Tennessee opens today vs. Baylor

Coming off a 22-11 effort, Tennessee might have been better served to ease into the new season, but the Lady Vols will open today against Baylor in a matchup of top 10 teams. The players see it as a fresh start. The coaches embrace it as an early gauge on where the team is now and how far it will need to go.

"Our whole team has been looking forward to this game for a long time," junior guard Angie Bjorklund said. "Coach set us up for a tough game right from the beginning for a reason. This will be a good test for us. I think it's good preparation for the season.

"It will test us and where we're at right from the beginning, and I think Coach does that for a reason every year. We always have a few tough games right off the bat."

"We're very excited to start over," redshirt sophomore Kelley Cain said. "We have a clean slate this year, so we're looking to do big things with that."

Big is the operative word for Sunday's game (5 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2, Lady Vol Radio Network). The 6'6 Cain will battle in the paint for No. 8/9 Tennessee. The 6'8 Brittney Griner will make her regular season collegiate debut for No. 7/4 Baylor.

"That's going to be an interesting matchup between Brittney and Kelley Cain," Coach Pat Summitt said. "I think that's going to be one of the best post games – put the two together, and it'd be tremendous – but they'll be going to head to head. I am really anxious to see how Kelley responds and how our post game responds overall. That's going to be a big key for us."

Cain, who missed practice Friday because of stiffness in her lower back, returned to the court for Saturday's session and is cleared to play. Taber Spani, a 6'1 freshman forward starting her first official game as a Lady Vol, will join Cain in the paint on defense.

When Tennessee has the ball, Spani and her long-range shooting skills will shift to the perimeter, and Glory Johnson, a sophomore forward, will move inside. Johnson will be used to guard on the perimeter, where Tennessee hopes her quickness and reach will disrupt Baylor's guards.

"We're talking about the best athlete on our team," Summitt said. "She's playing really hard, and I think she's starting to really understand what she needs to do for us on offense and defense. So, she will play perimeter defense for us."

Spani started one of the exhibition games and got her first experience as a post defender after a high school career spent primarily on the perimeter.

"I think every game it's going to get better (in the post) just because I am kind of new to it," Spani said after the Carson-Newman game. "I'm embracing what the coaches want me to do. I was really trying to focus on getting the basics on defense down so I don't have to think about it anymore. Obviously, they were a small team, so it's going to be different when we start playing bigger teams and we have 6'8 Brittney Griner in there.

"But it was a good first challenge and a good first test, and I feel like I can watch tape and learn a lot and see a lot of positioning where I can get better."

How helpful is it to be paired with Cain?

"Invaluable," Spani said. "It really is."

It speaks to Summitt's faith in Spani that she would not only start her in the freshman's first game but also play her essentially out of position.

"She is such a skilled player, and she makes a lot of good decisions and has a lot of composure," Summitt said. "She is only going to get better and better. She's unselfish, but also she understands when she's open. We expect her to really be offensive-minded.

"Her defense is getting better. She got caught behind a lot (against Carson-Newman). We talked about that. She's going to have to foot fight and get in front. But that won't be a problem because she wants to do things exactly by the book."

With the unavailability at this time of junior forward Vicki Baugh, who is recovering from her second ACL surgery, Spani has been getting reps at power forward to add depth to that spot. The other option is fellow freshman Faith Dupree, who has missed practice periodically with back issues, and sophomore forward Alyssia Brewer, who is primarily the backup for Cain.

As far as perimeter play, Summitt is expected to start sophomore Shekinna Stricklen at point and Bjorklund at shooting guard. Summitt singled out the pair after the lackluster win over Delta State and said she expects more from both of them in terms of leadership and on-court performance.

"I made that very clear to both of them," Summitt said. "They've got to provide the leadership and call the huddles and get people where they need to be."

Summitt was upset with her guards after the exhibition game on Monday for taking quick shots without getting the ball inside.

"If we're not playing inside-out right from the beginning this next game it's my responsibility to make sure that happens," Bjorklund said. "It's my responsibility to make sure that our defensive game plan is carried out on the court. Because come game time they're (the coaches) not out there. They're not out there blowing the whistle at practice and stopping us. It's the players – Strick, Kelley, me."

After the Delta State game, Summitt was particularly upset with Stricklen for her lack of intensity.

"The Delta State game I really didn't come out with energy, I wasn't talking to my teammates and being a leader," Stricklen said. "I don't know (why). I really don't. Come the Baylor game, start from the get-go, everyone has got to be fired up. We've got to have energy."

Stricklen may not have known what created her mindset in the last game, but she knows what didn't – youth.

"I really think it's an excuse," Stricklen said. "I'm a sophomore now and you have your one year to make a lot of mistakes and you learn from it. I think it was mental."

