"You know what? Bring it," Dupree said with a smile as her classmates laughed. "I am going to mess up, and she is going to tell me what I did wrong."
"Oh, yes. It's going to be a great year," Williams said.
"I love it. I love it when Pat talks to me," Spani said.
Pat Summitt speaks to the team during a break in practice to underscore matching up on defense. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)
With just three first-year players on the court this season – compared to seven a year ago – the expectations of the coaching staff are higher, and the juniors have been directed to take control of the team on and off the court.
Two of the three juniors, Angie Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone, were at practice Thursday, and Kelley Cain, a redshirt sophomore, relates to her academic class and is being treated like an upperclassman. The other junior, Vicki Baugh, warmed up with the team and then worked with Jenny Moshak, the chief of sports medicine, as she continues to rehab her left knee following ACL surgery in late February.
Bjorklund and Smallbone have been told to increase their volume on the court.
"I think being a junior and upperclassman it's something that all of us need to do as juniors, and it's something I've talked about with Pat and she's talked about with me is just being more vocal – the little things, talking on defense, talking on offense, letting the freshmen know something that needs to be done at practice or something they're not doing," Smallbone said. "Being more vocal goes along with being a better leader, too, so that's something I've tried to focus on so far."
The players had been anticipating Thursday when the entire team could take the floor as much as the coaching staff was. They wore solid black or white practice gear that was shaped more like jerseys and less like T-shirts, which the players tend to carve apart by taking off the sleeves and loosening the area under the arms. Most of the players also wore a new model of adidas basketball shoes.
Angie Bjorklund wore the solid white ensemble at practice and new shoes. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)
"They said we're testing the model for the 2010 season," Smallbone said. "The colors will be orange and white. I chose black just because it's different."
Smallbone has been used in her first two seasons to provide some much-needed offense off the bench, and she started some games early and then late in the season. As her third year in orange approached, the 5'10 guard from Granger, Indiana, focused on defense and spent the entire summer in Knoxville working out with Heather Mason, the strength and conditioning coach.
"I worked a lot on my footwork with Heather," Smallbone said. "I stayed all summer and did agility drills. I ran during the summer just trying to stay active. We did a lot of closeout drills, defensive slides, ‘Iron Will' throughout the summer. I hope it pays off, and I am excited."
"Iron Will" was a series of strength and conditioning challenges devised by Mason – such as multiple timed sprints up the ramp at Gate 10 at Neyland Stadium – to push the team to the point of physical exhaustion so that the mind would take over completion of the task. Smallbone performed well in those exercises, even out-lapping her teammates in one series of sprints up and down the ramp last April.
Summitt had said last summer that she wasn't concerned about Smallbone and Bjorklund – she knew they would be in the gym shooting on a regular basis. A third shooter, Spani, has often joined them.
"Taber is in the gym shooting as much as me and Angie," Smallbone said. "Just being a gym rat I think that's a great trait to have, and Taber is definitely a gym rat."
The Lady Vols have some offensive firepower behind the arc this season, starting with the 5'2 Briana Bass and up to Spani and Shekinna Stricklen, who both look to be about 6'2. Alicia Manning, a 6'1 forward, and Bjorklund, a 6'0 guard, can also shoot from long range.
"I know Bree made it an emphasis this summer to work on her three-point shot, not that she really needed to work a whole bunch on it, but she did work on it, and you can tell," Smallbone said. "A-Town worked on it. Taber can shoot it. Angie. I can shoot it. We've got a lot of girls that can shoot the ball so that is going to be a strength of ours."
Defense was a downfall for the entire team last season as freshmen were thrust into starting roles because of injury. Summitt prefers her teams to be able to harass their opponents for 94 feet, and the Lady Vols were often porous in the paint and vulnerable to penetration from the perimeter.
Smallbone wants to earn court time this season by being effective on both sides of the ball.
"I think she is a lot quicker," Summitt said. "She's always had the offensive skill set, but I think her defense is much better."
Playing defense at Tennessee is a challenge for upperclassmen, and it often leaves freshmen somewhat bewildered on the court. Thursday allowed the freshmen to go against male players and get an idea of the speed of the game in college.
"We worked on all these things in individuals but now it's understanding it in a team setting with five people live," Spani said. "I think it was great that we could implement the skills that we've learned and obviously there were some mistakes and some struggles and you forget, ‘Oh, yeah, I am supposed to do that.' But for us to implement what we learned was awesome."
