Morrilton is about a 1.5-hour drive to Fayetteville – and only 30 minutes to Little Rock for postseason play – and Stricklen's well-extended family of aunts and uncles plus parents Wayne and Karen Stricklen will be in attendance.
"I am so excited," Shekinna Stricklen said. "I can't tell you how excited I am just to know that I'm going to have a lot of support there and a lot of my friends are going to be there. And it just feels great to go back home."
The Razorbacks haven't won a conference game yet but gave undefeated Auburn all it could handle last Sunday before losing by nine points.
"Arkansas is going to give us all we want and more," Coach Pat Summitt said. "I think right now what they do is attack so much off the dribble and that's the hardest thing to defend in basketball – defending the one-on-one game. That's where they'll challenge us the most. I think we can guard their sets. The question is can we guard one on one and can we rebound the ball better?
"We're going to have to rebound the ball a lot better against Arkansas. And then where are our points coming from? Composure and having paint points and not living and dying by the three ball."
Reports of the SEC's demise were premature, according to Summitt.
"I just think we're better than everybody thought we were going to be," Summitt said. "People said the SEC is going to be down. I don't think so. Auburn is a great example. We leave Arkansas, and we go to Auburn. We're going to be going and marching through the league and doing whatever we can do, hopefully winning basketball games. I think Auburn right now is the team to beat in our league."
Summitt is reeling in a milestone with 997 career wins, but it's not an issue she talks about unless prompted, and she has not raised it with the team.
"I haven't talked to them about it," Summitt said. "We're just trying to win a ballgame every time we play."
But the players have been tracking the number and that has motivated them to win the next two road games. They want Summitt to try to earn No. 1,000 on her own court when Ole Miss comes to Knoxville on Jan. 29 in a week.
"We want all three in a row because we want the third one to be at home," Stricklen said. "We've thought about it. We want to win these three and make sure the third one is here."
Playing for something other than themselves – in this case Summitt – can have a positive effect on a team. Alex Fuller switched to jersey No. 2 to honor injured teammate Cait McMahan and responded with 14 points and eight rebounds against South Carolina on Sunday.
"I think she likes wearing Cait McMahan's jersey," Summitt said. "I think that really inspired her. I thought it was a great gesture on her part and obviously motivated our team as well.
"I think Alex as a senior is recognizing that she's not only a vocal leader but she needs to make plays for us. I thought her shot selection was outstanding. I thought her defensive commitment was very strong and just having her as a leader and having her presence on the floor for us was very important against South Carolina, and it's going to be important as we take the road again."
Tennessee will once again be shorthanded as sophomore forward Vicki Baugh didn't practice Wednesday before the team departed for Fayetteville and is listed as doubtful for tonight's game. Freshmen center Kelley Cain was able to practice Wednesday and has been cleared for the game.
Summitt said she is not frustrated by the yo-yoing of the two in and out of the lineup, because she knows what it takes to recover from major knee surgery.
"No, because I think the type of surgery the two of them had it takes a long time to get back full speed," Summitt said. "I'm not speaking for anybody other than my own experience, it seems like to me it's a year and half, two years until they are totally confident. And a lot of it is a confidence issue because they're strong. Vicki Baugh has got the best quad probably on the team."
"It just takes time. An injury like (Cain) had and an injury like Vicki had a lot of it is a confidence issue to trust their body and trust their legs. Kelley had that fall and that set her back. Vicki has got to play on balance."
Baugh has a tendency to land on one leg when she comes down with a rebound, and Summitt has been encouraging her to land on both legs to better absorb the pounding and help prevent the knee from buckling or hyper-extending from the impact.
Kelley Cain (Lady Vol Media Relations)
Cain is playing through a tremendous amount of pain right now as her surgically realigned right kneecap has been violently jarred three times – once in practice in December, once in a game in December in which a player backed up and rolled into the knee and once in a game this month. Each collision causes re-irritation and inflammation under the kneecap.