Summitt left no doubt about her disappointment in her post-game press conference, and her volume was up significantly at the next team gathering on Tuesday. Her voice was so loud when she re-watched the game at home that her two dogs left the room.

"It definitely carried over the next day at film," Bjorklund said. "It was just as bad. I think it was also to make sure that we have good preparation days for Baylor, that we're not slacking in practice. I think her getting on us just gave us more of a sense of urgency. She said she stayed up late."

The game caused distress for the coaching staff – and Bjorklund – because of its similarities to last season – effort issues and poor decision-making.

"I don't know about the rest of the team but in the back of your head, you're kind of like, ‘Oh, wow, it was a little hint of last year,' " Bjorklund said. "You know, how she really gets on you? We don't want that feeling again. We want to have a great season, and we want to work hard every game.

"I think Coach is getting on us early because she doesn't want it to happen again. I am thankful for that. We win by 30, and she's harping on us, but I think that's the higher standards, higher expectations here. That's just a reminder that we can't come out and be lackadaisical. We have to play consistently every game, and I think that's what she really needs us to get to is playing at a consistent level."

Both Tennessee and Baylor are young teams – the Bears have one senior on the roster, the Lady Vols have none – and both will have one freshman in the starting lineup. Tennessee will fill out its starters with one junior and three sophomores. Baylor is expected to complete its lineup with the senior, two juniors and a sophomore.

Because of the loss of five starters, injuries and an influx of newcomers, Tennessee played six true freshmen last season plus the redshirt Cain. Three of them were often in the starting lineup.

"We're both young teams," Baylor Coach Kim Mulkey said. "Pat's team is young. The difference between Pat's team and our team is that she has young players that played for her last year. I have young players that have been with us for three weeks."

One of those is Griner, a dunking phenom and YouTube sensation. She has two inches on Cain, who tied Vonda Ward as the tallest Lady Vol at 6'6.

"You can't teach 6'8," Bjorklund said. "That is going to be a tough matchup but Kelley Cain I have all the faith in the world in her and our other posts. We're going to do whatever it takes to get the job done."

"I can honestly say I don't think I've played anybody taller than me," Cain said. "That is going to be exciting. I am just looking forward to this game. She can run the floor, she has good hands and a good touch around the basket.

"I definitely think I have improved (as a post defender) and that's all because of the work we've done in practice and coaches doing game-like situations in practice and our practice players."

Summitt hopes that Cain is busy on the other end of the court, too. She averaged 18 points per game in the two exhibition contests and had 20 points and 20 rebounds in just 19 minutes of work against Delta State.

"I think Coach is definitely right in the sense that we need to play more inside-out, especially in the beginning, to get inside," Bjorklund said. "If they're doubling Kelley we play from there, but we definitely need to start not just being jump-shooters but getting the ball inside right from the beginning."

Last season Baylor opened with Florida Atlantic and then played a ranked team in Stanford. Tennessee opened with San Francisco and then played a ranked Virginia team. This season, the Lady Vols and the Bears open with each other in the State Farm Tip-Off Classic, and both are ranked in the top 10.

"The fact that it's the State Farm Classic and we're hosting it, yes, I like it, because I think there's a reason that they wanted it here because of our fans and the great following that we have, not just here in Knoxville but all over," Summitt said. "We're really proud to be hosting it, but we also know that we've got to be ready to play and we have an opponent that's going to come in and challenge us in a lot of different ways."

It will be just the second meeting between the two programs, which last played March 28, 2004, in the NCAA Tournament. Tennessee won 71-69 after Tasha Butts hit two free throws with 0.2 seconds left to send the Lady Vols to the Elite Eight. Mulkey, a former standout point guard for Louisiana Tech when Leon Barmore was the head coach, was very familiar with Tennessee as a player and assistant coach under Barmore, and Barmore is now her assistant coach.

"People in Knoxville love their Lady Vols," Mulkey said. "They love women's basketball. It will be a first trip for a lot of them to ever go to Knoxville. It won't be for me and certainly Coach Barmore. He has had many battles through the years in Knoxville.

"We're going to learn a lot about our basketball team. Win or lose the game at this stage of the season it's almost secondary. I am sure Pat will say the same thing, because there are so many question marks about your team, and you're playing the first game on national television."

It's the first broadcast of a women's basketball game this season for the ESPN networks – it's on ESPN2 and ESPN360.com – and Carolyn Peck, Dave O'Brien and Rebecca Lobo are in town. Lobo, as part of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame tie-in to the game, will be introduced at halftime as part of the inductee class of 2010.

"State Farm has a long history of supporting women's basketball," said John Althoff, collegiate sports sponsorship coordinator for State Farm. "We feel like this year's Tip-off Classic will showcase two outstanding teams. They return a number of heralded veterans, also include heralded recruits but most importantly two of the all-time best coaches in women's basketball."