Defense is by far the weakest part of Williams' game – she has said she never was asked to play defense in high school or AAU ball – so perhaps the silver lining is she won't have any bad habits on defense to unlearn. She simply has no habits yet at all.
"It was a good motivator," Williams said. "To know you have to play defense it got me going."
For Dupree, a 6'3 forward, the adjustment was suddenly facing players who were as big or bigger than she is.
"The size of the guys down low definitely surprised me," Dupree said. "I've played some big people, but those are the biggest I've played. Kelley is back, and it's a lot tougher than high school."
Kelley Cain, a 6'6 center, was held out of pickup games over the summer as she worked to rehab her right knee. She had her right kneecap completely realigned in December 2007 – she missed the entire season in 2007-08 – and then had surgery last April to remove two screws that had migrated out of the leg bone beneath the kneecap and caused tremendous pain in the 2008-09 season. The knee also had taken several blows throughout the season that caused severe irritation under the kneecap.
Cain was released to play shortly after individual workouts began – she was initially held out to recover from an off-the-court concussion – and her presence in the post makes an immediate impact because of her ability to catch and score, defend and rebound.
For Dupree it means being able to watch an upperclassman and learn – something last year's freshmen didn't have the luxury of because of all the injuries.
"That big?" said Dupree, who, like Cain, also was a soccer goalie in youth sports. "It's so exciting. I've been the biggest person my whole life, and I am so excited that Kelley Cain is on my team. I can learn how she uses her arms and her body. I watch how she does it and I pattern myself after a bigger player. I love it."
Dean Lockwood, right, instructs post players Kelley Cain, left, and Faith Dupree at practice. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)
The three freshmen sat down for a group interview after their first full-team session and were exuberant. They are already a close-knit class and have not been shy on the court. Williams and Dupree stayed on campus for both summer sessions, and Spani attended first session before playing in Thailand for USA basketball.
Lady Vol freshmen, from left, Kamiko Williams, Faith Dupree and Taber Spani, speak to the media after practice. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)
"The off-season that we had I think we made improvements, and I am eager to show just how much we have improved," Smallbone said. "We definitely got a lot closer as a team. Most of us worked together throughout the whole summer."
Smallbone, a dean's list student, also used the summer to get ahead academically and has enrolled in the College of Business.
"I am majoring in marketing (with an emphasis) on logistics so all business right now," Smallbone said. "Being here this summer and being able to take extra classes helps with the workload with having a hard major. This summer I was able to take four classes, and they were four hard classes that I don't have to worry about during the season.
"I am excited about being a business major. My grandpa owns a distributorship for Anheuser-Busch so I've kind of grown up around marketing and logistics my whole life."
Business majors also get lessons in leadership, and a team without seniors will lean on its junior class for direction.
"Everyone of us has to be leaders," Smallbone said. "I think that's going to be huge, especially towards our freshmen, because they're coming in not knowing a whole lot. We've got to be vocal telling them what's up, not just the basketball stuff but with Heather, too, because a lot mentally goes into that."
The team workout sessions with Mason put all the players in one place, but Spani was ready to see how that translated to the court.
"We've worked with Heather so we know what it's like to be on the court, but to be on the court together and to be working on our system, team defense and all that stuff, I think it's just the next step in the process," Spani said. "I loved it. I think we all loved it."
"It was exciting to actually see the whole team get to work together on the court," Dupree said. "We've played pickup together, but we haven't done skills together so it was exciting to see it all at once."
Tennessee clearly wants to be a team that pushes tempo this season and will look to score early in its offense. Dupree ran the floor well for a post on Thursday and was rewarded with a deep pass from Williams over the top of the defense for the layup.
Faith Dupree scores after getting behind the defense on a fast break. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)
"That will make it so much easier for the guards," Williams said, addressing Dupree. "When you run the floor, I don't get past the three-point line and then I'm on defense."
"If you see us when we're conditioning, our posts and our guards are like two or three seconds different," Spani said. "That's how good our posts can run and get down the floor."
"If you push tempo you don't have anything to worry about," Dupree said.
