"If we had to start tomorrow, she would start (on the perimeter)," Coach Pat Summitt said after practice Tuesday.
The starting lineup could undergo several fluctuations in the coaches' minds before the first exhibition game, as several perimeter players are making their case in practice. But it's a nice issue to have for the coaches, especially after last season when the were forced to tinker with the lineup all season to adjust to injuries and to find five players ready to compete from the opening tip.
Manning has performed well on the offensive and defensive ends – being able to play both sides of the ball is the tipping point for the coaches' endorsement – as have perimeter players Angie Bjorklund, Shekinna Stricklen and Briana Bass. Taber Spani also has held her own on both ends of the floor, but the guard is spending time at the power forward position, too.
"Our perimeter players right now that have impressed me the most have been obviously Angie, Alicia and Shekinna, and Bree is doing a good job," Summitt said. "That is going to give us four right there that I am very confident to put on the floor. I think Taber will be in the mix but probably play a little bit more at the four than on the perimeter."
Spani has shown an adept passing ability at that position and twice found Manning on the perimeter for wide-open mid-range shots – once on a drive after drawing the defense to her and the second time on an offensive rebound. Spani also could play an unconventional role at the four spot in that she can drift to the perimeter and drain three-point shots.
"We've got to have a little bit more depth (at power forward)," Summitt said. "I think if you have someone like Taber on top of the floor you're going to really stretch it."
Manning, a 6'1 forward from Woodstock, Ga., struggled last season – as all the freshmen did – to adjust to the demands of college basketball. She was one of six true freshmen, plus redshirt Kelley Cain, on a team that had no juniors and one senior. College basketball players are often made in the off-season, and precious few on the roster last year had even experienced one.
Manning took full advantage of the summer break between her freshman and sophomore years.
"I think she and Angie spent a lot of time in the gym," Summitt said. "I can't speak for every player, because I am not over here policing it, but I know Angie and now that Taber is here, Taber has been in here, Alicia has been in here. Syd (Smallbone) has been in here. It seems like our guards have really stepped up and made a commitment in that regard."
Manning's maturity is apparent before practice begins. She is often on the floor early and already taking shots on the perimeter. They aren't circus shots or half-court attempts – as freshmen are sometimes inclined to do before the coaches arrive – but game-type shots.
"I think last year coming in you don't realize how much effort you need to put in, how much time you need to get in the gym," Manning said. "I realized that and am trying to make an improvement this year."
Summitt has certainly noticed.
"From the feedback I've gotten she's been in the gym a lot," Summitt said. "It shows. She's playing hard at both ends and playing smart. She's athletic and she can get to the rim. She's got a great pull-up game. She can shoot the three ball. She just seems a lot lighter on her feet. A lot of good things have happened because of her commitment to being here in Pratt. I am just glad we've got Pratt."
Manning showed a knack last season for getting to the rim, and she entered college with the ability to hit midrange jumpers. An area for improvement on offense was her three-point shooting.
"I knew that my strengths were driving and pulling up, but I knew that I had to have all of my game so I focused on my three a lot in the off-season," Manning said.
Manning used Pratt during the summer, and she also went home to visit family. A year ago her parents had moved temporarily to Hawaii because of her father's contract work as an electrician, but they have returned to Georgia. The college freshman suddenly was not just away at college, but her parents were far away, and she rarely saw them. Having her parents close again has helped.
"It really has and I think just overall coming in sophomore year you know what to expect," Manning said. "You know the system. It's not as much thinking. It's just going out and playing so it's more fun."
Several of Manning's classmates have also made the leap from freshman to sophomore year, and it shows on the practice court. Although the coaches are still doing a lot of teaching the concepts are absorbed quicker now.
"I think the overall team attitude this year (is different)," Manning said. "We know last year we came up short, and we know that we need to get it done. Personally I just took that and I was like, ‘You know what? It's every player. We all need to have that same attitude.' I went to the gym all the time, put in hours in the gym, so I think that had a lot to do with it. I played against a bunch of guys."
Manning also has gotten noticeably better on defense – especially in full-court press scenarios in which she is picking up the ball early – and she credits that improvement to her off-season competition.