Five WBHOF prior inductees will be on the sideline – Summitt, Holly Warlick and Daedra Charles-Furlow for Tennessee and Mulkey and Barmore for Baylor.

"They've got a great coaching staff," Summitt said. "There is no doubt about that. Kim assembled a powerful group, and that is always something that, as far as we're concerned, we have a lot of respect for them. At the same time I really think I've got a great staff. Dean Lockwood does a great job of working with our posts, along with Daedra Charles, a former player, and Holly Warlick she played here and has done a great job on the court as a teacher.

"It's going to be two great staffs who understand what you have to do come game time and yet ultimately the players are the ones who will make the plays and determine what happens in the outcome."

Tennessee's first two exhibition games were on computer webcasts. Sunday's game will allow a nationally televised audience to tune in to see if a Tennessee team that went 22-11 a season ago has gotten better. The next game, just two days later on Tuesday against Texas Tech, will also be televised (ESPNU) as part of the ESPN Classic.

"I think that's a big challenge for us and I think that's what we really need," Stricklen said. "These two games are going to test us and challenge us to show people what we have this year and that we're a lot better team than last year."

PROBABLE STARTERS: Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start (stats are from exhibition games): Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 sophomore guard, No. 40 (11.0 points per game, 5.0 assists per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 junior guard, No. 5 (16.5 ppg, 4.5 rebounds per game); Taber Spani, 6'1 freshman forward, No. 13 (15.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 sophomore forward, No. 25 (14.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg); and Kelley Cain, 6'6 redshirt sophomore center, No. 52 (18.0 ppg, 14.0 rpg).

Spani will start her first official game as a Lady Vol with perhaps Summitt's highest compliment.

"I trust her," Summitt said. "She makes good decisions, doesn't force a lot of things. She'll just get better and better with each and every game."

Spani got a vote of confidence from Stricklen, who knows what it's like to be put on the spot as a first-year player. Before the first official game last season, the 2008 national title banner was hung at Thompson-Boling Arena, and the freshmen – who had done fine in the exhibition games – played wide-eyed. Summitt said after that game that timeouts and halftime consisted mostly of calming them down.

"I really believe Taber is totally different than us in our freshman year," Stricklen said. "I feel like she's more focused than what we were our freshman year. I know we've just been having exhibition games, but I really think she's ready for it and I really think she's prepared. She's really been stepping up well."

Baylor Coach Kim Mulkey is expected to start (stats are from exhibition games): Kelli Griffin, 5'8 junior guard, No. 21 (3.5 ppg, 6.5 apg), led the team in assists last year with 128, rides horses and would run track if not playing basketball; Terran Condrey, 5'7 sophomore guard, No. 20 (3.0 ppg, 2.0 apg), played in 14 games last season, favorite sport other than basketball is bowling; Melissa Jones, 5'10 junior guard, No. 5 (13.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg), won the coaches' Big 12 Sixth Man Award last season, has a vertical jump of 27.5 inches; Morghan Medlock, 6'1 senior guard, No. 55 (12.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg), started five games last season, played at the same high school (Narbonne in Pasadena, Calif.) as former Lady Vol Loree Moore, scored a career-high 17 points last season against Texas A&M; and Brittney Griner, 6'8 freshman center, No. 42 (19.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg), averaged 33.0 points, 15.5 rebounds and 11.7 blocks in high school, ranks third on the team and first for posts in the mile conditioning run with a time of 6:39.

"I think they're a well coached team," Summitt said. "They've got the balance that they need with Brittney Griner coming in. She's such an impact player. Obviously people are talking about Brittney and the impact she can have on the game. Her ability to block shots, just watching her from high school, it's just amazing and now to see her at this level.

"Obviously with the coaching staff there at Baylor they're going to bring out the absolute best in her. I think people are going to want to watch her and follow her career, as well."

The matchup of Griner and Cain is an obvious point of emphasis, but Mulkey wanted to focus on the overall game.

"I don't look at it as just a post matchup behind Griner and Cain," Mulkey said. "I look at it as a basketball team and the University of Tennessee that has tradition that everyone wants to emulate, and our program, regardless of our national championship (in 2005), we're really new on the scene.

"We want to continue to try to be an elite program and what better place to learn than against the best. That's the way I view Tennessee and that's the way our program views it. Those two players will play a factor in the game certainly because they're 6'6, 6'8 and all that, but there are other players on that floor that are going to have to step up and play big-time basketball."

The Tennessee players are embracing the challenge.

"It's going to be a battle," Bjorklund said. "I know they're going to come in ready to play and it's going to be a fight until the end. I think our team is looking forward to it." I think it's a great test to kind of see where we're at. I know Coach does that for that a specific reason, and so we are all really excited for it."

