Sunday against Auburn, Vicki Baugh played 7 minutes and earned 9 points and 2 rebounds. In 9 minutes, Alyssia Brewer notched 3 rebounds and a block. The numbers don't sound like much (they aren't), but they are the beginning of a return to post depth that couldn't have come a moment too soon for Tennessee.
Like the men's game, dominant posts are perhaps the most valuable commodity that can be recruited to a school. Even if they don't always control the flow of a game, they're just very rare finds; perhaps a dozen or so high-end posts are available any given year for a sport that has roughly 300 Division 1 institutions. Of those rare few, many end up stockpiled by the same teams that are always in the national title picture: Tennessee, UConn, Stanford, Duke, and Baylor. On paper, Tennessee looked to have picked up three in Cain, Baugh, and Brewer but has been set back this year by injuries to two (and nagging knee issues for Cain).
This year, there have been two interconnected reasons to worry about the interior rotation. First, Kelley Cain's knees are well-documented for their lingering issues from injuries in previous years. She sat out the Lamar game due to knee stiffness and has had limited minutes in selected contests to preserve her health and save her play for the most tighlty-contested games. Without Baugh and Brewer, Summitt has been playing Glory Johnson as the second post player during SEC play. For all the talk of maturity adjustment that may be being instilled into Glory by playing her off the bench, her role as the backup has been absolutely vital for the team, allowing Cain to average only 23 minutes a game in conference play, with a high of 29 minutes against LSU. But as brutally effective as Glory has been as Cain's relief, getting her on the floor with Cain has been even better.
At 6'-6", Cain commands a lot of respect in the interior. Teams either play zone to avoid the interior pass in the first place or double-team on anything that goes low. On rebounding, teams prefer to have a dedicated Cain-blocker-outer while letting somebody else go for the loose ball. But when Johnson is in the game, you just can't double-team Cain. Johnson and Cain together force teams to play single coverage in the interior, and Tennessee will win that matchup all night long.
With Baugh and Brewer returning, they can provide quality minutes in place of Cain and/or Johnson. Four post players allows for an effective two-post rotation that puts tremendous stress on teams on both ends of the floor. Suddenly, rebounding advantages of 2:1 or better are not just possible, but the norm. Offensive boards are easy to come by, turning a 45% shooting night into an effective 60% shooting night.
It's not just the rotation minutes that matter, however. Without Baugh and Brewer, Tennessee had two posts with a total of 10 potential fouls to give in a night. With all four, that total goes up to 20. If one player is in foul trouble, they can still have a three-post rotation and rely on Manning, Stricklen, and Spani to provide help. If the referees are calling a very tight game (something that can only be determined by picking up fouls), they don't see their post minutes disappear with two fouls in the first five minutes. Four posts can play a far more aggressive game than two. They can gamble on rebounds and blocks in a way that might not be advisable without the depth. If one has an off night, then Summitt can rotate the others in for more minutes and maintain maximum interior pressure on teams that don't typically have the horses to keep up.
The timing couldn't have been any better for the return of the posts, either. Including the Auburn game, they have ten total games to work the rotation up to full speed (five at home and five on the road). The games include Georgia, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, LSU, and Arkansas. After that, SEC tournament play can give up to four games in four days to work up the rotation. Then it's NCAA tournament time, and if Baugh's minutes against Auburn are any indicator of what's coming from Tennessee's post players, there is a lot of reason to be excited about March Madness this year.