Nicky Anosike returns for workouts

Basketball practice officially begins today for the Lady Vols, but Tennessee got in one last session Thursday afternoon under the workout format that included a familiar face in Nicky Anosike. The WNBA All-Star center for the Minnesota Lynx took the practice court with the young team in what was beneficial for both.

The final workout session of the preseason occurred Thursday in Thompson-Boling Arena, which has the end seats pushed back but the court down in preparation for Pat Summitt and Bruce Pearl's coaching clinic in conjunction with the official start of practice Friday evening.

It was the first time that the Lady Vols practiced as a group with the coaches in the arena, as they have used Pratt Pavilion for the individual and team workouts since late August.

"It was neat to be in there," Summitt said. "We want to be in there some (in preseason), so we can get used to it."

At least three Lady Vols got a jump on some arena time. The floor was down for the Vols' media day with Pearl and his players on Wednesday afternoon, and Taber Spani, Briana Bass and Alyssia Brewer used one end to loft some shots.

Summitt and her coaches opted to use on Thursday their NCAA-allotted two hours per week of workout time prior to the official start of practice. The session was in part a dress rehearsal for what will be showcased this evening. Several of the drills were done with the coaches' clinic in mind as both the players and those in attendance will be in learning mode.

Summitt also scheduled a session for Thursday because she wanted the players to have three consecutive days of practice to see how they respond to higher expectations. It's one thing to practice two hours a week and then get a week off. After Friday's evening session, they will be back Saturday morning.

"That's what we wanted to do because we're going to take Sunday off, so we'll have three consecutive days," Summitt said.

Summitt smiled and noted there was another benefit to having the clinic coincide with what is considered the official kickoff of the 2009-10 season.

"We'll have the clinic, and they'll have an audience," Summitt said. "They like an audience."

The rest of the Tennessee campus is on fall break and with football in a bye week the focus for the next two days will be basketball.

Summitt's intensity level will begin its gradual rise as the program moves from preseason mindset to getting ready for games. The exhibition opener is Nov. 5 against Carson-Newman. However, an abundance of teaching remains to be done. The youngest team in program history – there are no seniors on the roster – will suit up for the Lady Vols.

"Right now we're still doing a lot of teaching," Summitt said. "We've also got to start having a lot of accountability. That will come when we start keeping score and competing more in that situation as opposed to learning new sets. We're going to play five-minute segments once we get enough sets in that we know what we want to do and they're understanding them, then we can really get down and back (in full court scrimmages)."

Those sessions will be used to determine a starting lineup and rotation off the bench. A point of emphasis this season for the coaches has been identifying players who will compete on both ends of the floor. Tennessee's defense was porous last season – a function of inexperience and injuries to key players – and it was the worst shooting team in program history.

A point of emphasis from the officials this season will be hand-checking on the perimeter – there could be a lot of early whistles – and that is also being emphasized in practice. Players are being told to keep their hands up and their feet in motion.

"Last year we took ourselves out of position, gave up a lot of middle drives," Summitt said. "Every time they put the ball down they defended with their hands and not their feet. We've always used the concept of high hands, low hips, quick feet. For some of them it's a hard habit to break, but we've got more upperclassmen now so they should be talking and demanding that everybody commit to it."

Nicky Anosike, one of the best defenders all-time at Tennessee, was on the court Thursday to serve as a practice player and showed how she can still wreak havoc on an opponent.

"Hopefully I'm setting a good example and showing them what they should be doing and what they should be aspiring to do," Anosike said.

Anosike's presence underscored what was missing last season when a team of mostly freshmen and sophomores – there were no juniors – was thrust into playing time it was not ready for because of attrition (five starters from the 2008 national title team were drafted by the WNBA) and injuries to Kelley Cain, Vicki Baugh and Cait McMahan, all of whom were projected starters.

Anosike, who was called a warrior by the coaches when she was at Tennessee and who drafted pacts for the team to sign to ensure accountability on the court, also worked out with the team this week with Heather Mason, the strength and conditioning coach.

"I worked out with them and after the workout they were like, ‘Oh my God, Nicky, thank you so much for working out with us,' " Anosike said. "It kind of made me feel bad for them because you want that person to look to for strength and toughness, and they just didn't have that. It's enjoyable to come back and play with them."

Anosike came back to Knoxville four weeks ago for left knee surgery. She had Dr. Greg Mathien, the team orthopedic surgeon for Tennessee, perform the surgery to repair a torn meniscus, and then went to Jenny Moshak, the Lady Vols chief of sports medicine, for her rehab.

"I was here for four years and I watched a lot of my really good friends get surgery and get rehab here and were back to 100 percent so even though I was never injured that kind of built the trust between me and the program and the training staff," Anosike said. "I wanted to go somewhere where I felt comfortable and where I trusted the people who were around me."

Anosike never missed a game or a single practice at Tennessee so when she was sidelined for the final games of the Lynx' 2009 season, it was a surprise.

"I think the thing with me is that I could always play through things," Anosike said. "I might have been in pain, but I just kind of ignored it and I think I tried to do that with this injury and that is probably why I am sitting out right now."

Anosike would otherwise have been heading overseas to play basketball. She played in Israel and Poland a year ago and will play in Romania once she feels like her knee is ready. She knows several players on the Romanian team – one American in Shay Doron, who played at Maryland, and three foreign players that Anosike played with in Israel. In the meantime, she will practice on a limited basis with the Lady Vols until she feels fit enough for competition.

