"I feel 10 times more (confident) than last year," Stricklen said. "I feel really confident at that spot. I felt good pushing the ball like coach wants me to. If someone picks me up, I can dish off to Kelley because our posts are really running the floor really well. I think that's going to be a big theme for us this year."
Kelley Cain is a 6'6 release valve inside for the guards and, if she is covered, they will see the ball right back in their hands.
When Tennessee was making its run against Baylor early in the second half on Sunday, Cain led the way with five quick points. But, after drawing a crowd, she also found Angie Bjorklund all alone behind the arc for a wide-open three-pointer to push the Tennessee lead to eight points.
That inside-outside attack will be what No. 6 Tennessee, 1-0, wants to display tonight against Texas Tech, 1-0, in the ESPNU Road to the Championship. Tipoff on ESPNU is set for 7:02 p.m. Eastern at the AT&T Center. The second game of the double-header features Connecticut and Texas at 9:30 Eastern.
The format brings four teams to the host city of the 2010 Final Four - the venue for that event will be the Alamodome - as both a trial run for the organizing committee and a way to generate interest at the beginning of the season. The last time Tennessee participated was in Tampa in November of 2007. The Lady Vols went on to win their eighth national title in Tampa less than five months later.
"I'm excited about it," Coach Pat Summitt said. "Hopefully it will be a reminder of the Final Four and our goal is to be a part of the Final Four and not have to sit home and watch it."
"I keep hearing San Antonio is a great place to go," Stricklen said. "I just feel like going up there early and getting a feel of it and seeing how everything is will really make us want to go back again."
The team arrived Monday afternoon and is staying at the Grand Hyatt along the city's famed Riverwalk. It was a quick turn-around after Sunday's game, and Summitt opted not to practice and instead used the day to travel and let the team have some rest. There are just nine players available for the game because freshman guard Kamiko Williams and sophomore forward Alyssia Brewer were left behind in Knoxville for violation of team policy.
Summitt indicated the penalty would be one game.
"If they take care of business it's over," Summitt said. "I'm not holding a grudge. I want them to get it right, and we'll move on. When you come here you go to class, you sit up and pay attention. You sit in the first three rows. If you don't understand that you don't play."
The day off likely did a lot of good for Stricklen, who played the entire 40 minutes against Baylor. The second-year player wasn't worried about the brief time between games. Nor was Bjorklund.
"I think we're used to it," Stricklen said. "Last year was a young team, but this year I don't think it will make any difference."
"It is going to be a quick turn-around, but we do that in the (postseason)," Bjorklund said. "It's just good preparation for the rest of the season."
Summitt is counting on the pair for leadership this season, and she was particularly displeased with both after the second exhibition game a week ago.
"Our coaches are just setting a higher standard for us, a lot higher expectations this year," Bjorklund said. "They're not giving us any room for mistakes. We need to be on top of every possession. She harped us on last year to be a 40-minute team, and she wants us to be that no matter what. It doesn't matter what the score is, if we're not playing a 40-minute game she's going to get on us because she knows we have to get to that level in order to win."
It speaks to the team's maturity that in its next game out, the season opener against Baylor, the two guards led the way. Neither shot particularly well - the team as a whole shot just 37.0 percent - but they were vocal on both ends of the court and key pieces of the win. Baylor kept making runs at the Lady Vols and had trimmed the lead to single digits with 1:20 left and was in a fast break opportunity when Bjorklund took a charge and created the turnover.
"We all have more of a sense of urgency," Bjorklund said. "We know, especially going through a year (like last year), especially our freshmen last year that are sophomores now. They know how important every single game is. I don't think we really understood that last year, like, ‘Wow, if we would have won that game or this game, we would have been a better seed.' It all had a chain effect. I think every game is a preparation game."
Tonight's game also falls in that category. The Lady Vols are coming off a win over a Top 10 team and now face an unranked one in that school's home state and in the city of the 2010 Final Four.
Bjorklund thinks the team is now better prepared to handle any scenario.
"Definitely," Bjorklund said. "I think anytime you have another year of experience under your belt you're going to be more prepared. I think this team is very motivated this year. It should be a fun game."
