With classes finished for the fall semester and exams completed on Dec. 10, the Lady Vols have more time to spend with each other, and Tuesday was "Secret Santa" night as the players drew names from a hat to exchange presents.
"It's time to get together and hang out and do some team bonding," Bjorklund said. "Everyone is gone on campus so it's basically just basketball and hanging out with our team and getting better on the court."
What they really want for Christmas is to keep winning and the next stop on the schedule is Louisville, a Big East team that was ranked No. 23 by AP and No. 19 by the coaches to start the season but has struggled after being beset by injuries. The Cardinals also are missing last year's go-to players, Angel McCoughtry, the WNBA rookie of the year last summer for the Atlanta Dream, and Candyce Bingham, who was drafted and later cut by San Antonio. The Cardinals were national runners-up to UConn in 2009.
Tennessee can certainly relate, as it lost national player of the year Candace Parker, the ROY and MVP in the WNBA in 2008, and also had injury issues to key returning players last season.
"To me, when you lose a player of that caliber, you're not going to replace it right away and that's when you start to challenge the team as a whole," Coach Pat Summitt said Tuesday in her media teleconference. "We have to be better collectively because we don't have a Candace Parker. In that situation, that's where we've really challenged our team that everyone has accountability."
Junior guard Angie Bjorklund understands that concept. Last season as a sophomore she was the returning player who had logged the most minutes in the previous season. She knew that any team that saw Tennessee on the opponent's uniform would raise its intensity, but the newcomers had to learn that experience for themselves.
Louisville may arrive in Knoxville still trying to regroup from a season ago – the most successful in school history with 34 wins – but Bjorklund knows the Lady Vols can't overlook any team.
"I think we learned that last year," Bjorklund said. "There is no overlooking anyone. It's one game at a time. We're looking at Louisville. That's it right now. We know it's going to be a great matchup. They're a tough team. We've been preparing for them all day, and we're really looking forward to it."
Summitt also made that point clear in Tuesday's film session – they watched as a team and she held individual sessions with Taber Spani before practice with Kamiko Williams, Alicia Manning and Shekinna Stricklen having one-on-one time scheduled, too. Summitt pointed out to the team the lapses she saw against Rutgers in Sunday's 68-54 win.
"We didn't run the floor as hard as we should have, we didn't pick up early in transition and we have some things today that we can really address (in practice)," Summitt said.
"Our post players weren't sprinting hard. We didn't deny the middle of the floor. That's our top priority in scouting report defense, and they picked and chose when they denied the middle. Our hands (on defense), most of the game, all of the first half, were below their waist. We could have done so much more if we would come out and be aggressive and go high hands, low hips, quick feet. We got beat a lot on the dribble drive that we shouldn't."
Summitt also talked to Bjorklund about becoming shiftier on offense if she gets face guarded again. Rutgers essentially stapled a defender to Bjorklund to shadow her all over the court.
"Have patience," Summitt said. "She gets overanxious and doesn't use her screens. She's got to change her speed up and accelerate shoulder to shoulder. She'll circle (the screener) sometimes. She's not going to be able to free up an opportunity unless she's (taking) a straight line (past the screener)."
Bjorklund said the lesson has been absorbed.
"I learned a lot from that Rutgers game – that I can't let the other team dictate what I'm doing, because they really forced me to play at a faster level, and Coach kept saying, ‘You need to slow down and really set and use screens,' " Bjorklund said. "If they are face-guarding me I might have to take on a different role that game."
Rutgers picked up Bjorklund deep in the backcourt – she attempted just one three – so she got her eight points with midrange jumpers and from the free throw line. She also had five assists and five rebounds.
"Set and use screens and still continue to get open and if I'm open I'm going to shoot, but at the same time I'm looking to create for my teammates and to rebound," Bjorklund said. "If you're being overplayed it's easier to rebound, too."
It happened a lot last season, and Bjorklund was often dribbling or sprinting side to side for even a sliver of daylight, but Tennessee has more weapons this year. Against Rutgers, the frontline stepped up as Glory Johnson and Alyssia Brewer had 10 points each and Kelley Cain added nine. Fellow backcourt mate Shekinna Stricklen led the team with 19.
"Exactly," Bjorklund said. "I think that's huge. This year you see people stepping up. You see Glory, Kelley Strick, people coming in off the bench doing a great job. I think that is what is going to make the difference. If I am being face-guarded I know Strick is going to have 19 points, and I think that's the balance we have a team. I think that's great."
Stricklen is handling the role of point guard – she was thrust into it as a freshman and seems to have embraced it as a sophomore – and Summitt recognized the full plate and criticized accordingly. But Summitt is demanding a lot more now from Stricklen on defense, and the film session was intended to show her the lapses, especially low hands.
"Shekinna has really stepped up and pushed our tempo a lot (on offense)," Summitt said. "I am not really pleased with where she is defensively right now, but I think when you've got someone in her role she's probably thinking, ‘Get everybody organized, offense, huddle,' but now she's got to tack on being a tough-minded defensive player as well."