"I am taking my time," Anosike said. "Obviously I would like to be overseas, making a living, having some income, but I am taking my time. And getting this under control first will prolong my career so I am not really setting a timetable."

Summitt welcomes having Anosike on the court and will check with compliance to see how often the NCAA will allow her to practice. Tennessee has always had former players return to practice, but their visits are usually a short interlude before they head overseas.

"It's supposedly occasional," Summitt said. "It's kind of an unknown but we'll go to our compliance people and verify everything. It's not like they can come in and work out with you all the time. I haven't asked her what her timetable is. She is still doing rehab and working with Jenny. It's just good to have her in the gym."

Anosike wasn't her usual explosive self – she has been off the court for weeks – but she still can rattle cages on the defensive end as she blocked shots and stole interior passes.

"It is definitely not 100 percent," Anosike said. "I can't jump or run the way I want to, but it feels OK. I love coming back, but it's hard not being 100 percent and trying to set the example and show them the way the Lady Vols play when you're only 70 or 75 percent."

A limited Anosike can still have an effect on any team on and off the court. Anosike has described Baugh, who is returning from her second ACL surgery, as like a sister to her, and her presence can boost Baugh's spirits.

"I think it's good for her to see that I am not invincible like she kind of thought, and I think it's good for her to see me at one of my weak points and for her to understand that she can bounce back if she's mentally tough and just continues to push herself," Anosike said.

Anosike battled inside with Cain, a 6'6 center who was hobbled most of last season when two screws began to migrate out of a lower leg bone after her right kneecap was realigned. She had surgery last April to remove the screws, underwent rehab and is working her way back into basketball shape.

"Oh my God, I don't anyone who can match her size, and size is something you can't teach," Anosike said. "She is a big girl. I've had my share of guarding big girls. She's really big. I think that if she uses that she is going to be unstoppable because it's even tough for me to try to get around her and front her in the post."

Anosike was asked for her initial impressions – Thursday was the first time she had taken the practice court with the team – and she said the players need to encourage each other the way she, Candace Parker, Alexis Hornbuckle, Shannon Bobbitt and Alberta Auguste did. Those five reached a level of understanding on the court in which they could communicate with not just words, but eye contact or a quick hand smack.

"I think that they just need to pull together and pick each other up," Anosike said. "When someone is getting yelled at and things like that they just kind of let that person get yelled at, because they're just happy it's not them. I think the biggest thing in our program was me, Candace, Bird, Shannon, Lex, we had each other's back no matter what, and were in it together and that kind of eliminates the confusion and things that you see out there on the court. I think they need to pull together and become a real team.

"When you asked me what I noticed today, that's what I noticed. I think that they just have to kind of pull together because this is not an easy place to play. The demands are so high all the time and you never get in a break. It's easier when you have people you're going through it with and that helps you stay more focused because you don't want to let the person down next to you."

Summitt, for once, actually gave the team a bit of a pass in that regard. She has noticed more chatter in past sessions, but on Thursday the staff loaded up the players with new information.

"I think this team right now, particularly when we're trying to learn a lot of different sets offensively and put in our defense, they're having to think a lot, so they're not talking as much," Summitt said. "Once they get comfortable with all of our schemes on the offensive end and the defensive end then I think they'll be a lot better."

Although Anosike was known for her intensity and willingness to be very blunt with any teammate she felt wasn't giving sufficient effort, what was not as readily apparent to observers was how much she also could take on a mother hen personality. Anosike and the others knew when to scold and when to hold back.

"Blunt? Yeah, but there's a level of respect that has to be there, also," Anosike said. "I would never want to disrespect one of the players because I would never want anyone disrespecting me, and I know that they have people yelling at them all practice and after awhile that just goes in one ear and out the other.

"I think when someone really takes the time to talk to them and see what they're feeling and come to them on a different level than yelling all the time, I think that they are more receptive. Yelling? No. But if we go back and we go to movie or we have dinner I'll take them to the side and say what I have to say then. I think that they pay more attention when you take them away from this environment."

That is the benefit of having former players come back to campus, and Anosike could get some reinforcements soon.

Kara Lawson and Tamika Catchings are expected soon for a visit. They were teammates at the Beijing Olympics and helped lead the USA to gold in 2008, Lawson has a WNBA title with the Sacramento Monarchs and Catchings, who led the Indiana Fever to the WNBA Finals this season, has an NCAA national title.

With the mention of Catchings' name, Summitt saluted her former player's performance in the finals against Phoenix, which went to five games before the Mercury secured the crown.

"To me right now she's one of the best all-around players in the league and plays hard all the time," Summitt said.

Players with the cachet of Catchings, Lawson and Anosike have an effect on young players, especially those coming off a 22-11 season and holding some dubious school records. Anosike left Tennessee with two national titles, became an immediate starter for the Lynx and was a WNBA All-Star this past season.

"Obviously the players understand she helped us win championships and just her presence, her being here, anytime we have former players come back that have had the success that they've had, they look up to them," Summitt said. "You could watch them watch her. I think it's motivational for them."

There is an additional side of Anosike – a rambunctious sense of humor – that has become apparent on her Twitter account at Nicky Anosike Twitter. For fans that remember the scowls and her ferociousness on defense, Anosike's Twitter personality will be a treat.

"A lot of people think I'm mean and think I am this horrible person, and I am really not," Anosike said. "I'm harmless. I just like to make jokes. I like to make people laugh. I like to make myself laugh. Twitter is the real me."

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