Defense the buzzword of preseason

Defense and fighting through fatigue were the focal points of the Lady Vols individual workouts Thursday, and the sweat-soaked players seemed to absorb the lessons, including one freshman who said she had never been pushed on the basketball court like she has at Tennessee.

After the sessions ended for the afternoon Pat Summitt said the theme of overcoming exhaustion was by design for one freshman in particular. Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood's voice boomed across Pratt Pavilion as he exhorted the players to not let up when they were tired.

"I don't think he was speaking to the whole group, in particular," Summitt said. "I think we had one player that was struggling with that, and that was one of our freshmen, and she has got to play through it."

Summitt didn't identify Kamiko Williams when talking to the media, but when told that the freshman had revealed it on her own about herself, Summitt made her remarks more pointed.

"Knowing and doing it are two different things," Summitt said. "Kamiko has got to do it on the floor over and over and over. It's a mindset. I did have a good little talk with her, so we'll see how she comes back."

Williams has a skill set on both sides of the ball that could help Tennessee this season. The 5'11 lefty guard from Clarksville, Tenn., has a smooth shot, can run in the open floor and has sufficient quickness to not be too much of a freshman liability in Summitt's notoriously tough defensive schemes.

"She's a talent," Summitt said. "But watching her play I knew that she was the type of player that needed to learn how to play hard all the time. We're not there, yet. It's all about repetition. We'll get there hopefully."

It has been vintage Summitt in these workouts – a sharp contrast to a year ago in which she swallowed her whistle and picked her spots as she welcomed six new freshmen to the floor plus a redshirt one.

But Summitt has been demanding from day one to kick off the 2009-10 preseason with the hopes it will pay off during the season, and especially in the postseason. The Lady Vols spent most of the postseason last spring in the same building they're in now, Pratt Pavilion, because Tennessee bowed out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and then returned to the court for team workouts and conditioning sessions.

Before last preseason got underway Summitt looked at how much scoring she had lost from the 2007-08 team – all five starters were drafted by the WNBA – and the early workouts focused on offensive sets, plus a lot of slowdown for teaching principles on both sides of the ball. Defense has been the primary emphasis to open this preseason.

From left, Shekinna Stricklen, Kamiko Williams, Angie Bjorklund and Briana Bass run a defensive drill as Holly Warlick and Dean Lockwood watch. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)

"Absolutely," Summitt said. "Just looking back we were never committed to defense for a 40-minute game. It was more pick and choose when we're going to play hard. We're not going to be that team this year. We're going to be a different team. We may have to shorten our bench. That is why Kamiko better get in the picture real soon. I hate to see her get left out entirely. That is what has to happen."

Kamiko Williams gets ready to begin a passing drill, in which Shekinna Stricklen, left, must sprint to the perimeter and then back to the help line in the center of the court. Dean Lockwood calls the action. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)

Strong words directed at a freshman, but it reveals how serious Summitt is about accountability this season and how much she knows Williams could be a boost. To her credit, Williams recognizes where she has to get better.

"This is nothing like we did," Williams said. "Truthfully in my high school we probably ran two sprints, and we're done with running, and the rest is just drills, so it was easy. But this, oh my God."

Williams had an earful of Lockwood, but it was the assistant coach at his finest – demanding, encouraging and praising.

"I am not used to this so I am still trying to get in condition into what they've been doing," Williams said. "I am so tired I can't think straight. He is like, ‘Kamiko, do this.' OK, I know what you're saying, but my body is saying, ‘No,' but my mind is saying, ‘Do it.' There is just a lot of stuff going on at one time in this 18-year-old body. I feel like I'm 80."

Williams has some swagger to her game, and a refreshing honesty when asked any question. When asked if the demands of Tennessee, especially those of Heather Mason, were initially overwhelming, she raised her eyebrows and nodded her head.

"When I first came in the summer it was," Williams said. "I thought, ‘Am I seriously going to be doing this for the rest of my life?' But I kind of got used to Heather. I think we do more running here, sprinting-wise, than we do with Heather.

"I don't know why I am so tired, because I ran track. It is pretty overwhelming but at the same time I am pretty sure I'll get used to it once I get over this wall that I've hit, I'll be straight."

Williams hit the wall next to her for emphasis and smiled. Her father is a career military man, and the discipline is apparent – she says yes ma'am and no ma'am to Summitt on the court – but her spirit is carefree. The freshmen are always asked for a later feature story some oddball questions, and this is how Williams fielded one about what she would wear to trick or treat on Halloween.

"Last year I was an old school basketball player," Williams said. "I had my dad's 1970s something uniform. The shorts were all the way up to here (pointing to the top of her thighs). The jersey was skintight. I put on a little Afro wig. I put on my headband on the Afro. I had the high socks and the high tennis shoes and I was kicking it with the basketball. I took my little brother around. I loved it."

Lockwood's energy at practice is legendary by now. When asked what kind of creature Lockwood would be in the animal kingdom, Williams, without hesitating, selected the reptile class.

"A gecko," Williams said. "Because they are just everywhere, can't sit still and then when they do sit still, they look scary, like he does. He intimidates me sometimes when he just sits there."

