The roles of Briana Bass and Stricklen expanded with the news that Cait McMahan won't be able to play this season – and most likely not again – because of her balky right knee. McMahan, a redshirt sophomore, was expected to hold down the point guard position with Bass as an understudy in her first year.
But Bass had to move into the starting lineup and Stricklen, a natural small forward/shooting guard, had to become her backup. Both are true freshmen, but only one is a true point guard.
The challenges for a young team continue tonight when No. 13/15 Tennessee (12-3, 1-1) takes on Mississippi State (13-3, 1-1), at 8 p.m. Eastern (Lady Vol Radio Network; TV: CSS) at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville, Miss.
The Lady Bulldogs have never beaten the Lady Vols – the series began in 1986 and Tennessee is 28-0 – and that stat was shared with the current Tennessee team.
"Kiss of death," Pat Summitt said when she was asked about the series record right before practice started Wednesday. "That's what I just told them in the locker room: ‘Just be mindful of one thing. Mississippi State has never beaten Tennessee. Now, just imagine if we were in that position. No matter what it took we would be so focused on trying to at least get a win somehow.'
"I am obviously very mindful that they're going to be ready. We have to be ready."
Mississippi State won at home against its in-state rival, Ole Miss, 69-64, after being down by 18 points in the second half and then going on a 32-9 run, while Tennessee is coming off Sunday's 74-58 loss to bitter in-state rival Vanderbilt.
"I think it was a good wakeup call, but it all depends on how they handle it," Summitt said. "If they're going to mope around and feel sorry for themselves then we're in trouble at Mississippi State."
The Vanderbilt game was disturbing to the coaches because the Lady Vols got out-rebounded and broke down repeatedly on defense.
"It's unacceptable because there are certain things you can control," Summitt said. "You can control how hard you're willing to play and your commitment, especially on the defensive end. We haven't had that in any game for 40 minutes, but I thought Vanderbilt just came at us, put us on our heels early and we never adjusted and we never said, ‘No, we're going to make you put the brakes on and take away your dribble drives.' By far this year the most disappointing effort.
"I think our program has been built on defense and board play and ball security. We're young, and I have to remind myself of that daily. But that doesn't mean that you accept it, and our coaching staff is not going to accept this. We're going to keep working and if it means that practices have to be a lot harder and more challenging than games and come game time it's players taking ownership of what they do, that's what this team has to do."
But Summitt also talked during her morning teleconference about striking a balance between pushing a young team and understanding its fragile nature, especially coming off a loss.
"Well I think our veteran teams have responded in the past in a very positive way," Summitt said. "They're very focused and determined with a not-going-to-let-it-happen-again kind of attitude. This group? I don't know. They are much more fragile and I think that it's going to be important as we move forward to fight through and focus on what we can control.
"And really focus in on our scouting report. We constantly talk about defense and our board play. You're not going to be able to control every night whether or not you shoot the ball well. You just have some bad shooting nights, and what do you have to fall back on? That is just a commitment to being a good defensive player and a good defensive team. And controlling boards on both ends. Again, we're just not where we need to be."
Disregarding the scouting report defense will especially upset Summitt. After the Vanderbilt game senior Alex Fuller noted the team knew Vandy would go to the rim but failed to stop it. A freshman, however, expressed surprise at the attack.
"They must have dozed off during the scouting session," Summitt said. "That's typical. I think the problem is attention span. It's this generation."
As much as that sounds like a curmudgeonly remark it's also accurate in light of any player expressing surprise at Vandy's point of attack after it was outlined in the on-court scouting session two days before the game and in the written scouting report.
The coaches also know that a loss, especially a convincing one, can affect a young team's level of confidence.
"I wish I knew where our confidence level was right now," Summitt said. "I don't know. I don't know. I know that they understand that they need to go to Mississippi State, and they need to bring it together and control the things they can control. They can control how hard they play. They can control how they rebound. If they box out. If they take care of the basketball. A lot of that is in their control. That's where we have to see them step up and make that commitment.
