Pat Summitt intent on speed

While Pat Summitt may have been in France this past summer to watch a USA basketball squad, her mind still wandered to her current team, so much so that she placed an overseas call to her strength and conditioning coach to remind her that the Lady Vols intend to run this season.

Several players remained in Knoxville over both summer school sessions to attend class and work out with Heather Mason. Among them were post players Faith Dupree and Glory Johnson, who both live in Knoxville. Johnson, a former track star at Webb School, has speed to spare, but Dupree, who also played at Webb, missed last season to recover from an ailing back.

One of Dupree's primary objectives for the summer was to get in better shape. Pat Summitt wants to run this season, and the 13 players who worked out with Mason – all were in town for first session, except for Meighan Simmons, who arrived in July after a tryout stint with USA basketball in June – had their conditioning programs tailored to increased speed.

"This summer I think she talked to Heather from Paris or wherever she was at and she was like, ‘We're going to run this season so make sure you get Faith in shape,' " Dupree said with a wry smile. "I was like, ‘Sweet.' There was more to the conversation. It wasn't just that, and she hung up, but she is thinking about that."

It's not likely that Mason had forgotten the directive – the players met with the coaching staff before the spring semester ended to discuss summer improvement plans – but it clearly was on the mind of Summitt, even in the south of France in Toulouse, known for its historic 16th century architecture, culture, food and wine.

Summitt smiled Tuesday when asked about the phone conversation.

"I don't go over there and not think basketball," Summitt said.

Summitt can't discuss who she is recruiting – several Lady Vol targets were on the USA U17 team that won a gold medal in France, including post Elizabeth Williams, who will make an unofficial visit to Tennessee this Friday, and guard Ariel Massengale, both in the class of 2011 – but she is allowed to confirm her whereabouts, and Summitt said while sitting in a gym in France she was still thinking about her team back in Tennessee.

"We've got a lot of veterans, and we've got a lot of players, so we ought to be able to push tempo constantly and put people on their heels," Summitt said. "If we don't do it, we're making a big mistake."

Summitt and her staff, Holly Warlick, Dean Lockwood and Mickie DeMoss, got their second look Tuesday at the team on the court during individual workouts over four hours in four sessions at Pratt Pavilion.

Alyssia Brewer, who missed last week because of stitches in her lower left leg after a non-sports injury, was able to take the court on a limited basis Tuesday and worked with posts Kelley Cain and Faith Dupree.

"I like what I see," Summitt said. "Our post game should be pretty solid."

A key piece of that post game is Vicki Baugh, who is returning to the court after 18 months to recover from two ACL surgeries on her left knee within one calendar year. Baugh said she is being patient, as she knows a year and a half is a long time to be away from the game.

"Oh, most definitely," Baugh said. "I don't get discouraged. It's hard coming back from 18 months, but it will all get there in time. I am really feeling very good right now and doing a lot more than I expected myself to be able to do right now."

Baugh was in the last session with post Glory Johnson and forward/guard Taber Spani, a hybrid player who can shoot from the wing or post up on the high block as a power forward. The plan is to ease Baugh and Spani in slowly in the preseason with both coming back from injury. Spani was in a cast for eight weeks last spring and limited over the summer after enduring a serious foot injury last season.

The trio's session consisted of post footwork and a lot of shooting, especially from the short corners – though Spani extended to behind the arc – and behind the elbows at the corners of the free throw line. Spani and Baugh both hit shots but more noticeable was the marksmanship of Johnson, whose range extended to just inside the arc.

"She's got to get the ball up high early, but she appears to have been in the gym, and we know Taber is always going to be in the gym," Summitt said.

The fact Summitt is discussing the nuances of Johnson's outside shot is a good indicator of the Lady Vols' intention to use their versatility as a weapon this season. With 14 players on the roster, Summitt can go deep into her bench, a must if Tennessee truly intends to run and press.

Another bright spot was freshman guard Meighan Simmons, who consistently hit outside shots in drills and one-on-one situations. Freshman Lauren Avant, who committed to Tennessee at the age of 14, is a known commodity to the coaches, but Simmons was a late recruit last summer after a scholarship became available when former Lady Vol point guard Cait McMahan had to stop playing because of unstable knees.

"Meighan was very impressive today," Summitt said. "She gets it. She's light on her feet. She's competitive."

