Basketball workouts get underway

Meighan Simmons was surprised by one thing in her first official workout as a Lady Vol – that Pat Summitt was so quiet. Lauren Avant, who committed to Tennessee as a 14-year-old, was thrilled that her dream to step on the court for the head coach had finally become a reality. The two newcomers add to a team that is steeped in talent and considers anything but a national title a letdown.

The key to any team cutting down the nets in April – this season the Women's Final Four will be in Indianapolis – is to stay healthy and the first bright spot of the 2010-11 season for Tennessee is that of the seven players who had some kind of injury last season or this summer all of them took the court Thursday afternoon at Pratt Pavilion.

The one player who missed the individual workout sessions was junior post Alyssia Brewer, who had to get four stitches on her lower left leg for a non-sports injury sustained Thursday morning. Given the smiles from her teammates, it didn't appear to be serious, and Brewer was officially listed as day to day.

Brewer watched from the sideline as her post group worked out officially for the first time with the coaching staff. Pat Summitt could have waited until next week to start the workouts since classes just started Wednesday, but she was anxious to see her team on the court, even in sessions limited to four players or less in hour-long segments.

"Absolutely," Summitt said. "I wanted to see today what we've got. I didn't want to wait until next week. I'd be fidgety and driving everybody crazy."

What stood out is that the staff needed four sessions to accommodate those players, as the roster is 14 deep. Summitt emphasized that the competition for playing time began Thursday afternoon.

"We're not necessarily going to play 14 deep," Summitt said with a wry look. "Here's the place where we see you every day, and you will tell us who you are consistently, good or bad.

"It should be (the deepest collection of talent). Just depth overall this is one of our best groups."

The first group of four on the floor was those likely to log minutes at the point position – Lauren Avant, Briana Bass, Shekinna Stricklen and Kamiko Williams. Tennessee would like to eventually shift Stricklen to the wing, but her stint at point guard isn't over yet.

"It's too early to make that decision," Summitt said. "We talked about it when she was out at the house (on Monday for the team dinner). I said there may be times that we want to have you at our point position because of your size. You can see over people. You can take people off the bounce. If you're running the point, and you pass and cut through, now you're a basketball player.

"(But) the one thing we are looking for is point guard play."

If Avant, Bass or Williams step forward to take the ball more this season, that would mean Stricklen could play point as a change of pace and not out of necessity.

The four guards spent an hour working on defensive positioning, using screens on the offensive end, sprinting the floor and scoring in transition.

Avant, a 5'9 point guard from Memphis, has been off the court for months as she rehabbed a serious shoulder injury from a car wreck last summer in her hometown. She played part of her senior year in high school at Lausanne but shut herself down before the end of the season because of shoulder pain and stiffness.

She reported to campus in June to enroll in classes and work with Jenny Moshak, the chief of sports medicine, and Heather Mason, the strength and conditioning coach. She was not allowed to play pickup so Thursday was her first time to really take the court with her teammates.

Last June she said her goal was to be ready for August workouts, and she was.

"It means a lot," Avant said. "Jenny Moshak promised me she would have me on the floor by individuals. She kept her promise. I probably would have been good to go three weeks ago. She's worked hard with me. She was really patient with me, because I was learning a lot, and it's just hard to fight that pain.

"She taught me, and it worked. I owe it to her, as well as everyone else in the training room."

Summitt said she didn't have any concerns about Avant's shoulder after a conversation with Moshak.

"Not after I talked to Jenny," Summitt said. "I called Jenny and said, ‘Where are we with Lauren and what's going on? And she said, ‘She's good to go.' "

Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick used pads to bump the players as they made their cuts and went up for shots Thursday. Avant took notice and wondered how the shoulder would respond.

"It wasn't bothering me at all, even getting banged up with the pad," Avant said. "That is what I was worried about for a minute. After I took that first hit from Holly I was fine."

Avant is a humble player – she deflected praise from Warlick that she could be one of the best freshman leaders ever at Tennessee – and her conversation was sprinkled with yes ma'am and no ma'am, but she does not lack confidence in her team.

She sees a sense of urgency from the players, even though it's just August.

"Everyone," Avant said. "If we don't win a national championship this year it's going to be a disappointment. Vicki Baugh is going to be the difference maker alone. Everyone is healthy for the first time. We have more bodies to go in and everyone has the same attitude.

