Kelley Cain key piece of post play

Kelley Cain knows who she is on the basketball court: A post player who never needs to be far from the blocks. In an era of versatile players who can set up inside and out, the 6'6 center is somewhat of a throwback, and the Tennessee coaching staff knows it has a go-to player in the paint with soft hands, solid footwork and the presence of mind to stay put.

With the word from Jenny Moshak that Kelley Cain was "full go" – essentially the first time in her college career that she hasn't been hindered by an ailing knee or blows to the head – the redshirt sophomore is showing why she is a big part of the post plans for this season.

"She can finish. She can make shots," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "She's a true low post player and there's not a ton of those players around anymore. She gives us a legitimate threat inside who is very, very good. I can't say enough to how important she is."

Cain also wants to stay around the basket. She has no desire to drift onto the perimeter.

"They would have to pull me out," Cain said. "I refuse to go out there. I know it's not my spot, and I'm not effective out there."

Cain can, however, make shots from outside – 10 to 15-foot jumpers – so she will shoot those to keep defenders honest. Two plays in Monday's scrimmage – both involving Shekinna Stricklen on the other end – underscored how skilled Cain is as a post.

She was under the basket looking for a feed, but had two practice players covering her, including stalwart defender Nicky Anosike. As Stricklen drove to the rim those defenders converged on her and Cain slipped out to the baseline – also avoiding a three-second call that way – and Stricklen dished the ball to a wide-open Cain, who drained the short jumper.

On another play, Stricklen drove to the rim, met the defense, flicked the ball over her shoulder and found Cain, who was cutting behind her to the basket to get in rebounding position. Cain somehow caught the ball in traffic and converted off the glass for the layup in one smooth motion.

"She's just got a great presence, and she's a great finisher inside," Coach Pat Summitt said. "It's going to be hard for someone to defend her one on one. It will take a player and a half or double team her or come up with something creative."

Cain expects the attention – and her approach is a very unselfish one – and she welcomes a system build around playing from the inside out, as Tennessee plans to do this season.

"That is what I am used to," Cain said. "It really doesn't matter who's scoring as long as somebody is doing it. If they are going to double me, whoever's person came in to help, toss me the ball and I'll pass it right back for an open three or another open shot.

"It's all a matter of communication. If I hear you calling for the ball I can find you. But if you don't say anything I won't be able to find you."

That was Cain's reminder that the players have to talk – it was a point of emphasis Monday at practice, and they have improved somewhat but there is still too much slippage – for the offensive and defensive systems to be efficient.

Failures to communicate on defense or box out resulted in trips to the baseline Monday to run sprints.

Cain is still getting into playing shape – she was limited in her conditioning work in the off-season after having two screws removed from a lower leg bone – and said that the "full go" release from Moshak was the first time "since I've been here," though she will still monitor the knee and apply ice as needed during and after practice.

Her attitude now is one of "just keep playing until somebody stops me," Cain said.

Oddly enough the smallest person on the floor, Briana Bass, is the one Cain is watching for in box-out scenarios. Bass backed into Cain's knee Saturday – it's hard for Cain to even see her coming – and Moshak reminded her to keep the knee bent while in rebounding position to avoid a hit while it's straight.

"If I can stay away from Bree that will be good," Cain said with a smile.

On the opening day of practice Cain swatted shots, rejecting one by Bass and two by Kamiko Williams, when they got too deep in the paint. The block of Bass prompted Amber Gray to jokingly shout, "That's mean!" at Cain.

"I didn't hear it," Cain said. "I don't even remember doing that. I honestly don't remember that. I am just in the zone."

That is precisely where the coaches want Cain and it's a delight to them that her preferred zone is to be planted in the paint. A healthy Cain means the coaches can make use of the versatile players on the roster – those that can post up or play on the wing – and it would allow Tennessee to deploy some four-guard lineups and take advantage of the firepower from behind the arc provided by such shooters as Angie Bjorklund, Alicia Manning, Taber Spani, Sydney Smallbone, Williams, Stricklen and Bass.

"Pick your four, play whoever else you want to play," Lockwood said. "She takes enormous pressure off the other four players on the floor because she's such an inside threat. You have to be concerned with her."

Cain, a redshirt sophomore, is joined in the paint by junior Vicki Baugh, who continues to practice on a limited basis, as she comes back from ACL surgery; sophomores Glory Johnson and Alyssia Brewer; and freshman Faith Dupree.

"We had a year to really get to know each other, and I feel like we're a lot more compatible now on the court," Cain said. "I think you'll be able to tell soon."

Although Dupree is a newcomer she has proven herself to be fundamentally sound, and most importantly, coachable.

"She connects ideas and concepts and drills to competition very, very well," Lockwood said. "She just gets it. I like that about her. She has won me over as much because of that as anything."

When Summitt was asked which players she was pleasantly surprised with after three official practices, she cited the three freshmen – Dupree, Spani and Williams – in an apparent nod to her belief that they all can help the team this season.