The fact Summitt is demanding more from individuals is an indication of the team's overall maturity.
"I think coming off the Rutgers game and watching film and talking to them about how much better we have to get, we had a lot of good information to show them," Summitt said. "While we won the game they have got to understand that we have got to get better, so we've got to look at all things that we didn't do that we could have done to get us to be at a different level."
Bjorklund, a junior who has played extensively since her freshman season, understands the process. She has the vantage point of having been on a senior-laden team her first year, a freshman-filled one as a sophomore and a senior-less one as a junior, but one that is stacked with players who logged a lot of minutes early in their careers. That means Summitt expects a lot more of them this season.
"Despite winning it's how we're going to react," Bjorklund said. "Even if we're winning, how are we going to still improve, not be on that same level but continue improving, especially defensively. She looked at that tape (Monday) night and we watched film and she goes, ‘You guys see we have a lot of improvement we need. We have a lot of things we need to work on.' It's a lot different than last year, especially for some of the younger players.
"I can relate to it from my freshman year (when Tennessee went 36-2 and won the national title in 2008). We'd win all these games and she'd come in and still get on us and tell us that we needed to be improving, which I think is what makes a championship team. That just is a sign that we are on our way to being a championship team.
"I think our younger players need to realize that she wants to continue to improve us. The emphasis (Tuesday) was we all have something we need to improve on. The quote of the day, the point of the message was, ‘How can you improve if you think you're always right?' You have to admit you made mistakes. We go back and watch film, and I think that most everyone is starting to understand that, and I think that is what it's going to take."
Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 sophomore guard/forward, No. 40 (16.1 points per game, 7.4 rpg, 4.0 assists per game, 1.5 steals per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 junior guard, No. 5 (13.9 ppg, 3,0 rpg, 3.0 apg); Taber Spani, 6'1 freshman guard, No. 13 (8.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 sophomore forward, No. 25 (14.0 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 1.8 spg); and Kelley Cain, 6'6 redshirt sophomore center, No. 52 (9.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.4 blocks per game).
Sophomore forward Alyssia Brewer has become a key contributor off the bench. She has averaged 12.3 points in the past three games and leads the SEC in field goal percentage at 65.6 percent.
Louisville Coach Jeff Walz is expected to start: Nikki Burton, 5'11 freshman guard, No. 22 (5.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.0 apg), hails from Charlotte, N.C., started last three games at point guard because of injury to LaToya Johnson, played in eight games this season, missed opener with back injury, had 12 points against Middle Tennessee, leads the team in steals with 13; Becky Burke, 5'11 sophomore guard, No. 11 (15.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg), hails from Clarks Summit, Penn., has started all nine games this season, averaging 34+ minutes per game, leads the team with 19 made three-pointers; Monique Reid, 6'1 sophomore forward, No. 33 (14.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg), hails from Louisville, Ky., has started five games this season, scored 24 points against Middle Tennessee, had a double-double, 18/14, against Dayton; Laura Terry, 6'1 junior post, No. 24 (4.9 ppg, 2.0 rpg), hails from Ironton, Ohio, had off-season knee surgery, experienced post player for Louisville; and Gwen Rucker, 6'1 sophomore, No. 4 (6.3 ppg, 2.3 rpg); hails from Lexington, Ky., returned to the starting lineup in Louisville's last game against IUPUI on Dec. 13, plays volleyball for Louisville and finished that season on Dec. 4 in an NCAA loss to Minnesota at Thompson-Boling Arena, played in first basketball game on Dec. 6 after joining team at shoot-around, leads team in field goal percentage at 81.8 percent.
A key player off the bench is Chauntise Wright, a 6'3 redshirt center who missed last season because of a torn ACL. Wright averages 8.6 minutes of playing time and an efficient 6.3 points per game. Another contributor is Ashley Rainey, a 6'2 freshman post who has started games this season while Rucker was playing volleyball. She is averaging 9.8 ppg and 7.4 rpg.
Louisville is thin at the guard spot with the losses of juniors LaToya Johnson (hip, out for six to eight weeks) and Deseree Byrd (knee, done for the season, had two surgeries on the knee in the spring and fall). Johnson leads the team with 23 assists, and Byrd was a preseason All-Big East selection.
SCOUTING REPORT: Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick handled the scouting report. Here is her assessment.
When Louisville has the ball: "They like to penetrate," Warlick said. "They do a lot of high-low. They'll have four-out, one-in a lot, but the other post will be in the high post. They're going to look to screen for guards, ball screens, player screens. Becky Burke is a good shooter. She can penetrate. They look to run a lot of their sets for her."
Coach Pat Summitt watched film on Louisville after the team returned from its New York road trip.
"Louisville, just watching them (Monday) night, they're not putting the brakes on," Summitt said. "I think they're trying to score a lot in the early offense as well as the high-low game."
Defensively, "they really like to pressure," Warlick said. "They really put a lot of pressure on the ball carrier. Their point guards will pick up full court and try to create turnovers. They play up in the passing lanes. They'll switch up their defenses a lot. They'll do a half-court trap. They do some zone and then try to trap out of the zone."