"(Wednesday), the first day of preseason (conditioning), everybody came out with a big bang. The coaches are all excited. Mickie (DeMoss), the coaches told me, is bringing an entirely new dimension to this team. With all the bodies back, especially Vicki's, it's a huge difference."

Wednesday was the team's first full session with Mason, who is known for her challenging workouts.

"Yesterday, I earned a lot of respect in preseason," Avant said. "I busted it and gave it everything I had. I was throwing up. I threw up for the first time ever in a workout. I threw up, and I came back and I finished and she loved that. I told the team I was not going to quit for anything."

Having her teammates' respect is a priority for Avant, so much so that she sought out Summitt to talk about it before Thursday's session.

"I was nervous coming into individuals because I haven't played with the team," Avant said. "A couple of players I played against, I had their respect, but I didn't have anyone else's respect. I met with Pat and she told me I needed to play my game, trust myself and do what she recruited me to do and that's be a leader and I took that to heart."

Avant's reputation in high school and AAU ball was that she was a true point guard who first looked to distribute the ball. Her eyes lit up at the thought of lobbing the ball inside to Baugh and Kelley Cain.

"With everyone back our posts should average 15 a game with ease," Avant said. "That's just posts. Seriously. Guards, all we have to do is run the floor. Like Heather says if the guards can be as strong as the posts and the posts can be as fast as the guards, that is something we have been emphasizing, it's really working. Everyone is ready to go."

Avant's bar for Stricklen was set even higher.

"This year since we have three (point) guards Strick doesn't have to play the point," Avant said. "She is really excited about that. There is no reason Vicki doesn't average 20 a game, Strick 30 a game. I don't have to do anything but hand them the ball."

Cain smiled when asked about Avant's scoring predictions.

"I know. She told us," Cain said with a somewhat amused look about the freshman's exuberance.

But Cain did note that Avant was college-ready because of her longtime interest in Lady Vols basketball.

"Lauren is a very intelligent girl, and she definitely knows the game, and she's been watching Lady Vol basketball since I don't know how old," Cain said. "She definitely knows the program, and she knows what Pat is looking for and that says a lot for a freshman to come in knowing that. You usually don't really grasp that concept until you're halfway through your sophomore season. That says a lot about her.

"She is definitely here to go to work. She has even said it, ‘Hold me accountable. Push me as hard as you can. I want to do whatever I can for this team.' That says a lot about her just coming in and saying that off the bat, and nobody had to say that to her."

Avant's mother, Dana Avant, is a registered nurse and clinical director who ran track at Tennessee before stopping to focus on academics. Lauren Avant has been dressed in orange since she was a toddler and grew up wanting to be a Lady Vol.

"It's a dream come true," Avant said after her first official workout as a Lady Vol basketball player. "There is no other way to put it."

Meighan Simmons' recruitment to Tennessee was whirlwind by comparison as the staff showed interest last summer after Cait McMahan had to be moved to medical scholarship because of unstable knees and a spot was available. Simmons, who is from San Antonio, Texas – she mentioned she had never experienced heat and humidity like that of Tennessee the past month – had seemed bound for LSU but she made an official visit to Knoxville last fall and committed shortly thereafter.

"It was a quick year," Simmons said. "But I was in her situation, too. I was just waiting for that time (for the coaches to call). It's always been a dream of mine to play here."

Avant's concern before the workouts started was due to her lengthy time off the court.

"Anxiety from not playing," Avant said. "I think if I had my rhythm I would be all right. A couple of my passes weren't up to par. That is something I have to work on. My ball handling was better than I figured. I've been in the gym shooting, and I've been working with Tyler (Summitt) a lot. Tyler has been helping me so much and Strick and even Kelley has been in the gym giving me pointers."

Simmons, who is wiry and thin but explosively fast, got a little gassed by the end of the session as even an hour-long workout is nonstop at the college level. Players are encouraged to stay hydrated with water and Gatorade between reps, but there is no real stoppage in play.

"There is a big difference," Simmons said. "My high school coach let us take a water break every three minutes."

Both players said the anxiety of not knowing exactly what would happen weighed on them, too, and they were happy to have the first workout completed.