"I think Faith has got a really nice stroke, and she's got a lot of composure for a freshman," Summitt said. "Taber, I think she is getting more and more comfortable every day. She's got the freedom on the offensive end, and I think she is making some good decisions. Kamiko, she gives in to the fatigue way too much and that's not uncommon especially for a guard that has got to pick the ball up early and play 94 feet.

"The freshmen, in particular, I think they can get some playing time, and they can help us."

Williams was a playmaker in high school – she also played in Germany until she was 15 years old – and is still learning team concepts and how to connect with the other four players on the floor.

"I think she's going to need to watch a lot of tape," Summitt said. "She's going to need to see herself playing by herself and trying to create for herself as opposed to having a guard mentality of how to feed the post and how to improve your angles and picking up early on the defensive end. Still casual but great athlete with a great up-side."

She showed that up-side on several occasions Monday. While dribbling need the top of the key, Williams appeared to be looking for a post feed and then left her male defender flat-footed with a hesitation move and drive to the basket. She also hit well from the outside and showed indications that she could be disruptive in full-court press situations.

Baugh practiced for a little over an hour in the 2.5-hour session and, although she was not at full speed, she did participate in the full-court drills and was allowed to engage in contact with the practice squad.

"I think she is gaining a little more confidence the more reps she gets and the more she is moving up and down," Summitt said.

A position of considerable interest to the program – in terms of who will handle the duties – is point guard, and Bass has shown improvement in the area that limited her minutes last season – defense.

"I think she's gotten a lot better defensively," Summitt said. "I think she's more confident. I think she understands the game better and what she has to do. Just a year older and a year wiser. I like what I have seen from her."

Bass and Stricklen continue to split the point guard duties – both will see action there this season – and Stricklen has elevated her overall game to another level.

"Absolutely," Summitt said. "That is why I am not going to hesitate to play her at multiple positions because we can post her up, she can run the point, she can obviously play on the wing. I think she likes having the ball in her hand."

That is in stark contrast to last season when Stricklen was ready to make one pass and get on the wing. So far in practice she has seemed to enjoy being a playmaker and has said she is much more comfortable on the court at point than she was a year ago.

Gray, who is sitting out this season to recover from shoulder surgery and a stroke, was on the sideline Monday getting rehab and encouraging her teammates.

"It's just good to know that she is doing well, and we can see her every day and check up on her ourselves instead of always asking people about it," Cain said.

Former Lady Vol Dominique Redding practiced with the team – she and Anosike plus Tyler Summitt know the system so well that it makes for a splendid practice squad – and Redding was especially useful in drills requiring players to pick up three-point shooters.

"That's where it starts: Guard the shooter," Summitt said.

Redding made a stellar defensive play during the session – drawing a smile from Summitt, who didn't see a lot of that defense when Redding was in orange – and Redding celebrated. She is working her way into shape before heading overseas and has shown up every fall since she graduated from Tennessee to practice with the team.

"She's a great kid," Summitt said.

Anosike is also playing her way into shape – she had surgery last month to repair a torn meniscus in her left knee – before she goes overseas. Anosike and Cain battled each other in the paint Monday.

"It's fun," Cain said. "She helps us with the little things telling us what we need to do and get done, so it's good having her around."

"She's great, just her size and competitiveness," Summitt said of Anosike. "She'll talk to them and push them around and go at them. She's all about being here and not only getting herself back in great shape but also to help us out."

Getting into game shape is also a point of emphasis at practice. Tennessee wants to return to its system of defensive pressure and it needs for the players to be able to sustain their intensity for 94 feet between timeouts.

"The thing about them right now is they've got to build up their endurance for consistency and being able to go up and down for longer periods of time," Summitt said. "Right now we're working more four-minute segments but we're going to have to work up to five and then seven and then 10. We've got to get them to not focus on the running part of it but to get in great shape so they can just think the game."

The preseason polls have been popping up, and the Lady Vols have been anywhere from the top five to the top 15. Cain said the team hasn't paid attention to it.

"No, we don't know anything about the polls," Cain said.

Assistant Coach Daedra Charles-Furlow said poll position in preseason is not a concern, and the team will find its spot.

"You have to earn it," Charles-Furlow said. "The polls, to me, they are what they are. At the end of the day the most important part is winning those games. They can have us ranked whatever, but we have to stay ranked (high). We have to make sure that at the end of the day we're winning our games, we're playing defense, and we're doing everything that we can within our system to be successful."

Summitt just recently became aware of the variations in the polls and agreed that voters aren't really sure what to do with Tennessee, especially after the first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament last March.

"We haven't proven where they should put us," Summitt said. "We just have to get out there and get the job done and then maybe we'll be somewhere that's more favorable than last year."

Stricklen has been practicing like someone who wants to write a much different ending in her sophomore year of college.

"It's still in my head," Stricklen said. "It's in the past and we were young and had a lot of downfalls, but I'm really using that as motivation to work hard because you really don't want that feeling like you had last year."


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