Tennessee finished the season 22-11 with a first round loss to Ball State on March 22. The players were back in the gym two days later – after a team meeting the day after the loss to determine who wanted to stay on board – as Summitt and her staff took advantage of an NCAA bylaw that allows full team workouts for two hours a week until April 15.
The players also had six hours a week of conditioning and weight sessions with Heather Mason, and that is where the separation also began to occur as freshmen Shekinna Stricklen and Alicia Manning raised their performance a notch.
"I think Shekinna is getting a little bit tougher," Summitt said. "I think she's responded in the last week in particular. In a lot of our conditioning she was just trying to finish, not competing the way she has to compete. In her last few workouts she's been competing a lot harder. I also think A-Town has done a good job there, too. She's gotten a lot tougher, and she's pretty tough-minded anyway, but I think she's improved. She appears to be more invested in her game and in our team."
I think obviously Angie is a notch above everyone in that category right now," Summitt said. "I think that's her experience. Syd, her toughness in the workouts has been impressive. And I think across the board we got better in that area – mentally competing and not giving in to fatigue like we know we've done in the past."
The first round loss in the NCAA tourney was the first for the Tennessee program and although the coaches have always segued from the end of the season into workouts before the end of the spring semester they had never had a chance to start them before March ended.
"I think overall it was very beneficial for us to be back in the gym and also to get in the strength and conditioning workouts that we did," Summitt said. "They were very demanding. And for them to just go out and play and compete against each other, I think that a number of players are mentally stronger now because of it.
"We have a lot that we need to improve on, our defense in particular. I think that's been a number one priority for us in the gym and also in a lot of Heather's workouts, their footwork and their commitment on the defensive end. Defending one on one is tough. It's a hard thing to do, and I think we're getting better at that and not having to rotate our defense as much when we've gone up and down."
The team also benefited from the presence of former Lady Vol Alexis Hornbuckle, who returned to Knoxville after a winter spent playing pro basketball in Turkey. Hornbuckle will leave for training camp with the Detroit Shock later this month, and she wanted to work out at Tennessee with Mason to get ready. She also joined the team for some court sessions and immediately set the tone for how to sprint the floor, hit the glass and play defense.
It also underscored what had been missing this past season – a blue-collar mentality and fierce competitiveness, a mindset that Hornbuckle shared with Nicky Anosike, who remains in Poland playing pro ball but will return stateside soon to join training camp for the Minnesota Lynx.
Despite the double-digit losses and early exit from the tourney, an SI.com pre-preseason poll put Tennessee at No. 4 to start the 2009-10 season, a rather inexplicable ranking.
"I don't know why," Summitt said. "It's not like we've done anything yet. This team hasn't done anything in postseason."
Those same players – minus senior Alex Fuller, who continued to work out with the team the past three weeks although she was not required to do so – will return next season and will be joined by three freshmen, Faith Dupree, Taber Spani and Kamiko Williams.
Summitt anticipated that Spani could log minutes at three positions – shooting guard, small forward and power forward because at 6'1 she can post up on the high block. Williams, a 5'10 guard, is slotted to play point and wing on the perimeter. Dupree, a 6'3 forward, will be put inside at power forward and center.
"She right now probably shoots it at the four (power forward) better than most everybody on our team," Summitt said of Dupree.
All three players plan to enroll in June for summer school, and Spani said in an interview this month that she was looking forward to workouts with Mason.
"Be careful what you wish for with Heather," Summitt said with a big smile. "She's a gym rat, and we don't have a lot of gym rats."
That was the biggest surprise of the last freshman class. Summitt had anticipated that they would find the gym on their own and had said as much when she signed the large class of six.
"They definitely surprised me but not in a positive way because they didn't get in the gym," Summitt said.
Can they change?
"Sure, anybody can change," Summitt said.
That indicates that the slate is wiped clean, and players can use this summer to set the tone for next fall and, inevitably, playing time on the court next season. The post game could get a big boost if Vicki Baugh, a 6'4 forward, and Kelley Cain, a 6'6 center, are both healed from knee surgeries and ready to go next October. Both were courtside Tuesday with icepacks on their knees after rehab sessions with Jenny Moshak, the chief of sports medicine for the Lady Vols.
"We've got to get them 100 percent but both of them are responding very well to the rehab with Jenny and feel good about the surgeries," Summitt said.
Tuesday was the first time the team had gathered on the court in 10 days. They continued their conditioning sessions with Mason last week but Summitt gave them time off from basketball. She instead had the players come to her house for dinner and to watch the national title game last week between Connecticut and Louisville.
"I just thought we needed to be together, and I didn't need to be at the (title game) when I could be with the team and us watch a national championship game together," Summitt said. "We just gave them a break (from the court). They hadn't had a break so we gave them one."
The players will spend a week on individual workouts – two hours a week with no more than four players on the court at one time – and then they get time off to prepare for final exams. After that they will be turned loose for the summer when workouts can't be supervised or watched by the coaches, and participation is voluntary.
Summitt is certain that at least three players will be in Pratt Pavilion on a regular basis.
"I don't worry a second about what Angie's going to do and hopefully she'll get others to go with her," Summitt said. "I think she and Syd – if you're talking about gym rats – those two they're going to be in the gym. And if the others are smart? Because it'll show up. It's not something you can hide. Plus they talk. They'll express how they feel about people working or not working. I know Taber, there is no doubt in my mind she'll be in here."
The purpose of the March and April workouts was to set the tone for the summer.
"Obviously yes and getting them to understand they have to invest in their own game by getting in the gym and working on their shooting," Summitt said. "That's a time in which they can play pickup but also they need to just get in thousands of shots this summer. They can't shoot it enough for our coaching staff.
"I'm confident that a number of them will. There are some that you don't worry about, but across the board can I guarantee you that they are all going to be in here shooting? No. But it'll show up."