of three out of three times. They're still playing, I'm sure, a lot of what they played in high school. I think that has an impact. Some teams played all zones. Some teams didn't overplay. And we're definitely going to be a pressing, overplaying team."

With 40 percent of the starting lineup consisting of freshmen in Cain and Stricklen it would not be surprising if the coaches are tossing and turning at night.

"Depends on if it's a good practice or not," Warlick said with a smile.

The coaches are curious to see what happens Thursday and also a tad anxious.

"Because of the unknown," Warlick said. "We've seen it but when you get in a game situation you don't know what to expect. The exhibition games for us this year are going to be really, really good, and we're going to take advantage of them to see different combinations. There are a lot of different combinations that work better than others so it's just a matter of us getting out there and seeing them together and putting them together.

"There is a lot of unknown right now, and we're just trying to see it all go together."

CANDID CANDACE: Candace Parker made a trip to Knoxville last week to visit friends and to check in on Vicki Baugh, a sophomore who has been rehabbing her left knee since May after surgery to repair her ACL.

"I'm real close with Vicki Baugh," Parker said. "I talked to her through her process."

Baugh was able to participate in half-court drills on the day Parker was there and was activated for the season this past Sunday. Jenny Moshak has opted to sit Baugh for some practice sessions to treat the knee, a scenario Parker became familiar with as she came back from knee surgery and would participate under limitations.

"Any competitor is going to want to play," Parker said. "When you can't play you're upset. It's about her continuing to rehab. She's got to just trust Jenny."

Parker, who won back-to-back national titles at Tennessee, said the Olympic gold medal in Beijing holds a special significance to her.

"Every little girl you dream of winning a national championship," Parker said. "When you sit down and watch the Olympics that's the highest level that you can play at so there was something different about it. You're representing your country and wearing red, white and blue. It's something I'll take with me forever."

Tennessee had three players on the USA team in Parker, Kara Lawson and Tamika Catchings. The SEC represented half of the squad with LSU's Sylvia Fowles and Seimone Augustus and Florida's DeLisha Milton-Jones. Summitt watched the games from her Tennessee home.

"It was a great display of teamwork," Summitt said. "They shared minutes. You had the veteran players, you had the young players and some in between. Just to watch their unselfish play was amazing. It was interesting seeing our three and Seimone and Sylvia playing together. It was like an SEC team was on the floor."

After the United States defeated Australia to win gold, Lawson called Summitt during the celebration on the court.

"When they won Kara called me so I talked to Kara and then I talked to Tamika and then I talked to Candace," Summitt said. "I got emotional when they won. When they called I was so excited to hear from them. Kara called and then she passed the phone. I was telling them how proud I was. They were so excited."

The players told their former coach they intended to stay up all night celebrating and then fly home the next morning. All three had WNBA teams to rejoin and ended up helping lead those teams into the playoffs.

It was a nonstop season for Parker – college to WNBA to Olympics and back to the WNBA – but she said the adjustment was made easier by being in game shape.

"It was an easy transition in terms of you were already in shape going into training camp," Parker said. "It was tough on your body, but it was an overall great experience."

When it ended for Parker in the Western Conference finals against San Antonio, she embraced the silence.

"I've done nothing but take time off," Parker said. "I haven't touched a ball since we lost to San Antonio, and I don't plan on trying to work out until the middle of November. It's the greatest feeling not setting an alarm."

Her off-season plans will likely include a stint playing in Russia. She also wants to concentrate on strength training and work on her midrange game. She will return to Knoxville for the game on Nov. 15 when the 2008 national title banner is raised to the rafters in the arena.

The day after that championship game in Tampa, Parker was selected No. 1 in the WNBA draft by the Los Angeles Sparks.

"It was a great experience, and I learned from a legend in Lisa Leslie and playing under Michael Cooper," Parker said. "The first year overall was a great situation because most rookies come into a situation where they're forced to carry the team and that's not how it was with me. I was able to just play and be a rookie and make mistakes.

"Playing at Tennessee prepared me for life, prepared me for every level that I'm playing at and different situations that I'm going to be involved in. The things that Coach Summitt said that I didn't necessarily pay attention to when I was here, I remember now, now that I'm out in the real world."

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