Taber Spani to play multiple spots

Taber Spani will get a one-on-one film session today with Pat Summitt – naturally the self-described freshman "sponge" is looking forward to it – as Tennessee needs some additional depth at power forward and the 6'1 sharpshooter has the size and basketball IQ to handle the responsibilities.

Taber Spani has already been given the green light by Pat Summitt to fire away from the outside – she joins juniors Angie Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone and sophomore Shekinna Stricklen with that designation of freedom – in an indication of how much the coaching staff trusts the first-year player.

Spani's natural instincts are those of a perimeter player, and she can earn minutes right away at Tennessee at shooting guard and small forward. But Tennessee also needs her to get ready at the power forward spot, a position that has less depth – the Lady Vols have seven guards/wings and five post players – as junior forward Vicki Baugh continues her purposely deliberate comeback from two ACL surgeries on her left knee.

Of the five post players on the roster, one, Faith Dupree, is a freshman, and two, Glory Johnson and Alyssia Brewer are sophomores. The fourth is Baugh, and the fifth is redshirt sophomore Kelley Cain, who also is coming back from knee surgery. It is a position that clearly needs more depth, and Spani has the size and strength to play in the paint.

It is, however, a lot of information to process – especially for a freshman – and Spani has looked lately as if she is thinking too much, instead of just being able to play.

Spani has, however, embraced the challenges. One hour before the official start of practice on the evening of Oct. 16, Spani sought out Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick to review beforehand the specific assignments for the guard and forward positions in various defensive and offensive schemes.

"She's in there with Holly going over things trying to learn," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "She's a gym rat. She's got a work ethic that is just second to none. She's relentless in her approach."

Spani smiled Monday when asked if she had just about reached information overload.

"I am a guard and I see myself as a guard but with the Vicki Baugh situation – and she is looking great and I am so excited she is getting back to practicing – they were just going to try to use my versatility," Spani said. "I have been watching film with Holly, and I am so excited to watch with Pat (Tuesday). I am trying to learn a (position) I've never played before, but I see where I can bring my strength in. I can be the unconventional four player."

Spani can trail on the break and hit three-pointers from a step or two behind the arc, thus making her a difficult guard for another post player. She also can post up on the high block – she had a drive to the basket Monday and finished the bank shot against a taller male practice player – and set up on the perimeter to clear space inside for Cain in a four-out, one-in scheme. Her outside shooting gives her an edge that most power forwards don't have as first-year players in college.

"I am just trying to learn how to work off our posts," Spani said. "That is my biggest thing. Kelley is just a great presence in there. I am trying to let her work, not crowd her space but then also find my opportunities. I can trail on the four and hit those open threes because most people aren't going to come out and guard that."

It's easy to see why the coaches' curiosity has been piqued with Spani at the four spot. On the break – and Tennessee wants to run this season – defenders would have to find Spani, Bjorklund and Stricklen, all at least 6 feet tall, on the perimeter, while the 6'6 Cain ran to the paint. Pint-sized point guard Briana Bass can duck into a deep corner and force a defender to cover her, too.

Tennessee also has other power forward options in that Johnson got extensive experience last season at the four spot; Dupree has shown a willingness to mix it up inside and an ability to hit from the outside; Baugh is trying to work her way back; and Brewer has the size and skills to play in the paint. Summitt has frequently criticized Brewer for her lack of consistency in practice, and Dupree, who was coached in high school by a former Lady Vol, and Spani, a self-described blue-collar worker, seemed to have already realized that effort goes a long way with the head coach.

"I am a blue-collar worker," Spani said. "Hard work is natural for me, and I love it. I was drawn to Heather Mason and the off-season staff and the conditioning. That is what makes championship teams. I am trying to bring that hard-working mentality."

Summitt has often said that she can't coach effort – Brewer and freshman Kamiko Williams need to step up their efforts considerably, according to Summitt – and this season the coaches intend to reward practice commitment with playing time. Summitt would have a tad more patience with a freshman, but a sophomore like Brewer needs to make strides now.