Dean Lockwood keeps a close watch as Kamiko Williams, with the ball, and Shekinna Stricklen, get ready to begin a drill. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)

One of last year's six true freshmen, Alicia Manning, has made the on-court leap from first year to sophomore. She is physically stronger, in better condition and – the best state of mind for any athlete – not having to think so much on the court.

"I think last year it's your freshman year you're coming to one of top programs in the country and this isn't the easiest system to learn defensively and the plays aren't that easy, either," Manning said. "Freshman year is a lot of learning, and you're kind of over-thinking stuff because you want to do it right. And now the stuff they teach kind of comes natural now.

"Plus, I worked really hard in the off-season, because I think we have a lot of potential this season. I was here first session, and second session I just was in the gym all the time lifting weights and working on my game. I think that really helped."

Manning also understands the concepts now and reacts naturally on the floor. She closes out long on three-point shooters and instinctively goes to the basket. On a steal or rebound, she immediately looks to "dribble bust" – get the ball moving down court to put pressure on the defense – where there was always some hesitation among the freshmen a year ago until it became a habit. She didn't have to be told on the first day of workouts, and got applause from Lockwood as she blew by him as he stood near center court.

"I think coming in this year there is a confidence coming in because you know what to expect," Manning said. "You've got a year under your belt. You really do gain a lot of confidence, and now you become the teacher. You've got to help the freshmen coming in so I am really excited to see what the freshmen have."

Alicia Manning lofts a shot over an oversized foam defender in a workout session last Monday. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)

Manning, who is from Woodstock, Ga., also has her family nearby again. Her parents moved to Hawaii shortly after she graduated from high school because of a position her father took temporarily as an electrician. She went from having her parents attend all her basketball games to seeing them twice in a year. They have now moved back to Georgia.

"I didn't think it was going to be as hard as it was, but it definitely had an impact on me," Manning said. "I didn't realize it at the time. They never missed a game, so it was a lot different. I am really excited about having them at the games."

Summitt singled out Manning before workouts began for her off-season dedication to conditioning.

"I think Alicia has gotten it," Summitt said. "Her skills look good, but she's got her volume turned up. I think most of the sophomores are not holding back. They've got a lot of good communication going on."

Manning is on the same page as Summitt when it comes to emphasizing defense.

"I am really excited about that, actually," Manning said. "She always says defense wins championships and I truly believe in it, because if the other team doesn't score you're going to win. We have offensive threats here; we've just got to play defense."

Summitt has seen a difference across the board with this team compared to last year.

"I think their workouts with Heather really gave them a lot of mental toughness," Summitt said. "They had a lot more focus. They had a lot more discipline."

In the first session on Thursday, guards Briana Bass, Shekinna Stricklen, Angie Bjorklund and Kamiko Williams took the court. One drill emphasized box-outs and pursuit of the ball. Williams and Stricklen pursued it to the corner, where Williams pounced on it like a fumble. The coaches applauded the physical play.

Briana Bass, Dean Lockwood and Angie Bjorklund help Kamiko Williams and Shekinna Stricklen off the floor after they scrambled for a loose ball. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)

"Last year we were just teaching and teaching and teaching," Summitt said. "I don't think we got up and down as much. Later on in the season, yes, but I think we started out having so much to teach and so many freshmen. We were trying to get our offense in. I think our offense was good at times but not great. And then our defense really suffered."

Tennessee is still not at full strength. Junior forward Vicki Baugh is rehabbing her left knee after having ACL surgery last season. She did courtside rehab exercises and shot baskets and free throws without leaving her feet.

Vicki Baugh shares a laugh with Pat Summitt as she gets her shoes on. Summitt was in dress clothes because she spoke in Kingsport before the workouts on behalf of the United Way. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)

Vicki Baugh hits a shot from the perimeter. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius).

Redshirt sophomore center Kelley Cain participated for part of the workouts – some stationary shooting and free throws – for the first time after sustaining a concussion off the court, with the plan being to slowly work her into the sessions.

One of the six sophomores is not on the court with the team. Amber Gray is recovering from a stroke brought on from a hemorrhaging aneurysm last July and will not be enrolled this fall. She plans to make a visit soon, perhaps as early as within the next 10 days.

"I think she wants to come see everyone," said Summitt, who spoke to Gray on Wednesday. "If she's not here this weekend she's coming in soon to visit."

Gray has an off-campus apartment but since she is not enrolled, there are NCAA issues that must be addressed in terms of what she is or is not allowed to do as far as interaction with the program.

"We've got to get everything with the NCAA (outlined)," Summitt said. "We're having Todd (Dooley) in compliance working on everything that she can and cannot do. We're having to work all that out and how much time she can spend working with our trainers, as well."

Summitt said the decision of exactly when to travel to Knoxville from Ohio is in the hands of Gray's mother, Tonya Carter, who will accompany her daughter.

"I think she wants to get here and see everyone," Summitt said. "She's been great to stay in touch. She said rehabbing has gone really well. She's excited about it, so that's a good thing."

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