"When players take ownership then good things tend to happen, but it has to be across the board or, as I told them, we may only play six, seven deep. I'm not going to reward some players that haven't had a different level of commitment, especially in that Vanderbilt game. I'm disappointed in the way some of our players came off the bench and didn't play."
While a home game is always preferable after a loss, Tennessee will play four of its first five SEC games on the road, and Summitt said it does mean she can measure how quickly her team can bounce back from disappointment.
"I think it's good," Summitt said. "Right now it's like, ‘OK, we don't have time to feel sorry for ourselves. We've got to get up, get in practice, get prepared, catch the plane (Wednesday afternoon) and go play.' I know as a player I always felt like way and certainly as a coach I might feel it's even more important about let's get back and see where we are.
"There's no time to whine and drop our heads but to really step up and compete."
Prior to Sunday's game the perimeter game had been clicking for Tennessee, but it faltered and the post play, led by Fuller and Kelley Cain, carried its weight on the scoreboard. Summitt wants to see both Thursday night in Starkville.
"You always want (offensive) balance," Summitt said. "I do think our post game is getting better. I see a big improvement there, and that will take a little bit of pressure off of us. (At Vandy) our post game stepped up and played better for us overall at both ends of the floor than our perimeter game.
"Briana has got to be better. You're talking about the only true point guard that we have. Shekinna has done a nice job, but we're going to have to share some responsibility at that position."
Bass is expected to be back in the starting lineup tonight so that frees Stricklen to open on the wing. Stricklen started at point Sunday and struggled on offense.
"That's not an excuse," Stricklen said, but she smiled when asked if starting at point affects her shooting or changes her mentality. "It's a lot different I have to admit. Playing the point is hard and you've got to run the offense and be a leader. It's different.
"I think at point guard I feel like I need to create things more. I really don't look to score when I play the point, but I think Pat wants me to score more. I'd rather be playing on the wing, but wherever Coach puts me that's where I'm going to be play."
Stricklen has a skill package that makes her well suited to back up Bass – she's a good ball handler and at 6'2 can see the floor – but her offense suffers, especially her outside shooting. Stricklen has deep three-ball range and can drive to the basket. Her ball security also becomes suspect at point, as she has been picked in the open floor, something that didn't happen in high school.
"It is surprising, but I tend to take my focus off of things, try to call a play," Stricklen said. "Like I said, point is really different to me and I am still learning. I give a lot of credit to people who pick me but it usually doesn't happen much. I've just got to stay focused and watch my man and try to do many things at much."
Summitt knows how well Stricklen can handle the ball. She's seen her in practice break presses against male practice players with her speed and ability to pass over the top of the defense.
"She has some casual plays," Summitt said of the turnovers. "We all do, but, no, I'm not overly concerned about that."
Stricklen is also not the only freshman doing a lot in her first year. Alyssia Brewer is being converted into a low-block presence to complement redshirt freshman Cain, who is coming back from major knee surgery. Glory Johnson has started every game this season and is being asked to guard interior and perimeter players. Amber Gray is learning how to compete every day in demanding and physically challenging practice sessions. Alicia Manning is getting reps at shooting guard and small forward and is also trying to learn the offenses to be a third point guard. Bass is also coming back from major knee surgery and has been handed the reins at point, the most demanding position on the floor.
"I think we really want to play, and we've got to step up, though, every game," Stricklen said. "We can't have the excuse that we are freshmen. We've been playing for a while and we're going to play a lot of games. We should be used to everything, and we can't use ‘freshmen' as an excuse."
By far the biggest challenge for the freshmen has been learning how to play defense.
"It shouldn't be different than high school, but you've just got to play defense every possession," Stricklen said. "You can't take a possession off. You've just got to be aggressive on defense every time. Get down low and play one-on-one defense and try to keep your player from going to the hole."
One player who arrived at Tennessee ready to play defense was Johnson, who was coached by former Lady Vol Shelley Sexton Collier. Johnson's approach was to go hard every play, which can cover up a lot of mistakes.
