Pat Summitt seeks chatter

Pat Summitt gathered her players in a circle, as she always does before practice – in Monday's case the second session – but this time she focused her attention on the six returning players. She reminded them that they all have to assume leadership roles and let their voices be heard by the six true freshmen who need guidance on the court.

The directive seemed to take hold immediately as the Lady Vols went through a 2.5-hour evening practice in which a lot of voices were heard and not just those of the coaches in a session that left Pat Summitt satisfied, at least for one day. The next step is making it a habit.

It was another reminder of the youth of the 2008-09 team – the returning players are a redshirt senior, a redshirt sophomore, three sophomores and a redshirt freshman – but also an indication of how much potential is on the roster.

Tennessee, 7-2, fell to No. 11 in the Associated Press's weekly poll – it's the first time since 1997 that the Lady Vols were not in the top 10, a position they held for a record 211 weeks. The Lady Vols have two tough games this week at Old Dominion and at home against No. 3 Stanford before taking a break for Christmas and then playing two road games on opposite ends of the country at Gonzaga and at No. 14 Rutgers.

How quickly that roster potential can be converted into results – at least the kind sought by the coaching staff – remains unknown, but Summitt emphasized again Monday that "I keep saying every moment is a teaching moment."

The team watched film for an hour Monday afternoon and then practiced for 1.5 hours before Summitt cut it short so some players could get treatment. Summitt wanted to hold a scrimmage but was short on bodies as Cait McMahan is being held out of practice; Glory Johnson and Amber Gray were ill and on and off the court; and Kelley Cain continues to battle knee soreness. That left the team with eight players.

"We didn't have enough to scrimmage," Summitt said between sessions. "I asked Jenny if she thought we'd have enough (Monday night) just so we could go up and down. I'd rather come back and have 10 people ready to go. Hopefully Glory's stomach will calm down a little bit, Kelley's knee."

Both of those players participated in the evening session – Johnson was under the weather but stayed on the court and Cain persevered through some pain – but Gray was held out and McMahan got sideline treatment on her knee. That did put 10 players on the court, enough for some full-court work.

"Buy some time, get them eating better, get them rehabbed a little more and see if we can get a few people out there for her," Jenny Moshak said between practice sessions.

McMahan was not able to play last week at home against Middle Tennessee and went for just five minutes Sunday in the road loss to Texas.

"Obviously she was in pain (Sunday)," Summitt said. "Jenny told me at halftime she couldn't go back in."

Moshak said McMahan's official status was day to day and her availability for the two upcoming games before the break was unknown.

"Just kind of calming the knee down and see where we go from there," Moshak said.

McMahan collided with a practice player Dec. 7 and aggravated the chronic condition of her right knee, which has undergone four operations.

"I'm sure it didn't help," Moshak said. "We're looking at just a constant battle, though. She's got her good days and then not-so-good days."

Cain was hurt in the same practice in another collision. Her right kneecap was realigned a year ago to correct a congenital condition that caused it to undergo subluxations in which the kneecap would slip in and out of track. The collision did not damage her knee but aggravated a condition caused by the slips before surgery.

"It's nothing in the knee," Moshak said. "One of the reasons we did the surgery on her was every time she subluxed her kneecap, she would take a little piece of the underside of the kneecap off. You can get arthritis because there's articular cartilage under there.

"When they went in to do the surgery she's got a grade three, grade four lesion (on a five-point scale with five being the worst case) where it's bone rubbing on bone, which is why it was very important to realign and get her in the groove. They even lifted it to get it off the groove. She had that collision with the practice player and that undersurface of the kneecap got really ticked off again.

"It didn't create an effusion (buildup of fluid) because it's not big inside the joint; the ligaments are fine. But then try to bend and straighten, bend and straighten the knee, it hurts. So we've got her on some meds to try to calm that down, but she's going to go through a period (of pain) until that can calm down."

The players reassembled Monday evening at Pratt Pavilion for more than an hour of shooting and free throws – Pratt has 12 baskets so it's an efficient venue when the coaches want repetitions – and then moved to the arena for a scrimmage-type setting on their home floor.

With McMahan unavailable for now Summitt will return to point guard by committee to back up true freshman Briana Bass.

"I'm going to go with Alicia Manning and Shekinna Stricklen," Summitt said. "I think we'll work them both there and then decide based on what unfolds in the game who we think responds the best (in terms of order of rotation)."