"I was trying to pace myself first time around, leave a little gas in the tank," Avant said. "I didn't know what was coming. I had no idea. I didn't know if we were going to bust out suicides."

Avant has been a frequent visitor to campus – she and her mother were regulars at Vol football games – so she has seen Summitt multiple times at open practices. Simmons' impressions of Summitt have come mostly from television. For that reason, Summitt's calmness Thursday sort of startled the freshman.

"I was kind of surprised that Coach Pat didn't say anything," Simmons said. "I think she's observing what she is going to be able to use. I know she wants everything to be perfect. Everything is not going to be perfect, but she wants it done a certain way. When you get it done that way she's going to love you no matter what."

When told that Summitt would find her voice soon enough, Simmons let loose a big smile.

"I know she will," Simmons said.

The three assistants, Warlick, Dean Lockwood and Mickie DeMoss, handled the bulk of the on-court drill instruction with Summitt circling the court, watching and occasionally calling over a player for a one-on-one talk. Her volume is way down in these workouts, but it will be raised once full team workouts are allowed.

The NCAA will allow the official start of practice to begin sooner this season – 40 days before a team's first regulation game – so the Lady Vols will gather for full-scale sessions in early October.

"I think that's great," sophomore guard/forward Taber Spani said. "The more time you have on the court, you can only get better. With the numbers that we have it's not like we're going to kill our bodies. The more chemistry we can get on the court and the more feel that we can get going in to that first preseason game I think that's a good thing."

Spani was one of several players coming back from injury, and they all were cleared to take the court Thursday. Spani suffered from an excruciatingly painful case of turf toe last season and spent eight weeks in a cast after the season ended. She was not allowed to take the court until July 10 for a light basketball workout.

"That was exciting," Spani said. "I finally started playing pickup around the 15th of July. After four months (off) I was trying to get back into it. I feel great. I got to play against some really good competition back at home against some DI guys, and they really embraced the fact that they really wanted to make me better and they were willing for me to make them better, so it was a great time."

Before Spani's group took the floor – she was in the last session with Baugh and Glory Johnson – Summitt said she was curious to see the sharpshooter on the floor.

"I am real anxious to see her," Summitt said. "I think Taber is significantly better, but I want to see her on the court."

Before the session ended, Summitt was smiling. Still, the plan is to ease Spani into the workouts and see how the foot responds.

"The first couple of weeks I am trying to test it, try to push the limits but be smart about it," Spani said. "Coach said today we're not pushing it. I learned from last year that it's quality over quantity, and you've got to be smart about it. It's tough for me to do that, but I've definitely learned my lesson."

Despite the time off, Spani was noticeably fit and trimmer.

"It was hard because I was in a cast for eight weeks," Spani said. "It was hard to do anything but arm bike and swim once I finally got my cast off. I really focused on eating habits and getting as much extra work in as you can without hurting your foot. I tried to focus on that. It's tough when you're off of it."

Besides Spani (foot) and Avant (shoulder), the others who were wounded last season or over the summer were: Baugh (knee); Stricklen (knee); Dupree (wrist); Alicia Manning (ankle sprain); and Cain (knee, history of concussions).

All were able to take the court with the closest eye likely kept on Baugh, who is coming back from two ACL surgeries on her left knee.

"Vicki said she is feeling strong and a lot more confident," Summitt said.

Baugh didn't hit full speed in the first session, but she did participate in all of the drills and spend considerable time with Lockwood, who worked with Baugh and Johnson in the low post.

Baugh definitely has the endorsement of Avant, who acknowledged the high praise from Warlick about leadership.

"It is, but I don't let it get to me," Avant said. "Everything that is going to happen is going to be a team. I don't have to do anything. The only thing I have to do is lead and direct people. Vicki back is going to make a huge difference."

Cain is looking forward to pairing with Baugh in the low post. The two have the potential to be a formidable combo in the paint, and they have waited three years – both have needed redshirt years because of knee operations – after arriving on campus together in the summer of 2007.

"I am very excited because I haven't got a chance to play with her," Cain said. "When I was hurt, she got to play, and when she was hurt, I got to play. I am very excited to play with my roommate slash teammate because I have been waiting for this day for awhile."

The ease with which Cain ran the floor was an encouraging sign for the staff.