"I've always been a defensive player so I don't really mind," Johnson said. "You've got to move your feet quick, get low, get your hands up and some people don't like to move their feet or whatever. It's just something that they've got to work on. I had to work on it when I didn't know how. Whenever I played defense I just did whatever I could, even if I did it wrong, whatever they told me to do I would go all out.
"But some of these people they've just got to learn you've got to go hard all the time. We've just got to play together and hard all the time. All five people have to play hard – hard defense, get your hands up, get low."
Teammates holding each other accountable is the point the coaches want to reach. The staff can demand a sense of urgency and responsibility, but if the players ask it of each other it usually occurs quicker.
"I think we can talk about it," Summitt said. "We can work on it practice although going down (Wednesday) and playing (Thursday) there is not a whole lot you can do. It's more of a mindset that, ‘Hey, you know what? We've got to get it done, and we've got it done in a hurry.' I agree with Dean (Lockwood). We haven't had it. It's all about what the players decide they want to bring, and they had better have a sense of urgency."
It is not Bass' offense that has kept her off the court at times. It's her adjustment to guarding people at the college level.
"I think Bree has got to defend better," Summitt said. "I don't think that has been a priority for her. She has not been in the attack mode as much as she had been. I think defensively she didn't step up (Sunday). She's had more breakdowns on defense, even in the Rutgers game. I pulled her from that game not because of her offense but because of her defense.
"(On offense), she needs to turn the volume on high. She's very soft spoken and in an environment like that (on the road) we can't have confusion. But Shekinna was not comfortable in that environment at the point either."
"Bree is a lot better than she's playing. I think she's going to be all right. You've got to compete really hard in this program all the time and for her she's just got to turn the volume up because every place we go it's going to be loud."
The team is young. The coaches know it. The players know it. The fans know it. The media writes about it.
"We know we're young, but we've got to grow up and put the (Vandy) game behind us and come out and practice and work hard and get better," Stricklen said.
The mandate to grow up was an oft-repeated one this week. McMahan, who will now be a student assistant coach, has delivered the same one while also being in a supportive role.
"Just letting them know we can do this," McMahan said. "Everyone says, ‘We're young.' Well, that's over with. They're not freshmen anymore. That may be in the classroom but on the court they're not. They need to grow up and they know that. Alex and I have told them that. It's time to grow up. The coaches have told them they're not freshmen anymore. That's not an excuse.
"But just being there for them to lean on and showing them support I think is real key. And show them not to be scared. There's no reason to be scared. Just support and leadership."
Former Lady Vol post player Daedra Charles-Furlow is now an assistant coach for the Lady Vols. She is in her first season in Knoxville after a stint at Auburn and she is trying to impart her hard-earned wisdom on the freshmen, who were the top recruiting class in the nation when inked by Tennessee.
"This has been a great experience for me because I've never been a part of a class like this, of this caliber, this young, so I am really learning a lot so this is preparation for me down the line," Charles-Furlow said. "These are the challenges you will face. You have to deal with it and you've got to demand what you want, mean what you say and do what you say.
"It's been a good challenge in getting them to really understand the tradition here and buying into the program because those two things right there you really have to understand before you can really do what you need to do for the school."
PROBABLE STARTERS: Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Briana Bass, 5'2 freshman guard, No. 1 (4.7 points per game, 1.9 rebounds per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 sophomore guard, No. 5 (12.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 freshman guard/forward, No. 40 (13.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 freshman forward, No. 25 (12.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg); and Alex Fuller, 6'3 senior forward/center, No. 44 (6.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg).
That was the lineup the coaching staff was leaning towards using, but it could change before tipoff. So far this season five freshmen have started games with Alicia Manning getting her first career start last Sunday. The staff pondered putting 6'6 center Kelley Cain in the starting lineup, but will likely opt to bring her off the bench as she continues her comeback from a knee injury.
Cain played a solid 20 minutes against Vandy and had nine points, five rebounds, four blocks, two assists and a steal.
"Kelley is a lot better," Summitt said. "Turning the corner? Don't know. I don't know what's around on the other side yet."
Summitt also could shorten her rotation – so far this season she has often used every player available in the first half – but she will base that on how the game unfolds.