The freshmen have impressed the upperclassmen with their willingness to work, especially in the preseason conditioning sessions with Mason, and to listen.

"I think, and I've already told them, just be as coachable as possible, respond really well to the upperclassmen and coaches and they'll do just fine," Bjorklund said. "As long as they're taking in and learning and applying it and being coachable and not trying to hold off but really responding they'll do fine."

They also have adjusted quickly on the court and, as Summitt has been fond of saying in the past about players, she doesn't have to start their engines. They step on the floor ready to compete.

"Meighan brings her quickness, and she has a beautiful shot," Cain said. "That's what she brings to the team, and I am looking forward to playing with both of them."

Shekinna Stricklen is likely keeping an eye on both guards, especially Avant, who is expected to log minutes at point guard. If Avant, Briana Bass or Kamiko Williams can log more minutes at point, then Stricklen can finally move to the wing.

The junior guard smiled when asked if she expected to play more off the ball this season.

"I do, but I am not going to get my hopes up," Stricklen said. "You never know about Coach. I think it depends on who we're playing, what's the height. If she wants to go big, I'll probably be at the point, but, if not, I can see myself playing a lot at the wing."

Stricklen remains the player with the most experience at point guard, but Bass has shown a noticeably more consistent shot in the workouts, and Avant has impressed the coaches with her overall grasp of the game.

Stricklen also smiled when asked about Avant's earlier scoring predictions, in which she had multiple posts and guards averaging double digits.

"She's excited," Stricklen said. "Meighan is, too. They are both excited. They are working hard. They are giving it all they've got. Preseason is not easy and they came right in working hard. They're up at our level."

Baugh laughed and said it was "definitely" the exuberance of a freshman.

"We all have trust in each other, and it's good to know she trusts us," Baugh said. "I am just going to go out there and give it my all. Every game is different. Some games you need to score that much, some games you don't."

For now, Baugh is just excited to finally be back in practice gear and working out with her teammates.

"Words can't describe how happy I am to be back," she said. "My body feels great, and I am looking forward to this season and playing with my team. I am awfully excited to be on the court with them."

For the first time in two summers, Baugh was able to get some rest. Her past two off-seasons were spent in rigorous rehab in Knoxville as she recovered from major knee surgery in May of 2008 and then again in late February of 2009. This summer, she worked out with Mason during the first session and then went home to Sacramento for the second session.

"Finally this summer I got to do something I haven't done since I've been here and that's rest," she said. "I think that took me a long way. I got to really take some time and just stay off of it and mentally prepare myself for getting back. I think that helped my knee a huge amount. You would be surprised, letting it rest and when you get back on the court it's like you're so much more explosive.

"I was involved in pickup, which I haven't been able to do since freshman year coming in and those things helped. Finally I get a chance to improve my game instead of just trying to get back to where I was. I felt like I could trust it. I don't know if that (rest) helped me mentally prepare but I have more trust jumping off of it and also pickup ball was a big part of that, too."

Her beloved shelter dog Max, a Miniature Pinscher/rat terrier mix, helped Baugh through two rehabs but with so much travel during a playing season, Max remained in California with her grandparents for safekeeping.

"Little Max is chilling in good weather so he's doing great," Baugh said.

Baugh and Cain arrived together as true freshmen in 2007 and because of major knee surgeries – though at different times – they are both redshirt junior forwards. The other two freshmen in that class, guards Angie Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone, are now seniors.

They were projected to be the foundation of the post game – Baugh, an agile 6'4 power forward, and Cain, a 6'6 classic center. They have waited three years for both of them to be healthy and on the court together.

"I am most excited to play with Kelley," Baugh said. "She came in as a freshman when I did and we've been living together, and we have that chemistry, but we never got to put it together on the court really because when I'm hurt, she's in and when she's hurt, I'm in, so finally we get a chance to play together and I am very excited about that."

Johnson, Brewer and Dupree provide depth in the paint – Johnson started most games last season and Brewer, who started later in the season, was the SEC's Sixth Woman of the Year – and will allow Baugh the time she needs to get fully back from 18 months off the court.

"You've got to stay mentally strong and physically strong," Baugh said. "I've been getting support in both of those areas from Jenny Moshak and Heather Mason. It's just been great. The coaches have had my back and my team, most importantly. It all will work out how it's supposed to in the end."

