This year's sophomore class of Lady Vols already owns one of the more notable positions in the history of Lady Vols basketball. After the departure of the entire starting rotation of the back-to-back NCAA Tournament Champions to the WNBA draft in the spring of 2008, six freshmen entered the field in the fall of the same year. These six freshmen were all highly regarded and selected to create a new nucleus of players for a future run at national titles. With so much turnover, some growing pains were expected, but perhaps not so severe as this:
On the one hand, it's quite an accomplishment to say that your worst season in team history includes a #5 seed in the NCAA tournament and a first round upset. On the other hand, it's still the worst season ever. For a team that started the season rough-but scrappy, the apparent promise with a thrilling early-season loss to Virginia and equally thrilling midseason wins over Stanford and Rutgers slowly unraveled throughout SEC play. Entering conference play at 13-2, the Lady Vols finished the regular season at 22-9. The 2-2 SEC/NCAA tournament record left the Ladies with the first-ever 11-loss season in program history.
The unraveling first came through the immaturity of the team. The rigors of the college season took the young girls by surprise and, having not prepared adequately for the strain, they began making mistakes. Small flaws aggravated into larger problems, and no amount of corrective action by Summitt could reverse the course. Despite losing iPods and their locker room, the Great Fizzle was in full swing.
What a season for Pat Summitt to get 1,000 wins.
But now, yesteryear's freshmen are sophomores. With some valuable character-building experience and an offseason of training together, they are hungry to justify their presence inside Tennessee Orange and Powder Blue basketball jerseys.
At 5'=2", Brianna Bass was brought in to play the role that Shannon Bobbitt played on two national championship teams - the quick, maneuverable torpedo who created havoc on the defensive and led fast breaks with electric agility and tenacity. The spunk and fire are there, as Bass is certainly not afraid to charge full-speed into the forest of interior players for a layup. Last year, Bass had her growing pains, but was one of the more stable elements of the freshmen class and often found playing time simply as a lack of alternative. She benefits greatly from lessons that Summitt learned with Bobbitt - that having a highly maneuverable defender is sometimes better than a long body who may not match as well with quickness. Averaging 20 minutes a game, she was as accurate from three-point range (~30%) as in the interior.
Bass was one of the few Lady Vols last year who maintained her effort and consistency throughout the season. Aside from some natural freshman blips, she earned the floor by effort and hustle and can provide the same example to the team this year. She ended last year with some room to grow - particularly in terms of court awareness and playing under control - but should be a very valuable addition to the team. It may be unfair to expect her to be Bobbitt 2.0, but she should fill those shoes quite nicely - and finish burning off the soles.
Amber, a 6'-1" forward from Ohio, recorded the lowest minutes-per-game average of all players during the 2008-2009 season. Fair or not, she was one of the freshmen who found herself in the Summitt doghouse as much as anybody else as she fell short of preseason expectations. Unfortunately for Gray, the season of disappointment was only the tip of the iceberg, as she had emergency surgery over the summer for a brain aneurysm. Reduced to the role of a cheerleader, Gray is pulling for her teammates as hard as possible, but appears to be headed for a redshirt season, as brain surgeries take a long while to heal. A jarring reminder that there are things worse than not making the Sweet Sixteen, Gray can serve as the Nick Reveiz of the team - a support and a reminder that nothing is guaranteed.
Alicia Manning came from Woodstock, Georgia to play guard for the Vols. Tall for a guard in women's hoops (6'-2"), Manning was regarded as exceptionally well-balanced and agile, with a difficult shot to defend. She was one of the players to adapt to Summitt's system more slowly, however, and saw more limited action at around 14 minutes per game throughout the season. In a word, her season was inconsistent. Despite having the second-best three-point percentage of the team, she was often too reluctant to take a shot. The increased difficulty of competition may have been a bit of a surprise, as open shots do not come as frequently at the college level.
Her major project this year is to be willing to play 'in the dirt'. Finesse has its place, but no player competes on a Summitt team without the willingness to get physical and fight through elbows and knees for the ball. So long as she shows the strength and will to take the game to players, she will find her space and her moments to shine. It may be a bit early to tell, but her exhibition game rebounds (4.5/g) were nearly double her 2008 season average (2.6/g). Her hustle stats will tell the story in the first two weeks.
The Knoxville native is one of the more popular players among the locals. The 6'-3" forward is long, slender, and completely unafraid of the interior. Last year, she too had to learn the lesson that Manning learned - that finesse and technique alone are not sufficient to succeed at the college level. Summitt often became frustrated at Johnson for trying to play off the dribble too often and becoming predictable. Her quickness and self-control make her an absolute nightmare in one-on-one matchups, but that advantage slowly disappeared throughout the season as teams figured out how to apply double-teams for maximum effect. Teams will continue to watch her for carryover tendencies from high school, and learning to distribute better and becoming a more physical interior player should break the defensive counters to her game.