"I think as a coach it's an instinctive thing," Summitt said. "You've got to wait and see and get a feel in the game. If you go in and you predetermine, ‘I'm going to play seven people,' and you have two come off the bench and play poorly you might want to change your mind. I always want the option to change my mind."
Summitt will not have Vicki Baugh available Thursday. The sophomore forward suffered a left knee sprain Jan. 1 and is likely out until next week. With Cait McMahan done for the season that leaves 10 players in uniform.
Mississippi State Coach Sharon Fanning is expected to start: Alexis Rack, 5'7 junior guard, No. 2 (14.1 ppg, 3.1 rpg), hails from Franklin, La., has started in 74 career games, is majoring in chemistry, also played volleyball, track and softball in high school, was Miss Basketball in Louisiana; Armelie Lumanu, 5'9 junior guard, No. 5 (13.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg), one of three players on the roster from Kinshasa, Congo via Southeastern Illinois College, was an NJCAA All-American last season, the team she wants to see added to the schedule is UConn; Mary Kathryn Govero, 5'11 sophomore forward, No. 33 (7.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg), hails from Clinton, Miss., named to the SEC All-Freshman Team last season, is one of eight children; Robin Porter, 5'11 senior forward, No. 24 (7.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg), hails from Abbeville, Ala., brother Chris Porter was All-American basketball player at Auburn, has started 79 career games; and Chanel Mokango, 6'5 junior center, No. 10 (11.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg), hails from Kinshasa, Congo, an NJCAA All-American for two seasons, wants to add Rutgers to the schedule.
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Daedra Charles-Furlow handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Mississippi State game. Here is her assessment.
When Mississippi State has the ball: "They've added some really, really athletic kids to their roster, some kids from Congo," Charles-Furlow said. "They really penetrate more to the basket, from the midrange game to extending to beyond the arc. They do ball screens, they'll go one on one. They do a variety of things (off screens). They like to get the ball out and push it as quickly as they can. They like to score in their primary if they can versus setting up an offense. They're very, very athletic. I see them doing a lot of penetration and kick and using a lot of ball screens."
In last season's game in Starkville, Alexis Rack scored a career-high 32 points and hit seven 3-pointers.
"She is definitely a priority," Charles-Furlow said. "Each player is a priority because they all are offensive threats. They all can shoot the ball, they can score, they all can drive it. They are not just concentrating on one, but her in particular making sure we're guarding her the whole time when she has the ball, make her give up the ball and know where she is on the court if we have to be able to help and rotate. Always be able to locate her because she shoot the three from deep, definitely she can penetrate. It's going to be very important whenever she has the ball to try to make her give it up and not get it back as much as we can."
Charles-Furlow expects to see the Lady Bulldogs open in a man defense, but they can mix up their looks.
"I think they'll do a variety of things on us," Charles-Furlow said. "They will look to man us initially, but I think we'll see some zone, also full court pressure man to man and a little bit of 1-2-2 (zone) on us to slow the ball down to try to create turnovers. Primarily they play man, but I think they will mix it up.
"One thing about it is a team that is full of penetrators doesn't always like to guard teams that are penetrators as well, and we have to penetrate, too. So it's going to be real interesting to see how well they match up against our penetration, as well."
When Tennessee has the ball: "We're definitely going to run our sets," she said. "Our biggest thing is reading our defense and feeding off of our defense to get our points. If we can get some easy baskets, knock down shots, definitely get Kelley (Cain) going, get our post game going, the ripple effect will be great
"It's when we don't score that I think we start pressing and we stop doing the game plan. That's one thing with a young team – and I hate to keep bringing up a young team – but they've got to understand you might miss your first 10 shots but your defense has got to work for you so you can get opportunities to be able to score by running to the basket or getting a steal. Reading what they do will help us determine how we can slip screens or a double team, being able to see the floor, which is very important. They get after it defensively so we've got to make sure we protect the ball, as well."
The Lady Vols will remain committed to their man principles on defense and will look for a better effort than was on display last Sunday.
"We will play man," Charles-Furlow said. "We believe each person takes care of their man. If there is something that happens and we feel like we need to make an adjustment we will."
