While the Candace Parker era feels like forever ago, it barely seems like yesterday that we were referring to the wave of post-Parker Lady Vols as the Baby Vols. After UT's most recent national championship, the entire starting lineup was drafted into the WNBA and the sheer number of replacements created one of the biggest experience-to-youth turnovers ever seen in a program. But today, the roster again has five seniors (one of which is a redshirt senior) with two juniors and a sophomore to bridge the gap between this year and the next round of Lady Vols.
Only two players aged out last year: Angie Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone. Yet the team lost much more over the offseason as Kelley Cain ended her career due to knee issues, Alyssia Brewer transferred to UCLA after coming back from surgery, and Lauren Avant ended a one-year career due to chronic injury issues. So here we are, with a senior-laden roster in the middle of a complete makeover with 5 departures and 3 freshmen.
As always, they stand head and shoulders above the SEC in terms of raw talent and depth, earning the unanimous preseason #1 according to media members (a vote that is normally won by Tennessee, and a vote that normally relies talent and namesake more than chemistry). There is no reason to believe that Tennessee is not the most likely team to win the conference, but it will have to rely on both the seniors and the new youth movement to get there.
Let's start by looking at the seniors:
No discussion of the 2011-2012 Lady Vols can rightly begin without first mentioning Shekinna Stricklen. The Arkansas girl has been the most consistent and dominant player of her very deep class and is the presumptive favorite for SEC Player of the Year honors. Quick and agile enough to play guard, her size and physicality have allowed her to learn the forward and center positions with equal ability, making her the one player in the country who could land on first-team ballots at any of the five positions on the court. Last year was Angie's team; this year is Shekinna's.
Did you know that Shekinna (Shekinah) means glory? Technically, the manifestation of divinity, yet it leads neatly into the other leading figure: Glory Johnson. The Knoxville native has been perhaps the most Dennis Rodman-like player in women's basketball that I've seen. (Rodman without the baggage or horrible movie career.) Tough, wiry, and completely dominant on the defensive end, the only thing that has ever stopped Glory is her own will. She may have the eye of the officials on her, as her ability to consume huge amounts of space in the paint tends to irritate other players, but her "A" game is unstoppable.
Vicki Baugh is finally fully healthy and ready to go, and just in time. The departures of Brewer and Cain have left a shortfall of centers in what was once the deepest rotation on the team. Baugh was always the most athletic of the three (can your center do this (2:27 mark)?), and that athleticism should mesh very nicely with the faster, (hopefully) more tenacious look that the Lady Vols will have this year.
If there's one attitude - one mindset - that I want to see this team have as a whole, it is that of Alicia Manning. Last year's sixth Lady Vol consistently produced plays exemplified by the 2:35 mark of this video, thanks to a willingness to take the bumps and always fight to win her battles. Whether she starts or plays six-man duties again, I have no doubt she'll be the toughest and most resilient Lady on the floor.
Rounding out the seniors is Brianna Bass. Comparing her to Shannon Bobbitt was always unfair to her, and this year she gets a chance to make her own mark as one of the few available point guards for the team. Massengale is the future, but Bass has the experience and will be vital to the rotation, particularly in the early weeks. One thing you can always count on with Bass: an infectious smile and wholehearted support for her team. Every team needs those.
The juniors are Taber Spani and Kamiko Williams, two guards of totally different styles of play. Spani could double as a forward and is best used as a mismatch for shorter guards, while Williams is one of the most athletic girls on the squad. Spani will always be on the wings, and Williams may see a bit of point guard rotation though she will normally be a shooting guard, rotation with Simmons. Last year, Spani started in 26 of 37 games largely due to her stability and chemistry with the other four starting players. Depending on the post rotation (i.e. where Johnson starts), that tally may decrease somewhat, but it's again the wonderful curse of having too much starting talent. (We won't complain.)
The lone sophomore is Meighan Simmons, who made her mark last year by rattling off two quick player-of-the-game nods in the first two games of the season. Once a pure gunner who seemed to shoot more than dribble, spending time at point guard last year really helped her understand the team and become a better passer. She'll undoubtedly return to the shooting guard position full-time this year, where her speed and lack of fear should make her a very difficult player to defend and a valuable asset in transition. With 63 three-pointers in her career, she does have an outside shot at overtaking Angie Bjorklund as Tennessee's all-time trey leader.
As is normally the case, the freshmen are the most intriguing characters. Ariel Massengale will be the critical piece of the puzzle, as the heralded point guard looks to be the best PG option at UT since Cait McMahan was healthy. The quest for a ninth championship will likely hinge on her ability to lead the offense. Her playing time is dependent only on her command of the offense and effectiveness on defense, though a concussion has slowed her preseason down. Perhaps it's a good sign, however, that the concussion came due to a collision with fellow freshman Cierra Burdick. Hard play from freshmen is always a good sign, even if the injury risk is not. Cierra will play understudy to Shekinna Stricklen, Glory Johnson and Alicia Manning, which provides great hope for her future. She has already established a constantly-positive attitude and eagerness to put in extra work that should endear her to Lady Vol fans early. With such a deep roster of forwards, she has plenty of time to perfect her craft and learn from the best (a luxury that many of the seniors on the roster did not have). Finally, Isabelle Harrison is Vicki Baugh's Mini-Me and will provide the third option at center for the Lady Vols. (Those two even look alike, btw.)
There's a lot to look forward to, just as there are a lot of questions to answer, which should make for a very exciting year to watch the Lady Vols. Tennessee basketball starts with the Lady Vols exhibition on November 1st against Carson-Newman. It's here.