Summitt will want to hear what she did in the Baylor game - the voice of Stricklen joining Bjorklund.
Before the Baylor game Summitt said, "I go down and talk to Shekinna and Angie during practice. Angie is talking all the time. That's probably the only voice we're hearing constantly. I told her (Stricklen), ‘You'd better step up and take some ownership or somebody else is going to do it.' "
The message got delivered and it will mean Stricklen will, once again, have to step out of her comfort zone.
"I talk sometimes. I just don't talk all the time," Stricklen said. "That is something that I am really going to have to pick up real quick. Pat is staying on me about that a lot. I am coming around, but I just need to talk a lot more and be more like Angie."
Moving Stricklen to the point spot, and keeping her there even while she resisted the move, facilitated her adjustment to the position. Now, she thinks it's made her more focused.
"I think that really helps me because starting the game with the ball in your hand you really have to be focused," Stricklen said. "You're starting the whole offense. You can't turn the ball over from the get-go, and you're getting everyone in the offense."
That was certainly the case in the first exhibition. Stricklen started at point and played very effectively. In the second exhibition, she started on the wing and never seemed fully engaged in the game. She definitely was motivated against Baylor.
"I came in with high energy and the whole team we were so fired up about this game," Stricklen said. "I felt like it really carried over in the game."
After rotating point guards last season Summitt seems to have settled on starting Stricklen and bringing Briana Bass off the bench.
"The reason that I wanted to start her at the point is that she's more aggressive when she's at that position," Summitt said. "She can get to the paint anytime, and she's very effective with the three-ball. She's got great vision and she is very unselfish. I think what affected her was after our second exhibition, I was not very happy with Stricklen and I told her, ‘You're going to start at the point, and you're going to be the leader. You and Angie have to provide leadership.'
"Those are the two we count on every day in practice, as well as in games."
With Williams suspended for this game that means sophomore forward Alicia Manning also could see reps at point guard to provide more depth.
Manning, who is called "A-Town" because she is from Atlanta, has been solid in her appearances for Tennessee this season, and she tallied two points and four rebounds in eight minutes against Baylor.
"She worked her butt off this summer," Cain said of her fellow Georgian. "Her energy helps our team to step it up to a new level. You can tell she's done like a 360 from last year."
Manning started one exhibition game this season and can slide into that role or come off the bench. For Tuesday's game, Tennessee will have just four bench players. Their role is clear - continue what the starters are expected to do.
"Just to come in and play the kind of defense that we've got to play and share the basketball and understand we want to play inside-out," Summitt said.
Tennessee has tweaked its offense so that, at times, Stricklen can also slide to the wing position after one pass so that she is in better rebounding position.
"With what we're running right now the three guards do the same thing so Kinna is basically bringing up the ball and getting us in our offense," said Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick. "We still need Kinna on the wing. We need her to rebound. We need her to do the things she does well."
But the overall key is that Stricklen feels at ease with the ball. When Bass comes in, she creates a change of pace - she can motor the ball up court - and she also is comfortable.
"I think whoever is playing that position has to be comfortable with it," Dean Lockwood said. "It's like a horse with a rider who's not comfortable. That horse senses it. Your team senses it. If you're the point guard and you're not comfortable your team knows it.
"Whoever that is - be that Kinna, be that Bree, be that Manning; we still have a bit of a committee going - I think whoever that is they need to project that. I think the team picks up on it."
It helps that the team overall is better. The players spent most of the summer together working on their games and playing pickup basketball.
"I think there is really a lot of confidence this year," Stricklen said. "We've been working with each other since after the loss in the first round. We all decided to come back during the summer. We picked each other up.
"I think as a team this year, we are all on the same page and we're all willing to go far and just win a national championship."
PROBABLE STARTERS: Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 sophomore guard, No. 40 (SEC Player of the Week after Sunday's performance); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 junior guard, No. 5 (hit 41 percent from long range in exhibition games); Taber Spani, 6'1 freshman forward, No. 13 (hit 50 percent from behind the arc in exhibition games); Glory Johnson, 6'3 sophomore forward, No. 25 (the glue player against Baylor as she held down the fort in the first half with the other posts in foul trouble); and Kelley Cain, 6'6 redshirt sophomore center, No. 52 (finished with 15 points and seven rebounds despite being out for all but three minutes in the first half against Baylor with foul trouble).