This road game is the next test in the ongoing maturation of the freshmen, and the coaches are trying to instill toughness in them, a process that occurs incrementally with players that were handed high expectations in their first season.
"It's a process and it's day by day," Charles-Furlow said. "You're hoping at some point it'll get real contagious and once one gets it you hope the next one will get it, and it will just keep on going down the line.
"I think in spurts we have seen that. It's just not consistent. Once it becomes a habit and it becomes consistent that's what's going to be scary, when we can play a complete 40-minute game and everybody is clicking on all cylinders."
Pat Summitt has watched game film and perused the stat sheets. Now, she's ready to see how her team reacts in this road game.
"There are a lot of similarities in points scored; there's a lot of similarity in the rebounding aspect of it," Summitt said. "We're playing them on the road, and we haven't exactly been as successful of late on the road and this is where we really have to influence with our defense and board play. We have to just be more committed.
"It's doable, but it's right now up to the players wearing the orange uniform and see what they're going to bring because we can only do so much come game time. We can help them in timeouts and make adjustments, but I am probably more anxious to see how this team is going to respond than I have been all season long."
CAIT UPDATE: When the news was released last weekend that Cait McMahan was done for the season because of her chronically sore and unstable right knee the Blount County native received an outpouring of support from the community and Lady Vol fans at large.
"I've had a lot of support," McMahan said. "I go home a lot and I went out to eat and people were (saying), ‘I'm sorry. You're such a great person to watch,' so it means a lot. You need support, and one thing I am blessed about is having the support that I do, not only from Blount County, but anywhere I go throughout Tennessee. It's a great feeling, and I love that."
McMahan didn't see the remarks made about the decision on the Internet, but her father did.
"I don't get on that stuff but my dad has told me that: ‘Everybody on the message boards has your back totally,' " McMahan said. "It is very difficult but what makes it easy is the support you're talking about. I have more support now that I'm not playing basketball than I did when I was playing basketball. It's a great feeling."
McMahan's official role with the team will be that of a student assistant coach.
"I think what happened to Cait, it's difficult," Pat Summitt said. "It's difficult for her. It's difficult for all of us. You're talking about someone from Blount County who obviously her dream school was Tennessee and then get a bad break with her knee. I'm disappointed for her. I'm disappointed for our program. That's why we want Cait to stay as involved as she wants to stay. We're going to ask her to have a watchful eye throughout our games."
McMahan wants to reevaluate whether or not she can play at the end of the season, but she recognizes that the chances of being able to suit up again are very slim.
"Officially I'm done with this year," she said. "We're not going to make any calls about next year. We're just going to take it a day at a time. I'm not even going to think about that right now. It's up in the air. It's something we'll talk about. It might happen, and it might not. I am just not going to worry about it right now. It would be a miracle if I came back.
"The main reason I can't play when I get out on the court it just gives out. I even tried the brace and it gave out on the brace. It's mainly lateral. It occasionally happens when I'm going up and down. And you can't play here when you can't play defense. I don't want to jeopardize my teammates playing defense on a key possession, and my knee goes out.
"If I had two healthy knees would things be different? Totally."
McMahan, a redshirt sophomore in terms of basketball eligibility, is a communications major and a junior academically. She is on pace to graduate on time and could even finish early by next December. Her career possibilities include coaching and motivational speaking.
"I used to say I never wanted to coach because I get too angry," McMahan said. "I would be the coach that got kicked out every game and I would want to get out there and play. But it's definitely an option."
With that in mind McMahan welcomed the chance to sit on the sideline this season with Summitt.
"She told me, ‘I want you to be a student assistant coach,' and I was like, ‘That's awesome,' " McMahan said. "Being a student assistant coach for the greatest coach in the world that's the greatest opportunity anybody could be given. So I'm taking that and I'm just going to do what I can. The best pressure is from peers so I'm just going to try and do my best and keep it positive on the bench. If any of my teammates need help I am going to be there for them.
"I would love to be a student assistant, especially if I want my career to be coaching."