"The bottom line is it's her kneecap and then she's got a lesion where the cartilage is gone underneath her kneecap, which is why we did the surgery to re-track it and at least it's in the track now," said Jenny Moshak, the chief of sports medicine for the Lady Vols.
"But when that thing gets jammed in there – and the kneecap has a lot of free nerve endings on it."
Free nerve endings are sensory nerve fibers in which the terminal filaments end freely in the tissue. In layman's terms, it means the area is very sensitive to pain.
"You kick somebody in the kneecap they are going down," Moshak said. "So when her kneecap gets jammed into that groove, it stays sore while running, squatting, cutting, posting up, puts more pressure on that kneecap. I have a feeling this is going to be sore, sore, sore and the next day it's not sore whenever that will be.
"It's a minimum of eight months, and it can be up to a year and a half to where things totally calm down."
As if that weren't enough, the screws from the surgery are moving so Cain will have a cleanup operation after the season ends.
"She's got these two big screws in her, too, and the screws are starting to migrate out a little bit, and that's not causing her pain right now but when the season's over we're going to take those screws out," Moshak said. "Then she's going to be six weeks on crutches until those holes in her leg heal, which is the time it takes for a broken bone to heal.
"You either leave them in or you take them out just depending on how they're doing with them and hers are starting to migrate out, push out, because the body is saying, ‘I'm healing, and we don't need these.' "
The good news, according to Moshak, is that none of this is unusual, and there is no reason to believe Cain's basketball career will be compromised.
"None," Moshak said. "It's a matter of soreness and she's on treatments, and she's on some medication to try and relieve all that soreness. It will stop and then let's hope she doesn't get irritated again because she was doing really well until she got clipped at Mississippi State. She was doing really well until she fell on it in the incident before that, and I put her in the kneepad."
The coaches know how much better the post game becomes when Cain is available to play. They watch her in practice as she looms over everyone else on the floor and has a soft shooting touch around the basket.
"That will whet your appetite a lot," Summitt said. "But then she's got to come back and find some consistency, and she's got to be healthy to do that. Her size and her presence and her shooting touch, she's got great hands. It's been a long time since we've had a player like that. As far as our post players she's got great hands and good footwork."
Cain is dealing with the frustration by seeking divine guidance.
"Just praying about it," Cain said. "I always wonder that (why it happens), but I also think God makes everything happen for a reason so I trust him. It is frustrating, but I just pray about it and believe God has a plan for me."
When Cain needs more earthbound comfort she said she turns to her mother, Lynda Cain, and Moshak. As far as her soft hands Cain credits her father, Harold Cain, a former football player at Clemson who played tight end.
"Her on the inside protecting the basket and, her size, just lob the ball up to her," Stricklen said. "Just throw it, and she's going to get it. Nobody can get up there with her."
Cain looks puzzled when asked how she is able to secure a ball passed sometimes just somewhere in her general zip code.
"Catch the ball?" Cain said with a smile. "Don't laugh but when I was younger I played soccer, and I was the goalie. My dad played football. He had good hands. I guess I got it from him."
Cain smiles through parts of the interview, but she will also acknowledge some difficulty in dealing with the chronic pain, the level of which can be excruciating when the knee takes a direct shot
"Not at all," Cain said when asked if she had ever dealt with this level of pain in her basketball career. "I pray about it. That's all I can do."
Cain took another shot last week against Mississippi State and missed the game against South Carolina. She initially didn't know how she got hurt.
"I didn't know at first either," Cain said. "Jenny had to watch tape and tell me. I think (a Mississippi State) player kind of kneed me in the back of my knee, and the knee buckled."
The contact is part of basketball, but Cain can be forgiven if she feels like a marked woman on the floor.
"For the most part it's what happens in the post, but sometimes I feel like (the knee is) a target," Cain said.
Of course at 6'6, Cain is a big target and she consumes her share of space in the paint. In a congested lane with scrambles for the ball Cain is going to be in the thick of it.
"When you have the size and presence that Kelley has you're going to run over some people and get hit," Summitt said.
