"I think Vicki will make everybody better," Coach Pat Summitt said. "I think when she's in the lineup she will get everybody's attention. If they don't already notice what she can bring to the court, they must have blinders on today because clearly she is the most athletic post player that we have and right now one of the most efficient."
Baugh's teammates definitely weren't wearing blinders, and they could be forgiven if they stopped to just watch a few times. Baugh is one of the most respected and well liked members of the team, and every good play she made was met with cheers, claps or verbal praise, even from the players she scored on or defended Tuesday.
Kelley Cain spent her court time one on one with Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood working on post moves, jumpers and free throws as the plan with the 6'6 center this month has been one of caution after she finished her first full season since her senior year of high school in 2007. Cain missed her true freshman year to have her right kneecap realigned and then had a truncated season a year ago as the screws from that surgery began to move out of the bone.
Cain and Baugh entered Tennessee at the same time, but Baugh played her freshman year of 2007-08 and was an integral part of the 2008 postseason run to the national title. It was in that win over Stanford that she tore her ACL on a high-post drive to the basket and then re-tore it in February of the 2008-09 season in what became a truncated season for Baugh.
Cain played all of this past season while Baugh sat out to recover from a second surgery so they both enter next fall as redshirt juniors, having realigned class year because of injury.
The coaches have waited two years for the centerpieces of the post game to both be healthy, and that time could finally come for them to see Cain and Baugh together in the paint next fall at 100 percent or at least as close to it as they've ever been since they arrived in Knoxville.
"We should, barring no injuries," Summitt said. "It gives us more size and it gives us more options. I think with Kelley that's key for us (inside) and then you throw in Vicki.
"Where is Lyssi going to land? That's up to Lyssi. Lyssi is one that's really got to understand the investment she has to have this off-season. That is going to be key. That's a big three. Glory Johnson has got to find a way to be more efficient offensively for us and we'll challenge her on the defensive end as well."
Alyssia Brewer worked her way into the starting lineup this season after making a significant leap from freshman to sophomore year. Johnson has been inconsistent in her first two seasons but has shown the athleticism to compete in the paint. Summitt sees both of them as vital pieces of the post game and wants both to ratchet up their game this summer.
That is where the presence of Baugh can deliver a message that the coaches haven't been able to convey because of lack of post depth. Even at maybe 60 percent of her effectiveness, Baugh elevated the post play Tuesday, and the coaches had her square off against her teammates in some alignments to provide a physical example of the difference.
"Vicki Baugh was the best post player on the floor today," Summitt said. "I'm not surprised. I thought when she and Lyssi went head to head, she was just much better. She is a quicker jumper. Lyssi has got to understand that she has got to get herself in tiptop shape if she wants to be a starting post player for us. That is going to be a must.
"(Baugh) may be 60 to 65 percent. She's clearly one of the best athletes. I just think that she plays to her strengths. She understands how to use the glass. She's a good shot blocker. She's got a good feel for the game. I think someone like Glory Johnson could learn a lot if she just pays attention to what she's doing."
Baugh has been on the practice court just five times now after 13 months away from college basketball. Even under those parameters, her ability and flashes of athletic plays on both sides of the ball emerge. The next steps for Baugh are to regain her confidence in her knee, understand when it's time to ease up as her knee adjusts to repetition and pounding and work her way back into shape.
"I have to understand what pain I should push through and what pain I need to stop," Baugh said. "That's hard to distinguish sometimes, but that's why I have JMo for help."
Baugh has developed the type of relationship with Jenny Moshak that Candace Parker spoke of in that they became close confidantes. Parker had ACL surgery in high school and then missed her freshman season at Tennessee to recover from another major surgery on the same knee. Rehab means hours of time spent with Moshak, and Parker said they filled the time with conversations about everything from social issues to sports.
"Jenny has become my best friend," Baugh said. "JMo is awesome. Before my injury she was awesome, but we have really gotten to know each other, and we have strong feelings for each other. She's a great trainer to work with."
Baugh said her goal is to be 100 percent by the start of official practice next October and to take on a leadership role with her team. Summitt has talked to the forward about confidence and overcoming a major knee injury, as Summitt had to do the same thing before the 1976 Olympics.
"With anyone that's had not only one but two injuries on the same leg I'm sure it weighs heavily on her mind," Summitt said. "But I think the more that she understands how to land and take off on two feet and explode and really load her hips, she's starting to feel that, and you can see the confidence that comes through as we see her playing the way she's playing."
Does Baugh think she can get back to the player she was as a freshman?
"Most definitely," Baugh said. "I can get it better. Confidence comes with getting my knee back. … I know I'll be able to come back and hopefully cut down nets."
For now, Baugh is just happy to finally be on the court with her teammates, even in short sessions in April.
"It was very refreshing," Baugh said. "It was very hard just being able to watch and not be a part of it. I could only talk to them. I couldn't get out there and do the things that I was telling them to do. It's a relief to be back just knowing I can be the leader that I want to be."
Tennessee wasn't at full strength and won't be for the April sessions. Cain is being held out of team workouts on the court for precautionary reasons as she played a full season on her surgically repaired knee and also sustained two concussions – one in August, the other in November – so the rest from pounding on the hardwood will do her some overall good, and forward Taber Spani is resting her foot after playing a season with turf toe.
"We have a couple of people sitting out right now that would greatly enhance our preparation in practice and getting ready for what lies ahead for us in the future," Summitt said. "But it is what it is right now. The ones that are on the floor hopefully will continue to work on their skills and get a lot better. Communication, that is going to be a real key."
Cain and Spani have been very communicative from the sidelines. Both project to be major contributors next season – Spani started until late January when the turf toe severely limited her mobility – and can be expected to be among those who will chatter on the court.
Thursday's upcoming session will mark the last full team one by NCAA regulations. Summitt said she is also inclined to limit the team's conditioning obligations with Heather Mason next week to allow the players to direct their time and energy to closing out the spring semester.
"I think we've had some really good practices," Summitt said. "We had a very slow start today. I know with the end of the school year coming up, they're feeling like, ‘I need to get in Thornton (academic center).' We're trying to be sensitive to their time."
Tennessee could segue to individual workouts next week – groups of up to four on the court – but Summitt said the coaches are inclined to let the players spend extra time in study hall at Thornton Center or in study groups with each other.
"I want to give them some time off next week to work on the academic part of it," Summitt said.
In the meantime, the players get one last full session as a team with the coaches on Thursday until next September.
"I think sometimes it's good to be in here and get everything out," Summitt said. "It's good for them to compete against each other, as well as against our practice guys. I think clearly they understand that they have a ways to go to be a championship team and yet we have the talent."