Lady Vols debut at No. 8 in AP poll

The first AP poll of the 2009-10 season was unveiled Friday, and the voters selected Tennessee at No. 8. On the one hand, it's the Lady Vols' lowest ranking to open a season since 1985 when they debuted at No. 9. On the other hand, the voters' last vision of Tennessee was a first round loss in the NCAA tourney.

The uncertainty as to where to place Tennessee is apparent with the Lady Vols getting one vote at No. 2 and another at No. 24.

The website, Pollspeak.com, tracks the votes, and an analysis of Tennessee's ranking in week one can be seen here: Pollspeak - Tennessee.

The majority of the media voters, 27 of the 40, had Tennessee somewhere between No. 8 and No. 13.

Coach Pat Summitt had mused last week that the Lady Vols were likely fourth in their own conference to start the season. A national ranking of No. 8 really surprised her, but she agreed that the voters likely reasoned that a down year for Tennessee was unlikely to be repeated.

"All I can say is we got a lot of respect, and I didn't know if we would after last year," Coach Pat Summitt said. "It's not like we've played since we lost to Ball State. There are a lot of good teams out there."

Three of Tennessee's first four opponents this season are ranked in the top 25 – No. 7 Baylor, No. 14 Virginia and No. 24 Middle Tennessee. Only one of those games, Baylor, is at home. The other opponent in the opening quartet is Texas Tech as part of the ESPNU Invitational in San Antonio, and it comes just two days after Tennessee's home opener.

"I think they know, maybe not our freshmen, but I think our upperclassmen understand the schedule and how challenging it's going to be and going on the road early," Summitt said. "I think we'll do that (talk to the team) some time before we actually open up and let them know where we are and where we want to be.

"Every game is going to be highly competitive and because of how we choose to schedule every year, it is what it is. We don't schedule for a perfect season."

Summitt enters this season with 1,005 career wins and only one perfect season – the 39-0 slate in 1997-98.

Last season's 11 losses tied for the most since 1975-76, Summitt's second year at Tennessee. This will be her 36th season on the sideline.

Redshirt sophomore center Kelley Cain was already aware of how the schedule lined up early.

"It's exciting and it's like, ‘Oh my God, we play hard games right off the bat,' " Cain said. "It's just going to get us ready for the postseason, so I think for the most part everybody is just excited for us to play a real game in the beginning so everybody knows where we stand."

On Thursday, Summitt wasn't particularly pleased with the team's effort level at practice from beginning to end, but she declared Friday to be "a little bit better until late. A couple of them gave in (to fatigue) late."

Tennessee wasn't at full strength Friday for the two-hour session, the bulk of which was spent in full court situations. Freshman forward Faith Dupree was held out with back spasms, and junior forward Vicki Baugh participated on a limited basis by plan.

The team also has had demanding workouts with Heather Mason, the team's strength and conditioning coach, and they got two of them Thursday – one in the morning and one after practice because two players were late to the morning session.

The Lady Vols will practice Saturday and then have a conditioning session afterwards with Mason.

"They are still doing a lot of conditioning," Summitt said. "That will taper off once we get into the season."

Last year's team had one senior, no juniors and a slew of freshmen and sophomores. Although there are no seniors on this squad, some leadership has begun to emerge among the returning players.

"I think Angie Bjorklund and Shekinna Stricklen have really stepped up their leadership, and Briana Bass is much more vocal," Summitt said. "It takes time, but those three have been very vocal.

"Last season was a tremendous challenge just because we were so young and had to depend on freshmen. I think for them it was hard to identify and get people to step up."

Cain is coming back from two knee surgeries – one to realign her right kneecap that caused her to miss the 2007-08 season and a second to remove two screws from that operation that migrated out of the bone and caused her considerable pain in the 2008-09 season. She is working her way into basketball condition and has battled through several lengthy and tough practice sessions.

"Kelley Cain is talking more and calling for the ball more," Summitt said. "She's a lot more comfortable being healthy and a year older and wiser."

Tennessee's post play is noticeably improved when Cain is on the floor. She has a calming effect on her teammates because her fundamentals are textbook, and they can rely on her to score and rebound around the basket. She executed a pick-and-roll Friday that the practice team knew was coming but could not stop.

"It helps so much," forward Glory Johnson said. "Kelley is a big post presence. It's not only comforting but also she is really competitive. I enjoy having Kelley back a lot. She is so much better. She has been working and shooting, and you can tell."

Sophomore forward Alyssia Brewer had some stellar play Friday on offense at the center spot – she executed a perfect up-and-under move and scored in transition – but she has to get better on defense and at box-outs. Johnson and freshman guard/forward Taber Spani are both getting reps inside, and when Cain needs a breather, those two bring a different style of play to the paint.

"I definitely think that we have to be mindful of the type of presence we have in the post and take advantage of that," Summitt said. "We can play a little bit more deliberate when Kelley's in there, whereas when we've got Glory and Taber in that situation we can get up and down and be a little bit quicker.

"We're going to try and make sure with our defense that at the same time we've got people on the floor that really understand our system. Lyssi, when she's running to the basket, she's a little bit faster now if we're on offense. If we're on defense, it's a lot slower, it looks like it's uphill. If she is going to help us she is going to have to commit to playing hard all the time. She's a sophomore. She's got to be better now."

Spani has relaxed a little on offense and is getting a bit more comfortable on the court at her new inside position. She chose to come to Tennessee because she wanted to compete for national titles. Watching the Lady Vols struggle last season just underscored her decision to wear the orange.

"For me it was Coach Summitt and the chance to play for what I think is the best coach in women's basketball history and arguably men's and women's top five," Spani said. "The chance for play to her, the chance to come to a team that is a traditional powerhouse and I want to win national championships, and that is what I want to be a part of.

"I think our team this year, from what I am hearing and the maturity level, I just feel like this is a different team, a different focus. We're just trying to come in as freshmen and get us back to that tradition.

"Every day we have to get better. We can't stay the same. We can't decrease in any way. We have a lot of talent, but we have to have it come together. As Coach Summitt said you have to work hard every single play, and you had better be busting your tail on everything."

DEAN AT FIFTY: Dean Lockwood turned 50 on Friday – the team sang Happy Birthday to him before the afternoon practice at Pratt Pavilion – and he got dinner at Pat Summitt's house with the rest of the coaching staff later in the evening. Lockwood's mother also was in town from Michigan for the occasion.

Summitt said with a home-cooked meal on the menu she expected to see son Tyler Summitt, a Tennessee freshman and a practice player, come home to eat.

Tyler Summitt, as expected, has been a reliable practice player. He arrives early, plays hard and stays late to rebound for any player who wants to take extra shots. On Friday that was Taber Spani.

"Right now he is so invested in helping our team," Pat Summitt said. "I only get to see him at practice now. He comes home usually one night a week to do his laundry."


Inside Tennessee Top Stories