Baugh is wearing a brace during workouts for support, but it's something she later intends to shed.

"I am getting used to the brace," Baugh said. "The brace helps a lot. I see the difference in the brace and eventually I am not going to have to use the brace but for now I am going to use the brace."

Brewer, who developed into a dependable low-block scorer last season, will be a vital piece of the post puzzle. There are 14 players on the roster but just five true posts in Brewer, Cain, Baugh, Dupree and Johnson. The other nine players are guards and wings, though Spani and junior forward Alicia Manning can post up, too, so they could be added to the post mix if necessary for a total of seven.

"I am not a person to really talk about minutes and what not," Brewer said. "As soon as I get on the court I'll do my thing and if Coach feels she needs to sub somebody in, that's fine."

Brewer played in the summer Women's Pilot Rocky Top League and showed an ability to hit three-point shots but with a team loaded with long-range shooters in Bjorklund, Smallbone, Spani and Stricklen and with Williams and Simmons showing their range, Brewer's size will be needed inside.

She let out a hearty laugh when asked if her three-point shooting career was over.

"I don't have a choice," Brewer said. "It has to be."

Dupree, who missed last season to rehab her back, also will be asked to produce in the paint on both ends. Dupree has shown an ability to score – she has a consistent midrange shot – but will have to also be able to defend players as big or bigger than she is at 6'3.

Dupree injured her wrist during the summer league and it's not 100 percent – it turned out to be a severe sprain, not a fracture – but the limitations have primarily been in workouts, such as with pushups in which her wrist must support body weight. The injury also kept her off the court for about a month in July, but she was able to participate in conditioning sessions with Mason and is noticeably faster in the open court.

"I feel a lot faster and a lot better," Dupree said. "I was mostly with Heather. I was with her both sessions."

Dupree has a year in the system but spent the bulk of last season on the sidelines rehabbing and strengthening her back, so she is a redshirt freshman this season.

"I feel like I am halfway in-between," Dupree said. "People ask, ‘What class are you?' Do you want me to be a sophomore? Do you want me to be a freshman? I am in the middle. I am anxious to see how it goes this year."

Dupree likely spoke for the team, coaches and fans with that remark. After a 2009-10 season that ended in the Sweet 16, the Lady Vols are anxious to return to the standard for the program – Final Fours and national titles.

Bjorklund won a national title as a freshman and is seeking to bookend her career with another one, especially after missing the Final Four for the past two seasons.

"That's been the sense of urgency the entire summer," said Bjorklund, who went home to Spokane Valley, Wash., for the second session. "They say it goes by fast. You don't realize it until you're a senior. I think this is our year for sure.

"I went home, but for the first time I was about ready to come back. That never happens with me. I am usually the homebody, the kid that loves to go home. But I was excited this year. You have to take your rest but time is ticking down. That was the theme of the summer.

"Every day I woke up I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. This is my last summer to get better to win a championship.' "

The return of Baugh is one reason for the optimism.

"Vicki brings so much to this team, just her energy and her competitive attitude and I think that is what our team is missing," Bjorklund said. "I think she is going to be key for this team. If we can keep her healthy, she is going to be huge. I am very excited about Vicki."

Stricklen also went home for second session to rest – she injured her right knee in the summer league and needed some recovery time – and to also see her family in Morrilton, Arkansas, though that visit was also difficult for her because her grandmother died.

"Home was a little depressing," Stricklen said. "I was able to rest and I was able to work on things Coach told me to work on. (The knee) is doing a lot better. It still hurts sometimes after I work out, but I get ice and I get treatment and I keep going."

Stricklen's reaction has been the same as her teammates when asked about Baugh.

"We played pickup a week ago when everybody got back and seeing her out there, her and Kelley both, seeing them play against each other and competing, battling, it just felt so good to see Vicki running up and down that floor," Stricklen said. "She wasn't complaining about her knee. I think she is going to bring a lot of energy to the team just seeing her out there."

Tennessee's chances this season will, as with any team, be increased if the players stay on the court. This team, if healthy, could be a very dangerous Lady Vol team on the national scene because of the experience and depth.

"I think so," Stricklen said. "That is what we really need, and I just hope that everyone can stay healthy. I feel like this is going to be a great year."

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