That was in stark contrast to this time a year ago when the coaches were wishing for more time to get ready in preseason, as they watched a team with seven first-year players try to absorb the Lady Vol system on offense and defense. There are still a couple of occasional stragglers this preseason, but, overall, Summitt and her coaches have been encouraged by the daily effort put out by the team.
One big difference is how the team now responds to the assistant coaches. A year ago when Summitt was in Birmingham, Ala., for SEC Media Day, the players took a cat-away-mice-will-play attitude into practice. Summitt was so incensed when she found out about the disrespect shown to her assistants that she had the team run for the rest of that practice – she returned from Alabama midway through the session – and then ordered them back to the court at 6 a.m. the next day.
A couple of times this preseason Summitt has joined the sessions in progress, and the players have responded to the assistants, Holly Warlick, Dean Lockwood and Daedra Charles-Furlow, with the same energy and intensity level as if Summitt were already on the court.
"I think it's different now," Summitt said. "I think they're also a year older, but I think they're aware that I give a lot of responsibility to Dean and Holly and Daedra. They've got to take in all the information. It doesn't matter what coach it is. Obviously I know when I am on the court it's a little bit different, but I think that's probably true for any head coach in any program."
Tennessee remains a very young team with much to work on – offensive spacing and transition defense come immediately to mind – but the attitude this preseason has been different, as much a reflection of the players' maturity as their reaction to how last season ended.
"If I see one of my teammates not working hard I'll go tell them to pick it up, ‘Everyone else is going hard, work hard,' Stricklen said. "This year is totally different from last year. We're doing a lot better, a lot of improvement."
Tennessee's season ended last March with a loss in the first round of the NCAA tourney and that denouement followed the team into the off-season and preseason.
"It showed us that we had a lot of things that we needed to work on," sophomore forward Glory Johnson said. "We come to practice ready to work."
Summitt agrees with that assessment, and the team's attitude has resulted in a lot of progress this preseason.
"I think our intensity and our competitiveness and the fact that we really are putting pressure on the defense, and we're sharing the basketball," Summitt said when asked what aspects of practice she was pleased with over the last five days. "We're playing inside-out. We're playing well off the dribble. We're doing a better job of screening."
In areas that needed improvement, Summitt cited screening action, defense, rebounding and limiting turnovers.
"We've got to continue to work on setting and using screens," Summitt said. "I think us committing to our defense and our board play and then ball security. We can't be careless with the ball. The passing on the perimeter could be a whole lot better."
Another difference this preseason is the number of players on the floor who now understand the effort needed every day to play at Tennessee. The three freshmen, Kamiko Williams, Faith Dupree and Taber Spani, have been willing to listen.
"I think our three freshmen are learning a lot more every day," Summitt said.
Also, with just three of them – as opposed to seven a year ago – they can blend in better on the court as they are surrounded by players who have collegiate experience. Spani and Dupree also have already figured out that a lack of effort will draw Summitt's wrath. Williams knows it, too, but she has succumbed to fatigue at times, as freshmen are inclined to do.
"Kamiko gave in but hopefully she'll get it eventually," Summitt said. "I think she will. She's a typical freshman, and she's giving in to fatigue. She's got a chance to be a special guard. She's a great handler. Of all of our guards she does as good a job as any of them in creating and getting to the paint and getting open looks for herself and her teammates. Her instincts are very good as well. I am hoping that it will happen sooner rather than later."
Summitt noted, in Williams' defense, that she is being compared to the other guards, a group that is older and has made significant strides from a year ago.
"Our guard play is a year older and you've got some juniors in that mix so right now I am sure she feels like, ‘Wait a minute. I just got here, and they want me to be a whole lot better now,' " Summitt said.
Summitt has less patience for sophomore forward Alyssia Brewer, who has had some very good practice sessions and other ones in which Summitt questioned her effort. Brewer has the skills and size to help the team this season – with Vicki Baugh still coming back from major knee surgery the post depth is thin – if she can earn Summitt's trust in practice.
