The seventh first-year player, redshirt freshman Kelley Cain, a 6'6 center, was intended to be a huge part of the rebuilding plans, but two screws from her knee realignment surgery began migrating out of the bone. She spent most of the season hobbled – she started for the first time in her career in mid-February – and had to be taken out of the game shortly before halftime of the71-55 loss to Ball State on March 22 after taking yet another blow to the knee.
That loss – which Summitt called afterwards the worst of her career because it was a first for her program – was a shock to the Lady Vols system that evening and in the first few days to come but as some time has passed – and Summitt said the 11 days since the defeat feel like a long time to her – it seems less surprising in retrospect.
Tennessee, 22-11, had struggled defensively all season. When the Lady Vols got behind in a game, they had to fire on all cylinders offensively to catch up because the defense wasn't stout enough to get stops or force turnovers with pressure. The perimeter defense was especially porous – minus that of sophomore Angie Bjorklund – as the freshmen guards fell victim to backdoor cuts and dribble penetration.
Summitt had implored the players to get in the gym on their own to work on free throws and shooting and while some did so – particularly Bjorklund and fellow sophomore Sydney Smallbone – several did not.
It is not unusual for freshmen to be overextended in their first year as they juggle class and mandatory study hall with practice, weights, conditioning, film study, meetings, travel and games. But Summitt said they also have freedom for the first time, and basketball didn't always take priority.
"They were away from home and with that free time a lot of them chose not to get in the gym," Summitt said. "And did it hurt us? Absolutely. That is where Angie is going to have to drag people in the gym, she and Syd, because they're going to be here. They're in here. I would think after this past season that's going to happen."
The past season was a painful one for the program, and Summitt's approach to the loss was to start the healing process immediately. The Lady Vols always resume workouts after the season ends, but they usually take a short break because the season had extended into April, and the players had missed the equivalent of two or three weeks of classes. But with the March loss Summitt suddenly found herself with spare time during her favorite time of the year.
No scheduled games also meant Heather Mason's conditioning sessions could be unleashed, and the players did another series of sprints up the steep ramp at Gate 10 at Neyland Stadium on Wednesday with two sets of six sprints completed in under eight minutes. All seven returning players – Amber Gray (shoulder), Vicki Baugh (knee) and Kelley Cain (knee) are being held out – made their times, and Smallbone and Bjorklund each won a set to avoid extra sprints. Both players sprinted anyway and paced a teammate who did have to run extra.
"We've made progress," Summitt said. "They're in much better shape. Most of them are not giving into fatigue. But when we start going up and down there's a lot of game slippage. For this team it's repetition, repetition, repetition."
The slippage was an issue all season. The coaches could control practice and drills and then in scrimmages and games the first-year players slipped into high school habits on both sides of the ball. Slippage occurs even with veteran teams, but the level with a young team can be the difference between winning and losing, between close games and double-digit defeats.
The slippage reached its peak against Ball State in all aspects of the game – defense, rebounding, decision-making and running the offense, which resulted in a high number of panic plays.
A season will typically unfold the way it is supposed to – meaning a team gets out what it was able to put in – and that maxim held true for Tennessee.
"After I got over being so upset I realized that's the best thing that could have happened to a team this young," Summitt said. "If that team had gotten to a Sweet 16, they would have needed a reality check at some point.
"I could see them thinking, ‘We've arrived. We're good,' when the truth of the matter is we haven't arrived and we've got a lot of work ahead of us."
That reality check arrived last week when the Lady Vols re-took the floor at Pratt Pavilion in the aftermath of a first-round loss. Summitt showed the team the game film the day after the loss, and the evidence played out on the screen. Tennessee didn't lose the game on a last-second shot or to a red-hot team or because of poor officiating.
"The one thing I thought was missing was competitiveness when the game starts," Summitt said. "Practice, we can hold accountability here, but in that game – and give Ball State all the credit because they were tougher, they had upperclassmen that just said, ‘Here's what we are going to do' – we didn't compete. We got whipped. They just flat-out beat us."
Summitt seethed for a few days.
"I did for awhile but right now what I think is the right thing happened," Summitt said. "The right thing happened because this team was not invested at the level they needed to be at both ends of the floor and in the game and in getting in the gym."
She is still simmering beneath the surface, but her outward focus has turned to the team and using her time in the spring to get better and propel the players into summer workouts. Summitt has repeated her desire to find out who's in and who's out – as she put it to each player in a team meeting – but she means it now in terms of commitment to work. Every player expressed a desire to return next season in that meeting.
Summitt also recognizes that seven players just finished their first year, and her patience doesn't run out that quickly. But those players now have a season in the system and know what to expect, so she does expect them to take a big leap between now and next fall.