"That is probably playing with the guys," Manning said. "Some of them were semi-pro, a bunch of college guys. I think playing a bunch of pickup games had a lot to do with it."
Summitt has seen enough of Manning to toss her name onto the table when the coaches meet before the first game to decide who starts.
"I am not sold on a lineup right now," said Summitt, who added her comments were merely to indicate which way she was leaning as of now based on practice performance.
Bass could get the nod at point guard, but Stricklen has shown improvement this preseason with the ball in her hands, a position she was never comfortable with a year ago.
"I am not sold on a lineup right now," Summitt said. "No (final) decision has been made. I will sit down with my staff, and it will be a joint decision. I think a lot depends on the matchup. If we're playing a team that has got great size then we may want to go big."
A big lineup could include Manning, who could use her size to create mismatches on the perimeter. The wings and guards are aware that the coaches intend to experiment with the four-guard, one-post lineup, and it has their approval, to say the least.
"I'm excited," Manning said. "I like the speed. I think the freshmen coming in are going to help a lot, too. I would love to play three or four guards and big ole Kelley Cain, pull Taber out and let her shoot. That will open it up for Kelley. Defensively, that would be awesome, (too)."
Two of Tennessee's perimeter players were singled out for preseason SEC honors in a vote by 20 members of the media, both beat writers who cover league schools and national press.
Bjorklund was named to the All-SEC Second Team. Bjorklund also received one vote for SEC Player of the Year, which went to Allison Hightower of LSU with 18 of the 20 votes. LaSondra Barrett of LSU got the other vote for POY.
"Shekinna is at a different level from a year ago, and she's playing with tremendous confidence and has got a great feel for the game," Summitt said. "That doesn't surprise me, but it does speak to obviously the media has recognized it as well what she has brought to us."
The writers' order of finish was: LSU, Tennessee, Georgia, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Florida, Arkansas, Auburn, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Kentucky and Alabama.
LSU received 12 first-place votes with Tennessee getting six and Georgia and Vandy one each.
The Lady Vols finished last season tied for fourth place and were the No. 5 seed in the SEC Tournament. Summitt thinks the preseason league spot of No. 2 is too high for Tennessee.
"I think we may be overrated right now," Summitt said. "I figured we would be somewhere around fourth."
The case for Tennessee could be both the belief that the Lady Vols will be better and the fact that several SEC teams sustained significant losses due to graduation, including Vandy, Florida and Auburn.
"I think that probably has something to do with it," Summitt said.
Mississippi State, which returns all five starters, would seem to project to better than fifth place in the conference.
"Definitely," Summitt said.
And six media members cast a vote for Tennessee at the top.
"Well, we're not short on talent," Summitt said. "We've got an inside-outside game. We may not be as deep off the bench as I would like, but if we can get seven or eight players to really commit … right now we're still trying to inspire some people and come game time they'll be our cheerleaders if they don't pick it up."
Summitt has seen that commitment from the perimeter, and it started last March when the Lady Vols lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Bjorklund is generally mild-mannered and quiet but a few minutes after that loss she said players had to commit in the off-season or leave the program. The day after the loss the coaches asked each player if she wanted to quit. Not a single one did, and the team endured a series of workouts and conditioning sessions for the next three weeks that challenged them physically and mentally.
"I think Angie is very committed to this team and to getting in the gym," Summitt said. "We've had a number of players that have invested more this year in getting in here and getting shots up and working on their skill set. I think that's going to make a difference for us.
"I think they realized at the end of the season last year that, A, we didn't bring it, and B, we've got to get better and they've got to go to work right off."
Late last season, the team had been stripped of its locker room, practice gear and laundry services. When workouts started last August, the players got back their practice clothes, and the managers do the laundry. But the locker room in the arena remains off limits.
"We joke about it," Manning said. "But it would be nice to get our locker room back. We carry our shoes everywhere and stuff like that. I think we'll get it. We've been working really hard."
When Summitt took away some privileges last season the freshmen were bewildered and didn't understand why. They do now.
"At first we probably thought it was a joke, OK, one day or something, but it was pretty serious," Manning said. "We get it now."