Tennessee enters the 2009-10 season having set history, the wrong kind, in the previous season. The loss to Ball State in the first round of the NCAA tourney was the first time Tennessee didn't reach at least the Sweet 16 in the 27-year history of the tournament. The 22 wins were the third fewest in school history, and the 11 losses tied for the most with the 1975-76 team. Tennessee was 4-8 against ranked teams and lost to three unranked teams for the first time in program history.
The 41.3 percent field goal percentage was the worst in program history and even Cain shooting 61.8 percent – the third best in school history – couldn't save the team from that distinction. The team's 66.1 percent performance from the free throw line was the third worst ever and the number of made field goals, 837, was the lowest ever recorded for a season, as were the 249 steals.
The Lady Vols dropped out of the top 10 in the AP poll for the first time in 211 weeks, a streak that dated to 1985. They lost five SEC regular season games for the first time ever and received the lowest seed – five – in the NCAA tourney. The Lady Vols had never lost to a team seeded lower than fourth in the tourney. Ball State was seeded No. 12.
Two magazine preseason rankings this month have put Tennessee at No. 4 and No. 11, but the numbers are meaningless at this point to the players.
"To be honest this is the most I've been excited so far since I've been here, because we have so much to prove," Smallbone said. "Coming off this off-season I think this is going to be a great season. We have put in so much work, and we've been tested a lot throughout this off-season with the ‘Iron Will' and the workouts. We've played a lot of pickup and the fact that we are so much closer as a team I am the most excited just to see how everything pans out and to show people what we can do.
"The fact that we are ranked fourth or 11th, it really doesn't matter. It depends on how we do throughout the season."
The season officially begins Nov. 15 when the Lady Vols host Baylor and its 6'8 freshman dunking phenom Brittney Griner, whose slams are best described as violent throw-downs. She can dunk one-handed, two-handed and reverse behind her head.
"I'm excited, the fact that it's Baylor and we get to face Griner, this is a test for the posts to the guards," Smallbone said. "We're going to be tested. Having that as our opener is something that is not only exciting but it's something that's going to drive us into the season out of preseason."
An opener such as Baylor – though Smallbone pointed out the team wouldn't overlook its exhibition games against Carson-Newman and Delta State – also ensures that the team is focused in the preseason.
"Baylor is going to be a big test for us from the beginning so just taking care of the little stuff right now in our preseason is going to be huge," Smallbone said.
Dupree said post players Cain and Vicki Baugh had mentioned Griner and the fact that they needed to be ready to defend in the paint.
"When we found out that was our first game that's exactly what we thought," Dupree said. "We've got to start now to get ready for them."
"I think that's the beauty of the Tennessee program," Spani said. "We're playing the best teams in the country. Baylor is definitely going to be a contender this year. We're looking forward to it, and we're real focused right now. Knowing we have Baylor as our first game really gives us extra motivation. We've got to be ready."
Tennessee doesn't ease into its season at all. They have a day to travel after the home opener with Baylor and then face Texas Tech in San Antonio on Nov. 17. They travel to Virginia on Nov. 22 and then head to Murfreesboro for an in-state matchup against Middle Tennessee, which returns its entire starting five, including All-American Alysha Clark. Of Tennessee's first four games, one is at home, one is at a neutral site – though in the state of Texas – and two are on the road.
The freshmen will get a very early introduction to the rigors and travels of college basketball. Spani thinks they are as prepared as possible.
"They surround you with people who constantly support you," Spani said. "You've got Jenny Moshak, who's the best trainer in the country, I think, telling us, ‘You've got to re-hydrate, you've got to replenish, you've got to take care of yourself.' We've got our nutritionist. We've got Kerry Howland, academic-wise. You've got people surrounding you and so as long as you do your job and stay focused – obviously we haven't done it yet so it's going to be a little bit of take it as it comes – but we feel like we're prepared."
"We also have other teammates to ask for help," Dupree said. "They've all been through it."
That is the primary difference this year – the Lady Vols have a roster full of players who can draw on past experience. None of the three freshmen will be forced into the starting lineup – though all three have the opportunity to compete for playing time, and Spani's deep three-ball shooting ability will get her off the bench – and the coaches can allot playing time based on practice performance.
The coaches used the two hours Thursday to emphasize defense – that tone has been set since the first day of individual workouts – and turned the players loose on offense in the full court to gauge their decision-making in various combinations.
