The second Tennessee Lady Vols exhibition game is tonight at 7 PM EST against Delta State, and the schedule begins in earnest on Sunday as the Ladies host Baylor in what will be a huge game right out of the gate. So as the real season approaches, let's take a look through the roster and see what Pat Summitt will have at her disposal. (Aside: the game tonight will be available via free online video; you can access it at the link above. Dan Fleser has some interesting history on Delta State in his GVX article as well.)
One notable difference with this team should be an increased intensity on the court - particularly on the defensive end. Last year's squad was notorious for playing below their potential and allowing other teams to outwork them. Comprised of a bunch of young players who had spent their lives out-talenting their pre-college competition, the Lady Vols had some hard lessons to learn about hustle and commitment. As a result, the Lady Vols still do not have their traditional locker room in TBA until such time as Summitt believes they have earned the right to inhabit the same space as Candace Parker's and Chamique Holdsclaw's used socks.
This post will double as the live thread for the exhibition game tonight. Last game, the team played full-court press for much of the night to devastating effect. However, they struggled at times in the transition game, with fast break passes often sailing out of control. Look for more high-tempo play as Pat Summitt sees how far this team can be pushed.
Without any seniors on this team, the look at the roster first begins with the juniors. Out of 13 total players, only three are upperclassmen, and these three should be the core of the leadership for the Lady Vols as they look to erase the memories of last season's grand fizzle. Unlike most years, there is no group of seniors who see the season as their last opportunity, so leadership will have to come from raw competitiveness and determination. This is where the juniors must step forward.
Vicki Baugh, 6'-4" Forward
Vicki Baugh is a defense-first forward who, in 2008-2009, averaged 7.3 rebounds per game and 6.5 points per game. While her numbers were not as prolific as her freshman year, her presence was best defined by her absence, as the Lady Vols fell into a slump after Baugh tore her ACL against Oklahoma and was lost for the season. She is a hard worker who can match up with anybody in the country with her interior defense and has an unselfish streak on the offensive half of the court that helps make the team around her play that much better.
Baugh did not play in the exhibition opener against Carson-Newman - likely due to lingering issues with the ACL injury. She may not be able to make an immediate impact on the court with her play, but she will be essential in teaching the younger ladies what kind of heart is needed to be a champion and her cheerleading may be as important to the team as anything she could do on the court. As with Nick Reveiz on the football team, she has the opportunity to spur the rest of the team on to their best.
Angie Bjorklund, 6'-0" Guard
Angie was recruited by the Lady Vols primarily for her offensive skills. As one of the best three-point shooters in the nation, Bjorklund can change the scoreboard in a hurry when she gets hot and can loosen up an interior defense with her perimeter play. Bjorklund was one of the more highlighted letdown stories last year; despite having improved her three-point shooting percentage from her freshman year, was often criticized for getting too fancy with the ball rather than forcing the issue. When she is on her game, she is a terrific ball distributor, but she can be prone to trying too hard and risking turnovers when she gets impatient.
When watching Bjorklund this year, keep an eye on her composure. She's not one to lose her temper, but other teams did find success in getting her off her game last year. When she plays within herself and trusts the team around her, Bjorklund can assume the Chris Lofton role for the Lady Vols on offense - albeit with better physical defensive skills. She is not the point guard for the Lady Vols, but her offensive leadership and persona will likely shape the rest of the team on offense. Defense may win championships, but you have to score points, and Bjorlkund finds herself at the very heart of the Lady Vols' offensive machine.
Syney Smallbone, 5'-10" Guard
Smallbone is not often a headliner for the Lady Vols. Having played a backup role in her first two years, Smallbone has averaged a steady 3 points per game and 1 rebound per game in her career. But watching her play, Sydney has usually epitomized the selfless player. She's not the best point guard, she's not the best shooter, she's not the most talented defender, but you never see a player work harder than her on the court. She was absolutely relentless last year and could never be faulted for lack of effort.
Being a team leader may seem a bit unnatural for her, as she does come across as a little bit quiet and unassuming. But, whether she enjoys leading or not, that role will likely be thrust squarely on her shoulders. Sometimes the greatest leadership is provided by action rather than words, and Smallbone can prove to the team that effort and determination matter more than physical gifts. The second-smallest player on the team (point guard Brianna Bass is 5'-2") can serve as the team's Dane Bradshaw - that player that refuses to be intimidated and refuses to let more inherently talented players win the battles without a fight.
Look for Sydney to exemplify team in her game. With her, there is no complaint and no selfishness on the court - only all-out effort in an attempt to maximize the results of the entire team.