When Tennessee has the ball: Tennessee's philosophy will not change – the Lady Vols want to establish the inside game early to open up better looks for the perimeter shooters. Tennessee also wants to set a fast pace.
"We really need to run the floor," Warlick said. "We need to get up and down, push tempo."
Defensively, the Lady Vols will likely show different looks of man and zone.
"We need to work on denying the high post," Warlick said. "We might pressure them a little bit. We'll probably play the same way that we've been playing."
LOW, LOW, LOW: Taber Spani has earned kudos from Pat Summitt for her commitment and willingness to work on her game. The freshman forward's next assignment is to get better on defense.
"The thing about Taber, as soon as I get off this call, I'm going to be watching tape with her," Pat Summitt said during her Tuesday teleconference. "I watch tape with her all the time. I think she sees Angie (Bjorklund) and sees Shekinna (Stricklen), and she understands what she has to do. She just has to make that commitment to really learning how to load her hips all the time and get low, so she's not getting beat off the dribble drive.
"She's working on it every day. You don't ever have to worry about whether Taber is invested. She's in the gym, you practically have to run her out."
Summitt watched film with Spani of the Rutgers game before practice and saw a difference on the court.
"She's very upright and obviously when you play against a quicker team you get exposed," Summitt said. "She's got to have her motor running early. She was good today (in practice)."
Bjorklund has become a textbook defender on the perimeter in terms of moving her feet, understanding the angles, staying low and keeping her player in front of her.
Rutgers' Brittany Ray sliced through the Lady Vols at times on Sunday, but when Bjorklund found herself defending Ray one on one on a fast break to the basket, Bjorklund cut off the baseline and turned her into the middle, where there were trailing defenders who brought help. Ray stopped her foray to the rim and missed a midrange jumper.
Bjorklund knows playing defense for Summitt is tough and especially for a first-year player.
"It's going to come," Bjorklund said. "I remember my freshman year. You just continue to learn and continue to look to the upperclassmen and see what they're doing and learn it from them. She's great on offense. She's a great rebounder. She works so hard. She'll get to that point. She'll get there."
ON TAP: Four other SEC teams are in action tonight in the following matchups: Alabama at Florida A&M; LSU vs. North Carolina A&T in the inaugural Sue Gunter Classic at LSU; Ole Miss at Texas; and Mississippi Valley at Mississippi State.
PROMOTING HOOPS: Virginia sent out thank you postcards to attendees at the record crowd for the Cavaliers game against Tennessee on Nov. 22. The postcard has a photo overview of the court and crowd with the words "I WAS ONE OF 11,895," across the top.
The postcard has a thank you note from Coach Debbie Ryan and a request to come back and create that atmosphere again, a list of the remaining home games and a coupon for 20 percent off purchases at the school store online.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee and Louisville will be meeting for the first time on Wednesday. The Cardinals will become the 180th foe that the Lady Vols have faced and 10th Big East team all-time. … Tennessee is 9-3 in games played on December 16. The last time the Lady Vols played on this date was a 97-73 win over Gonzaga in 2007. The first win on this date was against Pittsburgh, 83-55, in 1977, and in a double-header the Lady Vols beat Tennessee Tech, 79-64, on the same day. The three losses on December 16 were to Central High School, 21-1, in 1909; Louisiana Tech, 64-56, in 1978; and Stanford, 90-72, in 1995. … The Lady Vols and Vols are enjoying early season success. The women are No. 3 in both polls while the men are No. 8/9 in the polls. Tennessee is one of three schools with both programs in the top 10. The others are Duke, 7/8 for the women, 7/7 for the men; and North Carolina, 9/10 for the women, 10/10 for the men. … Louisville was picked in the preseason by the Big East coaches to finish in a tie for third place with DePaul. The Cardinals are playing their final season in Freedom Hall, and a $238-million, 22,000-seat arena is being erected on the riverfront. The Cardinals wanted the home-and-home series to start in Knoxville so that they can try to sell out the new venue when the Lady Vols travel to Louisville next season.
BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee is averaging 77.4 points a game while allowing opponents to score 55.6. Louisville averages 74.3 points a game while allowing 66.4. The Lady Vols are shooting 45.5 percent overall, 32.8 percent behind the arc and 70.5 percent from the free throw line. The Cardinals are shooting 43.9 percent overall, 29.8 percent from long range and 71.6 percent from the line. Tennessee makes an average of 5.5 three-pointers a game while allowing 4.9. Louisville makes 3.8 threes a game while allowing 6.6.
Tennessee averages 44.1 rebounds a game for a +8.5 margin. Louisville averages 42.9 boards with a +7.3 margin. The Lady Vols average 14.9 assists and 14.9 turnovers a game. Opponents lose the ball an average of 16.9 times a game. The Cardinals average 11.9 assists and 20.8 turnovers with foes losing the ball 18.9 times a game. Tennessee averages 7.6 steals and 4.5 blocks a game. Louisville averages 6.3 steals and 3.2 blocks.