"It's huge for Kelley to be healthy and ready to establish her post game at both ends," Summitt said. "She obviously has the size to defend and the size to post up and take advantage."

The key for Cain on Thursday is that for the first time in her collegiate career she wasn't thinking about her knee or her head. She didn't even wear what media pundits had called her "leg armor," an assortment of kneepads and a compression sleeve that protected her right knee and lower leg.

"I don't know where I put it," Cain said. "I probably won't use it. I don't need it."

Cain has played the past two seasons with considerable pain – it was much better last season but still a factor – and the lessening of that has aided in her ability to not think about her knee.

"That has a lot to do with it," Cain said. "I don't have to worry about my knee. That's a big step for me because it seems like the past two years I've either had a knee or a head (injury). I feel comfortable.

"When I am not having to worry about my knee or my head, I just go out there and play basketball. I haven't been able to truly, truly do that in awhile."

It showed Thursday as Cain ran the floor in transition and moved at ease for the first time in college without any noticeable limp or altered gait.

"The whole point of me staying here this summer was to recover from last season and make sure I got all my injuries (resolved) and at the same time I was working on my conditioning and working on my game," Cain said.

"I look at it from statistics. Heather helps every time, every rep, every weight that we do, and I am definitely a lot stronger, and I am getting faster than I've been even before I had my knee surgery.

"I am just out there trying to give it my all. I am not really paying attention."

That last statement may seem innocuous, but it's not. For two years Cain has taken the court in practice and games with her knee on her mind – would it hold up, would it hurt, would it get hit? If she can play without thinking about her knee it releases her game.

That is the next step for Spani, who must still remain mindful of her foot.

"From where I was I feel good," Spani said. "We're just being really smart about it, because there's no point in me killing my body in these next two months and then not being able to go in the season. But right now I feel confident about where my foot's at and how it's going to do and respond during the season."

Spani dealt with intense pain last season. So where is that level of aggravation now?

"I think it's better," Spani said. "I can't fully answer your question because I am still waiting for this first week, two weeks to get into the flow. Right now it's feeling pretty good."

Avant will continue to test her shoulder – she expected some tiredness – but she said conditioning was her biggest concern.

"It will fatigue out because I haven't really done anything in a long time," Avant said. "I give that to the time it has been more so than the injury. I am doing everything, except for pickup. I do everything with Heather."

"I am just out of (court) shape. We had a team meeting and I told them I am going to do everything I can for you guys but right now I am really out of shape. They said we're going to work together as a team. That's our goal this year is to pull together as a team."

It should be noted that Avant ran the floor with juniors Stricklen and Bass and sophomore Kamiko Williams and didn't show any visible signs of fatigue. However, the freshman said she had a much higher level of conditioning that she could reach.

"I love Heather," Avant said. "She pushes me so hard, and she doesn't treat me like a freshman. She is probably one of the only people here who doesn't treat me like a freshman. When you step into the weight room, you're a Lady Vol. Class doesn't matter."

Mason seemed to approve of Avant's fortitude during Wednesday's workout.

"I didn't know that until after the workouts," Simmons said of Avant having to vomit. "I think it's because we were going up and down and in circles. I did get kind of tired. (Mason) gets excited when her players are pushing themselves.

"Heather is amazing. That's all I have to say. Our first day with her was the best. She made me stronger. She changed my mindset about certain workouts. She showed me something new every day."

Mason's role in preseason is to get the players in condition for the long haul. She gets them for six hours a week now that classes have started. The coaches get just two hours a week with each of the four groups.

"Heather is in her mode right now," Summitt said. "They'll get a lot of good conditioning as we move forward."

Avant's declaration that a national title was the only acceptable end to a season wasn't just a freshman's enthusiasm, Cain said, but an expectation at Tennessee.

"That's any year, even my sophomore year when he had six freshmen," Cain said. "That's just the expectation every year. We have to put in the time and effort and the practice and the conditioning and whatever else we need to back it up."

Lockwood had said he was curious to see how the players spent their summer and if they would be content with some success. The players seem eager to make considerable noise on a national level.

"Definitely," Cain said. "Except for our fans nobody else has the confidence in us and I personally like that because it's a challenge. We need to go out there and show them what Tennessee can do.

"I am just ready to play. I am happy with what the girls did over the summer. They definitely committed."

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