In exhibition play, Johnson's results were inconsistent. Scoring 22 against Carson-Newman (who couldn't match the Vols physically), she only netted 7 points against a better Delta State squad. The physicality does seem to be improved, but breaking old habits can be a hard thing to do, and will undoubtedly be the focus of the early going in the season. But even with old habits, Summitt's tenor in interviews appears to be a bit softer regarding the local superstar, perhaps indicating some significant improvement.
If comparing Bass to Bobbitt was unfair, then it's almost ridiculous to bring up Candace Parker here. But Johnson is the player on the team who is most similar to the legend, with similar builds and styles of play. Candace, despite all her physical tools, was one of the most physical Lady Vols on the court and could not be backed down. If Glory learns these same lessons, she too can become the unstoppable threat that the Lady Vols need.
Brewer is another 6'-3" forward, but is better built to play a tougher, more physical style of play. Unfortunately for Brewer, that physicality has not yet come through, and she still maintains some carryover ire from Summitt. During this year's exhibition play, Brewer has already been singled out:
"Lyssi Brewer has got to play a different role,'' Summitt said. "She goes in and doesn't even follow up a rebound. She's backpedaling. I told her: We handpicked you to come to the University of Tennessee because we thought you could help us win a championship. Right now I'm not impressed."
There is no faster route to Summitt's bad side than to not follow through for rebounds. While others claim that defense wins championships, Summitt's motto has been that rebounding wins championships. This is the black spot of Lady Vols basketball. Not following up for rebounds gets you the least amount of playing time in exhibition: 8 minutes per game average. Lyssi will absolutely have to commit herself to taking the lumps and bruises that come with dedicated rebounding play if she wants to succeed.
The bright side for Brewer is that she was indeed singled out by Summitt to play for the Vols. Nobody gets that distinction without the potential to follow through. She can do it; she must will it.
Stricklen is a 6'-2" combo guard-forward who was brought in for her offensive prowess. In 2008, she averaged 13 points and roughly 30 minutes of action per game, but routinely found her way in and out of Summitt's good (and bad) graces. As freshmen are prone to do, she was inconsistent. The talent would flash through on one day, then disappear the next. While not considered the three-point sharpshooter that Angie Bjorklund was brought in to be, Stricklen is here to be either a physical mismatch at guard or a speed mismatch at forward - whichever is needed.
Because of inconsistent play on the team last year, Stricklen often found herself playing point guard - not the most natural of positions on the floor. She should play the point some more this year and has spent a considerable amount of the offseason learning the position, but is still suffering from inconsistency. After Delta State, Summitt showered stern words her way as well:
"Really disappointed that Shekinna Stricklen wasn't prepared to be a leader,'' Summitt said. "She and Angie - those two we look to as go-to players offensively. Those two have to be more consistent. From the first game to this game, night and day."
Like Angie, Stricklen followed up a great first game with a dismal second outing. Whether it was raw inconsistency or overlooking Delta State, Summitt found little reason to accept the underwhelming performance. Like the football team, Stricklen is among the players still learning how to be relentless and merciless regardless of opponent, rather than playing down to lesser foes. She needs to be consistent - even if it's not utterly dominant. So long as she provides something that Summitt can rely on from game to game, she will be successful this year. But Jekyll-and-Hyde games will continue to find her at the receiving end of The Glare.
Cain is a redshirt sophomore, but a sophomore nonetheless. And she is perhaps the most important player on the team this year. While many factors led to the downfall of the Lady Vols last year, the wheels did not truly fall off the wagon until Cain suffered a knee injury against Mississippi State. From that game forward, the team seemed to lack the ability to wear teams down and finish strong - a fault that ultimately led to the loss to Ball State in the NCAA tournament. Perhaps her status as a redshirt sophomore is more important than realized as Cain did play with the National Championship-winning 2007 team, but Cain has been an absolute terror in the interior on both the offensive and defensive ends of the court.
In exhibition play, Cain has been lights-out. Leading the team with points, she also posted 20 rebounds in the Delta State game and was pulled from the game because the rest of the players were becoming too dependent on her. (While "lob-to-Cain-watch-her-score-go-back-and-play-defense" may work against Delta State, they will need more in their arsenal against Baylor on Sunday.) She still wears a kneebrace for support, but appears to be quicker and more agile than last year, which should send chills down the spine of opposing teams.
Right now, Cain is the utter heart and soul of the team. She is quiet and unassuming in her external demeanor, but is nearly impossible to push around. At times against Delta State, she was successful in blocking out two players and forcing the turnover without any help. On the offensive end, single-teaming her is a recipe for a quick two-point lay-in, while double-teaming her lets her use her court awareness to dish out to another teammate - or to score on your double-team anyhow, whichever.
There is a lot to look forward to with the sophomore class. These ladies have to be the core of the team this year. If they grow to their potential, we are looking at a reprise of the 2006-2008 seasons. They just have to get there.