If that starting lineup stays intact, Tennessee will have these four players available on the bench: Alicia Manning, a 6'1 sophomore forward with starting experience; Sydney Smallbone, a 5'10 junior guard who also started some games last season; Briana Bass, a 5'2 sophomore point guard with a full season under her belt; and Faith Dupree, a 6'3 freshman forward, who has battled low back problems and logged four minutes against Baylor.
The one-game loss of Alyssia Brewer, a 6'3 forward/center with size and skill who held her own during her court time against Baylor, and Kamiko Williams, a 5'11 athletic guard who can fill in at the one or two spots, is a blow to Tennessee's depth.
Williams had four points and two steals against Baylor - including a tipped ball of an in-bounds pass that she controlled in the air and took the length of the floor for a layup - and showed bursts and spurts of why Summitt is so high on her game.
But both players have been in Summitt's cross-hairs because of inconsistent practice habits, though Williams, after drawing Summitt's ire earlier last week, got better later in the week.
"Coach gets on me all the time in practice for not playing hard," Williams said after the Baylor game. "The past two practices I've decided to go hard, give it all I have, and it kind of carried over to the game. Getting in passing lanes – Holly (Warlick) is always telling me to get into passing lanes on defense – and watch where the ball is going but watch your man at the same time. It was a wonderful experience. I was kind of jittery at first getting used to the crowd, but once I got into it I was pretty good."
"Kamiko is the most athletic guard on our team in terms of somebody being able to get in the paint and get by people," Summitt said after the Baylor game. "Her pull-up game is really good. We just have to keep her focused sometimes. Her father and mother were here, and her dad is a military guy and so is her mother. We had a long conversation the other night, a very good one. I think the father probably had more influence than Coach Summitt."
When Williams was asked about the conversation, she seemed a little startled but smiled.
"That went well. It was great, yeah," Williams said, her face making it clear there was nothing particularly pleasant about the exchange. "Got a nice little phone call from my father and he got me acting right, so it showed during the game."
Summitt met with the families of both players over the team policy violation, which would seem to relate to classroom matters, before making the decision that they would not travel to San Antonio.
Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said other players must step into the void.
"We're not making a huge thing of it," Lockwood said. "It's all about accountability to program principles here. That being said obviously your depth chart is impacted. Being practical here - in this case nobody is hurt or injured; these are things controlled by choices - there are more minutes to be dispersed now for a few less players so that means there are going to be opportunities, and people have to be ready.
"As a coach we say (to reserves), ‘You had better be prepared and perhaps that opportunity comes.' When you lose two players (for a game) that perhaps jumps to a lot more likely. In this case if you're somebody who is not in the starting lineup for this game your mindset had better be, ‘Boy, I'd better be prepared to go in there and produce and be effective for this team.'
"The main thing that we've emphasized is we need a deep bench so who is going to be prepared to fill the gap."
Texas Tech Coach Kristy Curry is expected to start: Monique Smalls, 5'6 freshman guard, No. 23 (6.0 ppg, 1.0 rpg), had four assists in season opener as part of an all-freshman backcourt; Chynna Brown, 5'8 freshman guard, No. 00 (6.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg), joined Smalls in the backcourt for first pairing of freshmen there in their first game for Texas Tech since 1995 when Julie Lake and Rene Hanebutt debuted; Jordan Murphree, 6'0 senior guard, No. 13 (10.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg), is 101 points shy of 1,000 for her career, graduated in three years with a bachelor's degree in exercise and sport sciences, currently working on second degree in human development and family studies; Ashlee Roberson, 5'11 senior guard, No. 31 (14.0 ppg, 11.0 rpg), played at Converse Judson High School in San Antonio and expects large contingent of family and friends, plus folks from her high school; and Kierra Mallard, 6'3 sophomore center, No. 20 (15.0 ppg, 9.0 rpg), started 23 games as a freshman last year.
"I'm excited to be home and play in front of my family and friends," Roberson said. "I think it's a great experience to play against a great team like Tennessee in my hometown. The atmosphere is going to be out of control just knowing that I have a lot of support in San Antonio that is behind me 100 percent."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Head Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Texas Tech game. Here is his assessment.