"As I told her, there is very little change in her," Summitt said. "In order for her to help us she has got to sprint hard all the time. She'll pick and choose when she sprints hard. I am not going to play people that are not going to sprint hard."

Summitt has said repeatedly this preseason that she needs seven to eight competitors, and she seems relieved to not be in the position of having to play freshmen and sophomores if they have not earned the court time in practice.

"I don't have to," Summitt said. "We can shorten the (rotation)."

The coaches very much want Johnson to be a key part of that rotation, and the focus in preseason has been to keep her in the paint on offense.

"Glory likes to step away, and we need her to score in the paint," said Summitt, who added Johnson has developed her outside shot to include short and midrange jumpers at the elbows. "She's got a good pull-up jumper at the free throw line."

But with Johnson's leaping ability and knack for getting to the rim, the staff wants the sophomore forward to use her athleticism and speed to overmatch defenders inside.

Spani can take the role of unconventional power forward in that she should drift out of the paint to look for open three-pointers. And if Spani and Johnson are on the floor together they can switch positions at the defensive end. Spani will use her strength to guard inside, and Johnson will use her length and quickness to take the perimeter.

It's a lot for a freshman to absorb, but Summitt thinks Spani has the ability to do so.

"She is very smart," Summitt said after Monday's practice. "She is trying to learn everything right now. I thought she loosened up a little bit today. She'll be OK. We'll watch film. She's learning so much that she's not playing with freedom, but she'll get there."

The film session with Summitt will come before Tuesday's practice and will key on offense.

"The main things I am going to show her are on the offensive end," Summitt said. "She is such a great shooter that I want her to look at a lot of the different options that she has, as opposed to thinking about passing all the time and turning down shots.

"She has already given us enough information, and even watching her before she came here, that a big responsibility she has on offense is to hunt shots. When I watch some tape with her I can help her out. She is trying to learn all the set plays, and it is taking away her freedom of just playing."

Spani also wants to learn all five spots on the floor – not that she would ever play center or point guard, but she will play shooting guard, small forward and power forward – so that she has a better overall understanding of the system. Former Lady Vol Alexis Hornbuckle took the same approach – she played one, two and three at Tennessee – and within two years she knew the offensive and defensive schemes at every spot. This allowed Hornbuckle to be the quarterback on offense and defense, as she directed players into the proper positioning.

"I told Coach it might be hard now because it's a lot but I want to do whatever I can to help the team, and as a competitor I want to do whatever I can to be on the court and contribute and make an impact," Spani said. "I am the kind of person who I want to know what everybody is doing on any play anyway because I think that helps me as a player to know exactly where people are supposed to be.

"I think in the long run if I can be versatile, if I can be used in three or four different positions I am willing to do that. It's a lot of information, but I feel like if I can be invested in it and get that down now when games start I can stop thinking and just play."

Spani was speaking before practice. Summitt said essentially the same thing after practice.

"The thing I told her today is you're a player no matter what position you play," Summitt said. "The thing about it is the more positions you can play, the more playing time you can get."

Sunday's practice session – the midway point of five consecutive days – lasted about an hour and was used for scrimmage situations to work on spacing, communication and picking up players in transition.

"Talk more, take ownership," Summitt said of the objectives on Sunday.

Monday's session lasted two hours and was heavy on teaching in the half court and execution in the full court. It ended with a conditioning and weight session with Mason, as Summitt and the staff watched courtside to see who was still able to push themselves in sprints after four consecutive days of practice.

Summitt hopes the team shows the same energy level on the fifth day, as the players have for the previous four sessions. The team will be off Wednesday because Summitt will be speaking at a posthumous tribute to NCAA President Myles Brand in Indianapolis.

"We want to have a good day (Tuesday) since we're off Wednesday," said Summitt, who pronounced herself to be pleased with the team's work so far. "Very much. Very much. Today was really good."


Inside Tennessee Top Stories