To her credit Cain hasn't been throwing what Summitt calls "pity parties," when an injured player sulks to the detriment of team morale.
"No, because I'm a big step forward from where I was last year because I am actually getting to play and getting to practice," Cain said. "It's only getting better. It's very hard. I always have pain in my knee. It's just something that I've got to get used it. It takes time to get used to."
Cain also was inspired by watching McMahan have to stop playing this season because of chronic knee pain. The decision didn't frighten her about the future but instead made her appreciate that she was in uniform.
"It definitely makes me more grateful that I'm still able to play because it's unfortunate that she can't, so that kind of makes me want to play for her," Cain said.
Cain won't be donning a No. 2 jersey, though. One, Fuller already has it. Two, McMahan's jersey wouldn't cover the torso of Cain.
"I can't fit in her jersey," Cain said. "But it does make me want to dedicate my game to her."
Cain knows that the knee will recover in time, "which we really don't have right now," Cain said, so she will play when she can.
Summitt thinks Cain has the temperament to see the healing process through to its conclusion.
"I do," Summitt said. "I think Kelley has already demonstrated a toughness. She's played with pain and I think when she went down that was a pretty hard fall for her (against Mississippi State). That hurts. It just takes time. You can't fast forward it. You've just got to deal with it."
The minimum rehab time for the surgery she had – a three-part operation to release and then realign the kneecap – is eight months with total recovery at 18 months. Cain is at 13 months right now. Some of the damage to the underside of her kneecap, which would slip in and out repeatedly, is permanent because of those subluxations. So setbacks in Cain's case are a hindrance but not unexpected.
"That's what everybody hopes for after any surgery (no setbacks), but that's not always the case so I just have to deal with it," Cain said.
Cain and Baugh were expected in October to be anchors inside for the post game, but they have both been limited in practice and have missed games.
"We talk about it all the time," Cain said. "The other day she was like she feels like we're tag-teaming it. Once she gets back I'm out and once I get back she's out. That's what it seems like it's been."
The game plan for Cain is ongoing treatment and medication and rest after any violent incidents. The staff realizes that Cain also is dealing with the physical toll of not having her knee react as she needs it to on the court.
"With athletes, especially in a sport like basketball, your body is your thing," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "Your mind dictates to your body but your body is your vehicle, your tool by which you get things done. When you have a blister, a blister affects you because you can't run and push and jump like you normally would. A knee is a whole different thing, the inner workings of a very critical joint.
"We've talked about it. I can't speak for her but putting myself in Kelley's shoes I can tell you right now there would be an element of frustration every so often if I didn't feel like myself and couldn't move with the freedom and freedom from pain that I normally have. That would be frustrating."
Perhaps most remarkable has been Cain's performance of late when she is in the game, especially at Vanderbilt when Summitt singled her out as one of the few players who competed. She doesn't think about the knee when she's on the court.
"Whenever I play I don't think about anything else except what's going on on the court," Cain said.
Stricklen will be happy to see Cain on the court, especially when she lobs a pass inside and is confident it will be caught, as happened in the Vandy game. Stricklen's parents attended that game in Nashville and the freshman struggled from the opening possession. Summitt thought Stricklen was too uptight in that game because her mother and father were there, and the freshman agreed.
"I really do because my parents really don't get to come," said Stricklen, the first Lady Vol basketball player from the state of Arkansas. "That was just the second game they got to come to. I really put a lot on myself."
Stricklen is glad she got that experience over with and thinks she will handle tonight's game better.
"It's not about me. It's about this team," Stricklen said. "We're in conference play, and we've got to play as a team. I'm just going to be a team player. It's not about me there trying to show out for my family or the fans. It's about this team.
"I tell myself just play my game, play like I play every other game and just be relaxed and focus on my teammates."
Summitt is happy that Morrilton, Ark., residents plan to pack Arkansas' arena.
"Typically for her that's good," Summitt said. "She loves having family there and plays well when they are. She didn't at Vanderbilt, but I think the wheels came off early in that game, and we just really never recovered.