"Kelley is moving well," Summitt said. "Angie has got to be more aggressive offensively. She was a little passive early on. Bree wasn't sharp today. She had a lot of flat passes, but I think she was trying to push the tempo, and she did a good job of that. But we had some long passes that got intercepted. Kamiko is going to play some point, too, and A-Town and maybe even Stricklen."
That would make Stricklen the fourth option at point behind Bass, Williams and Manning in a clear sign that the coaches would rather play her on the wing. That is also where Stricklen, who was forced into the point position last season when Cait McMahan was unable to play because of balky knees, prefers to be. Williams, on the other hand, is comfortable with the ball in her hands.
"I love running point," Williams said. "I've been running point since my sophomore year, and I'm used to the wing. Either one is fine. I just like to have the ball in my hands and doing something with it, either pass it or shoot it, because if I don't I get lost."
The coaches did implement a few offensive principles in the limited time – they get only two hours total a week before practice officially starts in a month and they won't take the court again until next week – to get the freshmen used to some concepts.
"I love going through the options of the ‘up offense' that we did," said Dupree, who was referring to the post players being able to make decisions with the ball from the high post. "I thought it was a lot of fun to do that."
Spani said the lesson she learned on the first day of the team workout is that she has to make quick decisions with the ball but remain under control.
"I think all of us have different things where the coaches came up and said, ‘Hey, you need to do this,' " Spani said. "For me continue to feel out if I'm open I want to shoot it or get it into the post and not be hesitant. Keep stuff alive and if you're going to do something, go, but also be patient and get that balance."
"Coach D (Daedra Charles-Furlow) said to me almost the whole practice certain post things I needed to work on and Pat definitely told me, ‘You have to get faster on post defense. You have to make sure you get around so you don't get beat or so they don't lob it over,' " Dupree said.
"Definitely on fast break stop predetermining who I am going to pass it to," said Williams, who showed the ability to create her own shot in the half-court game. "Pat said, ‘Look up and whoever is open get them the ball.' I have to work on that."
Williams said she also had to learn the tendencies of the post players and to recognize the defense in terms of "where I pass it to, who I pass it to and how I pass it."
All three freshmen exhibited some basketball IQ and didn't slow down the practice, in contrast to a year ago when the coaches had to constantly stop and teach with six true freshmen, one redshirt freshman and three sophomores on the floor.
One of those true freshmen of a year ago, Amber Gray, was in town this past weekend and was present for photo day on Friday and signed autographs with her teammates Saturday in Volunteer Village before the Vols football game.
Gray's left eye, which had been closed as the result of her stroke in July that was brought on by an aneurysm in her brain, has completely opened.
"Her vision is fine," Summitt said. "You would never know she's been through what she's been through."
Interacting with Gray, who is recovering in her home state of Ohio and intends to enroll in school in January, is beneficial for both sides.
"She mentioned she misses being here, and she misses being around us so the fact we get to see her every once in awhile that helps her with her rehab and it's a great feeling to know that she's all right and that she's doing well," Smallbone said.
"The fact that she is making big strides in rehab really shows a lot about her character and how hard she wants to get better and how much she wants to improve her health so that she can one day hopefully play with us again."
Former Lady Vol Nicky Anosike is in town to rehab her right knee with Moshak after undergoing arthroscopic surgery in Tennessee on Tuesday to repair a lateral meniscus tear. The Minnesota Lynx reported that Anosike, a 6'3 center, is expected to be fully recovered when training camp begins for the 2010 season.
Anosike, the 16th overall pick in the 2008 draft and a 2009 All-Star, sat out the final four games of the 2009 season. She completed her second season in Minnesota leading the team in all five major categories – scoring (13.2 ppg), rebounding (7.4 rpg), assists (2.7 apg), steals (2.70 spg) and blocked shots (0.93 rpg) – while logging 29.9 minutes per game. Anosike became just the second player in WNBA history to accomplish that feat with Indiana's Tamika Catchings, also a former Lady Vol, being the other.
Anosike had hugs for the coaching staff and kept an eye on practice as she walked on crutches to the training room.
Nicky Anosike walks on the baseline with Jenny Moshak at Pratt Pavilion. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)
Summitt had a smile on her face at times during practice and was overall pleased with the effort she got from the team as a whole.
"I thought the intensity and energy level was pretty good for the most part," Summitt said. "Our spacing needs a lot of work but we haven't really put in any sets; we just gave them some pressure releases and talked about our spacing in the half court. I thought defensively we really got after it."