For the past three decades, the Lady Volunteers of the University of Tennessee have been a perennial national powerhouse in women's basketball. Led by Hall of Fame Head Coach Pat Summitt, the Lady Vols have reached the Sweet 16 in every NCAA tournament since its inception, with 12 appearances in the Final Four and 6 national championships.
By Lady Vols standards, last year was a disappointment. The senior class was one of the most vaunted recruiting classes of all time, including All-Americans Tamika Catchings and Semeka Randall. As freshmen, they helped Tennessee cut down the nets when the Lady Vols won their unprecedented third national championship in a row, leading fans of the women's game to wonder whether the Tennessee dynasty would continue indefinitely.
But it was not to be. After her sophomore year, a homesick Teresa Geter transferred to South Carolina after her sophomore year. Ace "Kristin" Clement and Semeka "Boo" Randall, hampered by occasional injuries throughout their
careers, didn't live up to early expectations. Tamika Catchings, who had long since emerged as one of the premier stars in the women's game, tore her ACL in January of 2001, abruptly ending her playing career at the Tennessee. The
magnitude of the loss of Catchings wasn't immediately apparent, as Tennessee finished undefeated in the regular season of the SEC. But when March arrived, her loss was felt acutely as Tennessee felt to Vanderbilt in the semifinals of the SEC tournament, then fell to Xavier in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAAs.
Returning Players: Besides Catchings, whose season ended in January, the Lady Vols will have three returning starters at the beginning of the year. 5'9 junior guard Kara Lawson (11.4 ppg, 3.3 apg, .426 3pt%) is currently playing with the USA national team participating in the World University Games in Beijing. Other returning starters include 6'2 junior forward Gwen Jackson (11.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and 6'5 senior center Michelle Snow (11.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg). 6'5 sophomore center/forward Ashley Robinson (8.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg), who was named to the All-SEC freshman team and started in some games after Catchings was injured, tore her ACL in July and probably won't be available to play until January. 5'7 junior guard April McDivitt (5.5 ppg, .420 3pt%) is the only returning reserve who played more than 15 minutes per game last year. 6'3 senior center Shalon Pillow (8.4 mpg, 3.0 ppg, 1.8 rpg), 6'1 sophomore forward Courtney McDaniel (7.7 mpg, 3.3 ppg, 2.2 rpg), 5'11 sophomore guard Tasha Butts (11.0 mpg, 4.5 ppg), and 5'11 sophomore guard LaToya Davis (7.5 mpg, 2.9 ppg) round out the returning players.
Incoming Players: Once again, Tennessee is bringing in the consensus #1 recruiting class in the country. At the top of the list is the consensus #1 player of the year, 6'2 forward Shyra Ely (17 ppg, 10 rpg) from Indianapolis. She's followed closely in rank by 5'9 point guard Loree Moore , who played on the USA Junior National Team this summer and was selected to multiple All-American first teams as a high school senior. Second team All-American 5'10 guard Courtney Young (19 ppg, 5 apg, 3 spg), third team All-American 6'1 forward Michelle Munoz (24 ppg, 11 rpg), and Tennessee's Class AAA Miss Basketball Brittany Jackson (28 ppg, 9 rpg) complete the class.
Outlook: Tennessee will once again be among the elite teams in the nation and in the SEC. Just how far the Lady Vols ultimately go probably depends on their freshmen and sophomore classes. With so many young players, Tennessee might be a little ragged early in the season, as Coach Summitt experiments with a variety of starting lineups. But if Ely makes a quick adjustment to D1 college ball, if Robinson recovers quickly and fully from her knee surgery, and if any of their speedy young guards matures sufficiently to provide substantial help off the bench, then Tennessee could go all the way.