McMahan turned 21 years old last December and basketball has been a guiding force in her life.
"It's very hard," McMahan said. "Basketball is all I've known my whole life. I played it every day, but I'm confident and I'm content and I know God's going to lead me down another path, and I have faith in that. It's just what I have to do. I don't really ask why because I believe everything happens for a reason.
"I'm very positive about it. I'm not going to cry about it every day. It's happened. It's over with. It's life. I'm a happy person, and I'm not going to ponder about why this happened to me. It happened. I've just got to take it and run with it. Right now I am just going to enjoy college and enjoy being a part of the best program in the nation and work on my academics and still be a leader for this team."
Summitt hopes McMahan's spirit and desire to compete can filter down to the younger players, even if she can't be on the floor with them.
"Cait was one of our best examples of bring it every day, bring it every possession," Summitt said. "You've got to be passionate about it and just such a fierce competitor. We miss that. We miss having her on the floor. I think it's been costly for us.
"But right now it's all about Cait's well being, but there's no question when you talk about good examples, good role models when you talk about stepping over the line and bringing what you got and having the heart and desire and competitive drive, Cait is probably our best example on this team."
McMahan will be assigned to help Briana Bass, and she will draw on her first year when Alexis Hornbuckle and Shannon Bobbitt helped her.
"I'm in her ear a lot. Bree, ‘It's time to grow up.' She needs that," McMahan said. "When I was a freshman I needed it and Hornbuckle and Bobbitt, they gave that to me. Coach has really challenged me with that, with helping Bree. Because she's going to be a great point guard. She is right now. She just needs to learn to grow up, and it's time for her to do that now. I think she understands that, and I think she is starting to implement that on the floor."
McMahan, who has been courtside at every practice this season when she could not play, also will communicate with the rest of the team.
"Just being here for my teammates and letting them know what I see, because I'm a point guard and point guards, to me, are the smartest on the floor," McMahan said. "You've got to be. I've been here three years and I have confidence that I know a lot about the game. I know my freshman year when teammates like Candace (Parker) or Hornbuckle got onto me I was like, ‘You know, they're right, because they see it. They've been on the floor.'
"I don't think I'm going to approach it like getting in their face. That approach is not in me. I have a soft heart about that. I'll probably just approach them and tell them what I see. I won't talk down on them. I'm still their age, I'm still their best friend, I'm still their teammate.
"I am keeping my options open. My main focus is to be here for this team. Nobody thinks we can do it, and I'm the number one fan for this team and I'll fight for any of them."
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Mississippi State, 28-0. MSU remains the only SEC team to have never defeated the Lady Vols. The Lady Bulldogs have come very close on occasion, especially an 80-78 loss on Feb. 14, 2002, in Starkville, and a 76-75 setback in the SEC tourney on March 8, 2003. The games in Knoxville have not been close, but Mississippi State led last year at the half, 40-33, in Starkville before Tennessee pulled away in the second half to win 87-69. … Tennessee is 9-0 in games played on January 15. The last win on this date was against Mississippi State, 79-56, in 2006. … Mississippi State Coach Sharon Fanning was a graduate assistant under Pat Summitt during the 1975-76 season. Summitt will see two former players on the sideline when South Carolina comes to Knoxville on Sunday. Former Lady Vols Nikki McCray and Carla McGhee are assistants under Coach Dawn Staley. … BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee averages 74.1 points per game and allows 62.9 points. Mississippi State averages 74.9 points and allows 55.5. The Lady Vols are shooting 40.8 percent overall, 32.9 percent from behind the arc and 68.1 percent from the free throw line. The Lady Bulldogs are shooting 43.8 percent overall, 31.7 percent behind the arc and 71.1 percent from the line. Tennessee averages 45.8 rebounds per game and has a +7.9 margin. Mississippi State averages 41.8 boards for a +6.9 margin. The Lady Vols average 13.3 assists and 16.9 turnovers. The Lady Bulldogs average 16.3 assists and 16.4 turnovers. Tennessee averages 9.4 steals and 5.1 blocks. Mississippi State averages 12.4 steals and 7.3 blocks.