"I think it will motivate her, inspire her."
PROBABLE STARTERS: Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt said Wednesday that she was leaning toward keeping her starting lineup intact from previous games. That means the Lady Vols will likely open with: Briana Bass, 5'2 freshman guard, No. 1 (4.8 points per game, 1.6 rebounds per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 sophomore guard, No. 5 (12.0 ppg, 3.3 rpg); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 freshman guard/forward, No. 40 (13.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 freshman forward, No. 25 (11.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg); and Alex Fuller 6'3 senior forward/center, No. 2 (6.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg).
Arkansas Coach Tom Collen is expected to start: Shanita Arnold, 5'4 sophomore guard, No. 2 (7.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg), hails from Fort Smith, Ark., played in 28 of 30 games last season behind senior Brittany Vaughn, has eight siblings, won a Class 5A state title as a senior in high school and was tourney MVP; Ceira Ricketts, 5'9 freshman guard, No. 22 (13.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg), hails from Louisville, Ky., and scored more than 3,000 points and grabbed more than 1,000 rebounds for Fairdale High School, started for the varsity team as a seventh-grader, averaged 20 ppg as a senior, voted homecoming queen, first women's basketball player from Kentucky to sign with Arkansas, leads the SEC with 2.8 steals per game, has tallied 48 total thefts this season; Lyndsay Harris, 5'9 freshman guard, No. 33 (10.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg), hails from Hoover, Ala., hit seven three-pointers in a game last season for Hoover High, also the alma mater of former Lady Vol Sidney Spencer, played AAU ball for the Alabama Twisters, which won the U18 national title in 2008, brother Robert played for McNeese State; Ayana Brereton, 5'10 senior guard, No. 34 (10.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg), hails from Angleton, Texas, started all 30 games last season, a two-sport star in high school, she also competed in long jump and triple jump and was runner-up state champ in both events, scored 13 points against Tennessee last year; and Whitney Jones, 6'0 senior forward, No. 31 (10.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg), hails from Blytheville, Ark., also started all 30 games last season, also a track star in high school in the 100m and 200m and also state runner-up in those events, her mother, Dian Ousley Jones was the first track and field national champion for Arkansas in the indoor 600m in 1979. Older sisters played college basketball, Wendlyn at LSU and Audrey at Xavier.
Both teams rely heavily on first-year players for production. Arkansas gets 48 percent of its scoring from freshmen while the Lady Vols receive 68 percent from rookies.
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Arkansas game. Here is his assessment.
When Arkansas has the ball: "Dribble drive, dribble drive, dribble drive," Lockwood said. "Now, they're adept at shooting threes. They take 22 per game and they're making almost seven. It's not like it's a great percentage but they shoot it. It's a little bit of the (Rick) Pitino philosophy – if we don't shoot any we're not going to make any so we're OK that we're not 40 percent so we're going to shoot 18, 20 of them to make six or seven them and it will work out advantage-wise.
"Their number one skill is dribble drive, but it's not like they can't shoot it. But they are more streaky than pure."
Ceira Ricketts made Arkansas history last Sunday when she became the first Razorback women's basketball player to record a triple double with 12 assists, 13 rebounds and 14 points.
"She's quick," Lockwood said. "She is very good getting to the basket. She turns corners. Quick, athletic, kind of a slashing kid."
Lockwood expects to see the Razorbacks in quite a bit of zone defense tonight.
"I would be shocked if we didn't see some zone," Lockwood said. "I would be shocked, and I don't usually go out that far. I would be shocked if they didn't play us in some zone. I would say open in man, go to zone and then mix."
When Tennessee has the ball: The Lady Vols are emphasizing composure when the ball is in their hands.
"That's the product of a young team," Lockwood said. "Staple? Inside. That's not going to change."
Tennessee expects to have a significant size advantage inside so the emphasis will be paint points from Alex Fuller, Glory Johnson, Kelley Cain and Alyssia Brewer. Vicki Baugh is not likely to play.
