Holly Warlick has one seriously tough act to follow. - Don McPeak-US PRESSWIRE
The Lady Vols open UT basketball season tonight. We take a look at the team under new head coach Holly Warlick.
Tonight's exhibition match against Carson-Newman will be a bit unusual for Tennessee Lady Vols fans: it will be the first time a "winless" head coach takes the reigns since 1974.
There's a bit of a caveat, as Holly pretty well had control over the team during games last year, but Summitt was still the coach of record and it was still her team. This year, the Lady Vols will take the court having gone in the direction that Warlick envisions, and it should provide for a fascinating year for women's basketball fans.
There's a lot to talk about with this team, starting with the current roster. Departed are Brianna Bass, Vicki Baugh, Glory Johnson, Alicia Manning, and Shekinna Stricklen - a fivesome that endured one of the rockiest careers in Tennessee Lady Vols history, starting with Baugh's contribution to the 2008-2009 national championship season, lowlighting with Tennessee's first-ever departure form the NCAA tournament prior to the Sweet Sixteen, and ending with Pat Summitt's farewell. It's a group that has a unique perch in a sport overshadowed by its male counterpart, and it will seem almost as strange to watch Tennessee play without them as it will be to hear "Head Coach Holly Warlick" introduced on Thursday evening.
The new squad is going to look very different. This offseason has seen a strong emphasis on conditioning and athleticism, and all reports suggest that the team will be built to run opponents off the floor. There is a lot of youth, but the balance of classes is a bit better than has been seen in several years. For once, the team will not have to rely on a freshman to take up a prominent role on day one, as Ariel Massengale returns as an experienced point guard for this team (a distinction that has not been truly held since Shannon Bobbitt). Having experience at the point will certainly aid the team in their transition to the new head coach. Accompanying Ariel are seniors Taber Spani and Kamiko Williams. If Spani's knee holds up, she has the potential to be absolutely lethal from the wing, and Kamiko's athleticism really started coming to bear towards the end of last year as she found her groove within the team.
The concern heading into this year was at the post, as Isabelle Harrison and Cierra Burdick were the only returning interior players from a formerly too-deep roster. Like Ariel, both are sophomores. The early reports, however, are that both are far stronger and more physical than last year. With Harrison's six feet and three inches making her the tallest players on the team, that strength will be crucial in this year's chances when the team faces squads that bring more interior height to bear - something they formerly only saw from Baylor. Cierra had the prettiest shooting stroke on the team but suffered from a bit of freshman awkwardness on the floor. This year, both players look to anchor the team in the middle, and their transformation should be startling.
And then there's the incomparable Meighan Simmons. Speedy has always been fascinating to watch, and her only real limitation has been her overeagerness to perform. As a junior, she may make the difference in several games this year. When she's on, she can rattle off double-digit points before the other team takes a breath. If her defense (which was much improved at the end of last year) finally catches up to hear offensive explosiveness, we may be treated to many more fast breaks from her.
The freshmen will be the most intriguing to watch. Bashaara Graves and Nia Moore are expected to develop into additional interior depth and will need plenty of early time to fully acclimate to college game conditions. Graves, who comes from Kamiko's hometown of Clarkesville, TN, was Tennessee's highest rated recruit last cycle and loves to play interior as a power forward. Her midrange and perimeter games will likely need work, but she will provide crucial depth for Burdick. Moore likewise comes to familiarity; Ariel's former high school teammate will fill the slot behind Harrison and needs to prove herself early.
Andraya Carter is the second true point guard on the time. Fortunately for her, she doesn't have to step in day one like Ariel did, but having depth at the point will allow Ariel to take breathers and maintain her energy throughout the season. She is reported to be a very smooth player, with little wasted motion in any of her game. Like all freshmen, defense is her biggest area for improvement, but she has a fine mentor in Ariel.
Perhaps the freshman raising the most eyebrows is Jasmine Jones, whose raw athleticism has been discussed on local sports radio several times over the last couple of weeks. She is a 6'-2" forward with a credible three-point range and a lot of strength and speed on the floor. If she is as impressive in games as the early reports make her sound, she may even fill some of the void that Stricklen left, with a little more emphasis on the interior.
It's going to be a wild season. A lot of experience has left, and that speaks nothing of the experience no longer present as head coach (not that this is Holly's first rodeo). This transition is going to be as big as the one after Candace Parker left the building, though there are many reasons to believe the team will start with a greater level of maturity than the Baby Vols squad did.
Things won't be easy for them. In typical Lady Vols fashion, the second game is against a Georgia Tech squad that is used to making NCAA tournament runs, and teams like Miami, Texas, and Baylor are just a few short weeks away. In SEC play, Kentucky is the (rightful) favorite to win this year, while LSU and Georgia look to climb back to the perches they've enjoyed in the past. It's a season that can break either way, but it certainly won't lack for interest.