When Texas Tech has the ball: Lockwood prepared his report based primarily on last year's game tapes - the Lady Raiders return three starters - and he expected to get a copy later Monday evening of Texas Tech's 91-52 opening win over Sam Houston State to use in preparation for Tuesday's scouting report session with the team.
"I've seen plenty of tape from last year and they're a team that is going to run motion-style offense," Lockwood said. "They're going to set a lot of ball screens, and they've got three very good offensive players that are returning - Jordan Murphree, Ashlee Roberson and Kierra Mallard. All three of those are legitimate Big 12 players and scorers. They are going to be the focal point of their attack. Two of the three are very good outside shooters, and Mallard is very tough in the paint. She will be a challenge for our frontline."
Texas Tech shot 53.7 percent (36-67) in its season opener.
"I think you're going to see a team that runs motion, that has good spacing, they're going to set a lot of ball screens and what we want to try to do is try to get to them with a little bit of pressure and we'll try to mix up our defenses. Hopefully things will go OK."
Defensively, Lockwood expects different looks.
"Last year they were man and zone," Lockwood said, with the zone a 2-3 that could morph into a 1-1-3. "They will probably try to do the same to us and mix it up a little bit. A lot of it is as the game unfolds. If their man is effective we'll probably see more man."
When Tennessee has the ball: "We want to play through our middle," Lockwood said. "If we can get touches inside early it takes pressure off our perimeter, and if we can put pressure on their defense inside then that will open up our perimeter that much more.
"We definitely want to play through the middle. That's our staple. I don't think that we're ever going to go away from that. I don't think you'll ever hear any of our staff say, ‘Well, we really want to start the game by shooting threes.' That's just not what we're going to do. We want to get touches for inside people, we want to get a little high-low action and then if they're collapsing, now we can open things up. Obviously we have got people that can make shots out there."
Lockwood said the paint points don't have to just come from post touches. The guards can get to the rim or take short jumpers near the basket. Glory Johnson also can score on drives and did so along the baseline against Baylor.
"We're going into the game with that mindset," Lockwood said.
Defensively, Tennessee is known to open in man to man, but opposing coaches now have something else to think about after the Lady Vols started in a 2-3 matchup zone against Baylor.
"I've had some emails and texts about it," Lockwood said of the incredibly rare move by Tennessee.
The Lady Vols should go back to their staple of man against Texas Tech, but they are keeping the zone in their back pocket.
"A lot of that unfolds in a game," Lockwood said. "You test it and you see how people react to it. We were fortunate (Sunday) night that we got up 10-3, and certainly Baylor came back, but they didn't look comfortable. They looked like it might have disrupted their rhythm a little bit or caught them temporarily unsuspecting. If we had been down 12-2 you would have probably seen us get out of it a lot quicker. A lot will depend on what happens.
"I think our players were very confident in it. Efficiency-wise, we did a nice job in it. That will not leave our arsenal. We like knowing that that's something that's there and it's different."
ON TAP: Five other SEC teams are in action tonight in the following matchups: Ole Miss at Sam Houston State; Jackson State at Alabama; Florida State at Florida; Auburn at Temple; and Kentucky at Morehead State.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee is 5-0 against Texas Tech. Two of the wins were in Knoxville, two at neutral sites and one on the road. The two teams last played on March 27, 2005, in the NCAA tourney in the Sweet 16 in Philadelphia, a 75-59 win for the Lady Vols. Marsha Sharp was the head coach of the Lady Raiders in those games. Kristy Curry, the former head coach at Purdue, is now at the helm. … Tennessee is 2-1 in games played on November 17. The last game on this date was in 2008, an 83-82 loss to Virginia in Knoxville. The two wins were in 1994 in an exhibition game against Athletes in Action, 78-65, and in 1996 against Kansas, 79-60. … Tonight's game will be played at the AT&T Center, the home of the WNBA's San Antonio Silver Stars and the NBA's San Antonio Spurs. ESPN's Pam Ward and Kara Lawson will call the game with Rebecca Lobo on the sideline.