Summitt has used that pair very little at point guard this season, as she has been pleased with the dual play of McMahan and Bass, but the crankiness of McMahan's knee means another player must get reps behind Bass.

The youth at point guard is unavoidable, but the inexperience has popped up all over the floor this season, and it was apparent in the 73-59 loss to Texas.

"Our post game is playing in such a rush," Summitt said. "We have got to have more composure in our post game, and I'm talking tremendous composure. As I told Dean (Lockwood) I've watched him. You put them in practice and you can see the skill development, the skill work and the carryover from drills and yet you put them in a game situation when the lights are on and the volume's turned up and it's like we just go play."

Summitt conducted an experiment Monday that put the observation to test. For the first part of practice the players went through half-court drills, and they executed on offense and defense. Then, the sound of cheering and crowd noise echoed through the arena's PA system, and the scattershot offense and lack of communication on defense emerged.

"I just did that to see how they would respond," Summitt said. "They played the same way (Monday) that they did (Sunday). I want them to become really accustomed to a noisy gym. That's what you're going to be in every game you play, whether it's at home or on the road. So now we'll just create that environment as much as we want to."

Summitt watched the game film, which underscored what she saw Sunday – a lack of composure and a team playing in a hurry but without a plan.

"First of all it was very, very, very physical," Summitt said. "We lost composure. As opposed to shot faking we would quick shoot. The ball was like a hot potato and we could not get rid of it fast enough.

"I think the youth, the defense of Texas, the environment they were in, a hostile environment, I think the combination of all of that created a sense of anxiousness and just not being as focused. I can't remember a shot fake (by a post player). I'll have to go back and look."

The Lady Vols never led in the first half but made up the deficit – which reached eight points – by halftime to knot the score at 31. After taking the lead on a post feed to Glory Johnson the offense stagnated and the ball squirted loose. Texas took advantage of the opening, got the lead and never surrendered it.

"I think we did not come out of the locker room with the same intensity, the same determination, focus," Summitt said. "It was like once that happened and Texas opened the game up it multiplied our nervous play. It was almost like we were a totally different team from one half to the next.

"I think several of us hit the wall, and it's a 40-minute game. They closed out that first half and then we came back out and we didn't have the same energy level. We continued to rush shots. I cannot remember in my coaching career a team so overanxious offensively. I spent most of my time in huddles trying to get them to have composure and calm down and set screens. A hot potato and they're shooting it every time they're getting it and then it's difficult to rebound out of those shots because you don't know when it's going up."

The wall is not a physical one. The team is tall at nearly every position, athletic and well conditioned, although several players are rebounding from knee surgery.

"I think it's more mental than anything," said Summitt, citing the work of Heather Mason to get the players in physical shape.

With three freshmen and two sophomores in the lineup it's the youngest five to ever start in Summitt's career, which is now in its 35th year.

The last squad to be so young played in 1997-98 when rookies Tamika Catchings, Teresa Jeter and Semeka Randall lined up with juniors Chamique Holdsclaw and Kellie Jolly.

Two other teams were nearly as young: Three freshmen, Tanya Haave, Mary Ostrowski and Pat Hatmaker, and one sophomore, Lea Henry, started in 1980-81, but they had senior Cindy Noble alongside. In 1984-85, three freshmen, Karla Horton, Kathy Spinks and Dawn Marsh, and sophomore Shelly Sexton started, and they also had a senior on the floor in Shelia Collins.

On Monday, Summitt called on the returning players, sophomores Angie Bjorklund, Sydney Smallbone and Vicki Baugh; redshirt sophomore McMahan; redshirt freshman Cain; and redshirt senior Alex Fuller to raise the volume, although Summitt noted that Fuller often was the one who was doing the talking.

"I think we have to have more leadership from every player that's been in this program more than a year," Summitt said. "We should have that. I just challenged Angie. She's got to invest more in being a leader. Syd, obviously I've been pretty pleased with her floor game, but she doesn't contribute in the game with her communication. And they have to do it.

"If the people that have been here more than a year would feel like we have to do this instead of the coaches … they're together all the time. They're in huddles all the time together. We're not there. When they're in the locker room. When they're on the bus. They spend an enormous amount of time together. It really would enhance our freshmen understanding and also committing if it comes from the players."

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