"I think we're going to have Kelley for a certain amount, Lyssi is in good health right now, knock on wood, Vicki is questionable, but Alex and Glory are good so given that we definitely want to establish our inside game, inside touches," Lockwood said.
"We want to play through our posts. It doesn't mean our posts are exclusive to taking shots, but we want to play through them. We want to establish that we can get touches. We want to have a game where we offensively execute. We would love to put together a game where we're hitting on all cylinders, we've got five people in sync, we're playing with energy, we're screening hard, our shot selection is good, we're not forcing plays."
The Lady Vols will open defensively in man, as is their wont.
"We're going to start man," Lockwood said. "We want to be able to establish our man as our primary stuff and then have our zone as a counter here or there, but we want to feel like we can guard a dribble-driving team like they are through man and stay in front of them."
Tennessee could opt to bring some full-court pressure – the Razorbacks like to push tempo – but it's not a staple for the Lady Vols, as in years past, because it hasn't been as effective with young players. Injuries also have limited its effectiveness, as Baugh was one of the best defenders in the open court.
"We will probably experiment at some point depending on how the game goes but a lot of it is dictated by how effective they are at breaking it and getting shots off it," Lockwood said. "There have been times when we opened up the floor (against Kentucky), and we were giving up way too many good looks so we stopped doing it. Our press is going to be predicated on what happens in a game."
ON TAP: Eight other SEC teams are in action tonight in the following matchups: Vanderbilt at Georgia; Mississippi State at LSU; South Carolina at Ole Miss; and Alabama at Auburn.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Arkansas, 19-1. The Razorbacks lone win, 77-75, came in the 1996-97 season on Dec. 29, 1996, at Arkansas. That same night Bill Smith, the director of media relations for Arkansas, welcomed a daughter into the world. Ashley is now 12 and serves as a ball girl at home games. The Lady Vols needed overtime to win, 75-68, in Arkansas two years ago on Feb. 22, 2007, to preserve a perfect SEC slate. Tennessee has won the last 14 matchups against the Razorbacks. The series began in the 1991-92 season when Arkansas joined the SEC. … Tennessee is 8-2 in games played on January 22. The last win on this date was against Vanderbilt, 79-54, in 2004. The two losses were to Western Carolina, 43-26, in 1971, and to Duke, 74-70, in 2007. Tennessee might want to not schedule teams from the state of North Carolina on this date. … Angie Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone combined for 11 three-pointers in last year's game against Arkansas. Bjorklund had seven – one of three times last season she connected for seven behind the arc – and Smallbone added four. Pat Summitt would like to see that accuracy this season from the team. The 2008-09 team is shooting a program worst 40.6 percent from the field, eclipsing the 2004-05 team, which shot 41.6 percent. "Worst-shooting team that we've had percentage-wise. Debby Jennings (chief of media relations) reminded me of that today and I said, ‘Thanks for ruining my day,' " Pat Summitt said Wednesday before practice. … The millionth fan should walk through the door for the Razorbacks this evening at Bud Walton Arena. In 33 years of women's hoops, 999,286 fans have attended Razorback games in Fayetteville, leaving the program just 714 fans shy of the seven-digit figure. BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee is averaging 73.1 points per game and allowing 62.1. Arkansas is averaging 67.2 points and allowing 59.4. The Lady Vols are shooting 40.6 percent overall from the field, 34.0 percent from behind the arc and 68.2 percent from the line. The Razorbacks are shooting 39.6 percent overall, 30.0 percent from behind the arc and 64.0 percent from the line. Tennessee averages 45.4 rebounds per game and has a +7.5 margin. Arkansas averages 38.8 and has a –0.8 margin. The Lady Vols average 12.9 assists and 16.6 turnovers per game. The Razorbacks average 13.6 assists and 16.3 turnovers a game. Tennessee averages 9.1 steals and 4.9 blocks a game. Arkansas averages 11.6 steals and 4.8 blocks a game.