"Absolutely," she said.
Bjorklund could be the prototype for such a leap. She staggered to the end of a long season a year ago and spent the summer getting stronger and lofting shots. She was able to play 40 minutes a game this season when needed to do so, and still had plenty of energy for postseason.
With 10 returning players – seven sophomores and three juniors, though Baugh played sparingly as a sophomore this season because of her knee – and three newcomers arriving in June for summer school, Tennessee remains a young team. Summitt played everyone last season as she tried to find a combination of competitors and also had to deal with the injury losses at key positions, especially point guard.
"Maybe on this team there are only going to be seven or eight that get to play a lot," Summitt said.
But a second later she realizes she has no way to know that now.
"I say that, but I've got to see how these freshmen fit into the mix," Summitt said.
One of those freshmen, Taber Spani, played in Wednesday's McDonald's High School All-American Game in Miami. She also will play in the WBCA All-American game in St. Louis on Saturday, which Summitt will attend.
"She has deep range," Summitt said. "I'm excited about this class, all three of them. With somebody like Faith Dupree, she's got such a work ethic. She's a gym rat. She is probably in the gym a lot more than some of these players have been this past year."
The third freshman is Kamiko Williams, who Summitt expects to provide help at point guard and with the perimeter defense.
The reins at point guard are now in the hands of Briana Bass, a 5'2 speedster who had a decent freshman year with the ball in her hand but was pulled from games because of her defense.
"She's got to become more committed to defense and boxing out," Summitt said. "Without the ball (on offense) sometimes she stands. She's got to stay very aggressive. I think she understands a lot more what we want her to do offensively and defensively. I think it's clicked in most of our players' minds."
That doesn't mean Shekinna Stricklen won't get reps at the one spot, too, especially since the coaches need time to get Williams ready. Williams will have to learn the point and wing spots.
"I like the ball in Strick's hands, as well," Summitt said. "Kamiko is going to be a freshman. We've got to bring her along and see how she will mesh in. I think Kamiko is going to give us another point guard who is going to be physically imposing. She's got a toughness about her."
The U.S. Basketball Writers Association selected Stricklen as its national Freshman of the Year on Wednesday, and she became the first Lady Vol to earn the prestigious honor from the USBWA.
Stricklen started 32 of 33 games – she was out with a stomach illness for one game in December – and led the Lady Vols with 13.3 points and 3.0 assists per game. She was second on the team with 5.9 rebounds per game. Stricklen, along with Glory Johnson, became the 11th and 12th Lady Vols to start their first career game at Tennessee.
"I am very excited and honored to have been named the Freshman of the Year," Stricklen said. "I want to thank my teammates and coaches for pushing me every day to be the best I could be. Without them, I could not have achieved such an incredible award. I am extremely blessed to be able to play basketball at Tennessee, as it has always been my dream. There are so many great players in women's collegiate hoops that this is truly a special honor."
The Morrilton, Ark., native was also selected to the All-SEC Second Team and was a unanimous selection to the All-SEC Freshman Team.
Stricklen twice earned SEC Freshman of the Week honors with the first coming after she led Tennessee past No. 3/4 Stanford with 25 points, including eight of UT's 11 overtime points. The second honor came after she averaged 14 points and 8.5 rebounds in a pair of road wins over Gonzaga and No. 15/14 Rutgers. Against the Scarlet Knights, she scored 13 of her team-high 16 points and grabbed six of her game-high 11 rebounds in the second half to lead a 23-point comeback victory.
"I think she had a good year," Summitt said. "I think for us, without her, we would not have been nearly as successful in my opinion because she played on both sides of the ball a lot and with the ball in her hands. She made a lot of good things happen for us, made a lot of big shots."
Summitt will need Stricklen and Johnson to elevate their games over the summer, as both are key to the Lady Vols success next season. Stricklen has to become a better defender. Johnson's defense was advanced for a freshman, but she was unpolished on offense.
Johnson had one of her better practice sessions on Thursday, especially with the ball in her hand, but consistency is what Summitt now seeks – from Johnson and all the freshmen. She also wants them in the gym.
"I thought she had a solid workout," Summitt said. "She's got to invest in her game. She's got to get in the gym. If she doesn't somebody else will take her minutes. Glory has never really committed to being a gym rat. She needs to be a gym rat. If she's a gym rat she's a different player for us, and we're a different team because of it."
Summitt wants Tennessee to be a different team from this past season. An early exit from the NCAA Tournament – while apropos – was difficult for the coach.
"Initially, yes," Summitt said. "We were so disappointed in our performance and as coaches you think, ‘What could we have done that made a difference?' But at this point you think, ‘The right thing happened.' "