"Games like this are why you come to Tennessee to prove why we've worked so hard during the summer and get a head start on the competition," Cain said. "This game is going to be fun."

SCOUTING REPORT: Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Baylor game. Here is her assessment.

When Baylor has the ball: "Well unless they're crazy they're going to go high-low," Warlick said with a smile. "They're going to go inside-out. They're going to play off Griner. They like to run up-tempo and score in transition. I think they're going to play similar to us.

"We've got to try to control the tempo and make sure shooters don't get good looks, and we stay between penetrators."

Defensively, Warlick expected Baylor to play man.

"They're going to run pretty much pressure man to man," Warlick said. "That's what Kim's done. Last year they did very little zone. I think they're going to run man to man against us. Kind of a mirror of what we do really."

When Tennessee has the ball: "We're going to go inside," Warlick said. "We're going to establish inside and try to get our shooters open looks. We want to score in transition, we want to score off steals – what we've done in the last two games, what we didn't do last year. We want to have an up-tempo game for us."

Pat Summitt had said earlier this week that Tennessee would likely pull Kelley Cain away from the basket some on offense and let her use her face-up game.

"We're going to have to move Kelley," Warlick said. "Kelley is not going to be able to shoot over Griner. We're going to have to move her. But Kelley is a big body. We're hoping that will give Griner a little bit of havoc."

Summitt has made it clear that she wants her team to play inside-out to open the game – a source of contention after the Delta State game when Cain got just five shot attempts in the first half – and that was a focus of this week's practice sessions.

"We want to play from the inside-out, and we don't want to quick-shoot, and we've got to do a better job of using screens," Summitt said. "Aside from establishing our inside game first become a team with a commitment to setting and using screens and a team that's passionate about rebounding. I mean passionate.

"We've got to dictate early on defense. I want to pick up in the backcourt, not in the frontcourt, so we will extend our defense, even just in our man to man."

Defensively, Tennessee will play "man to man, and then we're going to adjust as we need to, just see how the game goes," Warlick said. "Be aggressive and try to create steals and turnovers."

Summitt had some other keys for the game and it was underscored in practice by a constant reminder to keep hands up on defense and box out – instructions that she shouldn't have to repeat but often does.

"I agree," Summitt said. "As I said, ‘Box out or come out. Close out long. If you can't do that you're probably going to have to come out. Give up middle drives? Probably have to come out.'

"It could be a revolving door Sunday night. Our fans are going to have to really pay attention. Seriously, they've got to show that they (the players) have a better basketball IQ now than they did a year ago."

It's a tough opener for both teams, and both coaches realize they'll learn quite a bit about their teams in a way a lesser opponent would not reveal.

"It can certainly expose your weaknesses and at the same time it can only help you grow and stay hungry," Coach Kim Mulkey said.

Summitt agreed that the game would identify strengths and weaknesses and also help the staff determine "how deep we can go."

Warlick laughed when asked if she was responsible for a season opener against a team ranked No. 7/4 in the preseason polls.

"Not me," Warlick said. "I don't do the schedule. You can't dodge any bullets, and we're not."

ON TAP: Six other SEC schools play today in the following matchups: Arkansas at Alcorn State; Oklahoma at Georgia; Butler at Kentucky; Centenary at LSU; ETSU at Mississippi State; and Lehigh at Vanderbilt.

ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series against Baylor, 1-0. The teams met once in the NCAA tourney in 2004, a 71-69 win. … Tennessee is 3-1 in games played on November 15. The three wins were against San Francisco in 2008 (68-39); Oklahoma in 2007 (70-67); and Austin Peay in 1996 (80-59). The lone loss was to Purdue, 78-68, in 1998, as part of the Tip-Off Classic in West Lafayette, Indiana. … Tennessee is 4-2 in Tip-Off Classic games and last hosted the event in 2002. Tennessee has wins over Ohio State (1993); Louisiana Tech (1994); Virginia (1995); and Oklahoma (2002). The two losses were to Purdue (1998) and Louisiana Tech (1999). … Memory Lane: Pat Summitt was the head coach of the 1984 Olympic Team with a pair of point guards, Tennessee's Lea Henry and Louisiana Tech's Kim Mulkey. The 1984 team won the gold medal at Los Angeles, a first for USA women's basketball at the Olympics. Mulkey was the point guard for Louisiana Tech under Leon Barmore (he was the top assistant and then head coach during her career) and posted a 6-0 record against Tennessee from 1980 to 1984. Mulkey went on to serve as Barmore's top assistant, and he is now her assistant at Baylor. "All of us at Tennessee are very excited to host this game with such a great opponent coming in," Pat Summitt said to open her press conference this week. "I was thinking about going down memory lane, with Kim and Coach Barmore it brought back their Louisiana Tech days and here they are at Baylor."


Inside Tennessee Top Stories