"Today was one of her better days," Summitt said. "If you don't get it by now sometimes you just expect them not to get it, but I am waiting on this one."
It was easier last season for a player's lack of effort – which for freshmen is often the result of tiredness and trying to absorb all the instruction – to blend in with the group because there were so many new players. But the majority of the team has made that leap so anyone who is lagging behind will stand out more this preseason.
"It's obvious when people aren't giving effort, and it's only been a couple of people," Summitt said. "Obviously you can play without them, but if you think they can help you then you want them here every day bringing the intensity and showing us that they do get it and playing hard all the time."
One player who is putting full effort into her comeback is Baugh, who has had two ACL surgeries on her left knee. She participated in lengthy segments of all five practice sessions – a significant step in that her knee handled the consecutive days of work.
"She is getting better every day," Summitt said. "Vicki is definitely getting better. She seems more comfortable and more confident. The longer she can be on the floor and have success that's going to allow her to still feel good about being out there and not being tentative and just playing.
"I didn't want to go in with high expectations. I just wanted to go in and take it day by day and listen to what Jenny had to say and what Vicki had to say."
The approach by Baugh and Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine, has been to let the junior forward test the knee in incremental steps – running, pivoting, defending, lateral movement, contact, driving and jumping. Baugh is not completely released by Moshak and she must pull herself when the knee needs some rest and ice, but she has been allowed to engage in basketball moves. There was one exception.
During a session over the weekend, Baugh broke for the basket on a fast break, and Williams tossed a lob pass to lead her to the rim. Baugh swatted down the pass like a volleyball and looked at Williams with an expression of disbelief. It was on that type of play that Baugh tore her ACL last season.
Summitt and the other coaches saw the play developing and were relieved at Baugh's reaction.
"No!" Summitt said of her reaction to seeing the ball in the air. "Don't throw that pass out there. I would rather her catch it in the post-up. I have no problem with the high-low game as long as she can land on both feet."
As far as when Baugh would be cleared to play in a game – the first exhibition is next Thursday, Nov. 5, against Carson-Newman – Summitt said it was "wait and see."
"As I told her I don't want to force anything, push anything time-wise and put her out there when she's not ready," Summitt said. "We can be ready, but the most important thing is when Vicki Baugh is ready and she feels the confidence. The overall comfort level has got to be hers, not ours. She doesn't need to play in the first exhibition, necessarily, or the second one. That will come from Vicki and Jenny."
Spani has been getting reps at the power forward position to add some depth to the spot and Summitt watched film with Spani on Tuesday before practice to point out offensive opportunities in the paint and on the perimeter.
"I watched tape with Taber and the one thing she has to be aware of is playing low to high, for her to be able to load her hips and play off the dribble some as well," Summitt said. "Because there are going to be teams that are going to come out and guard the three ball. She has got to be doing what Angie is doing, what Kinna is doing and do a better job of using screens. I thought she had a better day today. It was good to see the carryover."
Tuesday's practice went under two hours but included a lot of full court work against the male players. Interspersed were free throws and shooting drills by position. The players were shooting free throws when Summitt blew the whistle and ended the session, much to their delight, although most of them stayed afterwards and took extra shots on their own, including Williams, who worked with Bjorklund, Stricklen, Briana Bass and Sydney Smallbone.
Summitt will give the players the day off Wednesday, and they will return to the court Thursday afternoon for a scheduled three consecutive days of practice.
The presence of Baugh on the court for five straight days – a situation Summitt said made her "surprised and pleased" – is almost too tantalizing for the coaching staff. Baugh is like a Christmas present that is still wrapped and under the tree days after the holiday. The coaches know what it is – it's the present they really wanted – but they aren't allowed to open it yet.
"We're testing to see how much she can do," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "Vicki, on our team, makes a big, big difference in a big positive way for this basketball team. But until she's ready to go full throttle you'll drive yourself crazy thinking about it.
"Until that point in time when she's ready to hit the court and go full 100 percent we have just got to keep moving. Jenny has done a great job with her. Vicki has done a great job."