With the next three games at home – Old Dominion on Wednesday, Oklahoma on Sunday and South Carolina on Jan. 7 – and no classes until the spring semester starts on Jan. 13, the team has a chance to get a lot of work done on the practice court.
That explained the big smile on Coach Pat Summitt's face after practice Monday – a 2.5-hour session with the majority of the time spent in full court situations with free throw shooting interspersed between drills. Even the best-conditioned players were gasping for air after Monday's session concluded.
With an abundance of travel and game preparations the opportunity for full court work lessens, so Summitt and her staff will take advantage of the next two weeks in Knoxville. Sunday and Monday's practice plans reflected that.
On Tuesday the team will watch film and shoot free throws in a short practice the day before taking on Old Dominion at 7 p.m. Eastern (SportSouth) at Thompson-Boling Arena on Wednesday.
The No. 4-ranked Lady Vols are 10-1 with the lone loss coming at Stanford on Dec. 19. That was followed by a wipeout of San Francisco three days later and the orders from Summitt to rest for the next four days and then be ready to work.
Kelley Cain, a 6'6 redshirt sophomore, took the directive to heart.
"I took that literally. I didn't do anything," Cain said. "It was definitely much needed. I felt like a new person. There is something about being at home. My parents are at almost every game, so I get to see them, but there is just something about being at home that is comforting. You just relax. It's like a breath of fresh air and you come back ready to work."
Cain said she also got to see her maternal and paternal grandmothers over the holidays and spent the four days eating home-cooked meals, sleeping in and watching television. One of her Christmas presents was a flat-screen TV that came back to Knoxville with her to replace an outmoded unit.
Cain, an honor roll student at Tennessee who expects to graduate within a year with a bachelor's degree in marketing and logistics and then enroll in a master's program, also welcomed the break from class work with her attention focused solely on basketball.
"It's very relaxing," Cain said. "You get to concentrate on one thing instead of 20 different things at one time. It's just nice to have a break from that. I can't even emphasize how much it is needed.
"It's definitely an important time because we don't have anything else but basketball to worry about. Getting our shots in, working with Dean (Lockwood), working with guards. Do anything to help your game improve."
A specific area that Cain wants to improve is her performance at the free throw line. She is 11-25 (44.0 percent), a baffling stat because she makes one after another in practice repetitions.
"It's mental; it's all mental," Cain said. "I psyche myself out. I get nervous. It's definitely in my head, because I can make them. I know I can make them. I don't know what to do, but I'm working on that, though. Lately I haven't even gotten to the free throw line so that's another thing I need to work on, taking it up strong so I can get there."
Cain has played in 10 games and not gotten to the line in four of them – Texas, Louisville, Stanford and San Francisco. Summitt think the center's size works against her at times in terms of getting fouls called.
"She's gotten hit in the head; she's gotten knocked down," Summitt said. "I think it's because of her size. They just assume she's going to play over people. She doesn't get the benefit of the doubt. That's for darn sure."
Cain's stat of 7.3 rebounds per game also stands out to her as a part of her game that needs to be improved.
"Seven rebounds a game is not enough for me," Cain said. "I should be getting more than that. As posts we should be almost at double figures, especially with people like Glory (Johnson) and Lyssi (Brewer). We need to raise up our rebounding on offense and defense. We need to shoot for double digits (on the boards)."
This next two weeks allow the players significant chances for extra time to get into the gym that they won't have when classes resume. Summitt said she found out that only three players had really been getting in extra shots since the season started, and even that effort was below what is needed overall.
"It wasn't like they were burning the nets down over there," Summitt said.
The head coach described this time period as "perfect" for the players and the staff to get in extra work. With classes out, there are no NCAA time limits on workouts.
"I am so glad we have this time because they need it," Summitt said. "They need extra skill work. They need to go up and down. They need to experience the fatigue and play through it. It's ideal. It's perfect."
That was definitely the game plan for Monday's practice session. With no practice players available except for Tyler Summitt, the Lady Vols played five on five in full court scrimmages and defensive drills. That meant they didn't rotate in and out against the practice guys but instead stayed on the court, at game speed, for the entire session.
Ironically, one of the players Summitt was the most pleased with was freshman Kamiko Williams, who stood out for the right reasons as she hustled throughout practice. She also stayed afterwards for extra shooting with Tyler.
"Best day ever," Summitt said, her face still showing surprise, though pleasantly so. "I've been all over her."
The player who struggled the most was Glory Johnson, but she has a tendency to bounce back quickly when challenged by Summitt.
"Glory, today just took a day off," Summitt said. "She controls that. We're not going to be very good if we don't have a great inside game. That's why I was upset with Glory today. She just gave in. Glory's done some good things, but today she was just not into it."
That was also the point of the session – to push the players to the point of exhaustion and boost conditioning.
"It's overload," Summitt said. "We want to overload them and see how many people can fight through it. This is as much mental as anything."
The players will get some relief in practice today because it's the day before a game, and Summitt wants them to have their legs.
"It's going to be real light," Summitt said. "We're going to watch film and shoot free throws. That's it."
Despite the lengthy and up-tempo session, several players stayed after practice Monday to get in extra shots. Briana Bass worked specifically on her three-point shooting, a shot she has to make in games because she will be left open until she proves she can hit it consistently.
Cain said the entire team got the message on the West Coast to get extra shots up on their own.
"We pointed out as a team that that is something we need to get better at and definitely need to work on," Cain said. "I definitely believe that each player is going to take it upon herself to bring a buddy or bring a manager or ask one of the coaches to get in the gym to get some more shots. That is only going to make us better."
Cain has a laundry list of items she wants to work on during the break.
"I am never satisfied with my game," Cain said. "I am my biggest critic. I like to be my biggest critic because it pushes me to work harder and harder and harder. My conditioning has gotten a lot better. I have noticed that (but) I need to work on everything.
"I need to work on having composure in the post, not rushing shots, not taking silly shots, talking with the guards so we're both on the same page. We're getting to the level where they know if they pass it to me I'm not going to make a silly shot or a silly pass. I am going to pass it right back to you if you have the open three or just to move it around.
"So we're definitely growing as a team, and I am definitely liking what I am seeing."