Let some other team deal with inexperience and youth issues; this year's Lady Vols squad finally has a normal mix of players and is primed for a great year.
The thirteen-deep really is that: thirteen players who can all make a difference for the team in their own way. Starting at the top, we have seniors Angie Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone - two players whose roles have been as different as they have been valuable.
Angie Bjorklund (or, as we often refer to her on this site: 3jorklund), is the premier deep threat on the team and one of the best three-point shots in the entire country. At 6'-0", she is tall for a guard in women's college basketball and often proves to be a handful for an opponent to effectively guard on the perimeter. Her shot has often been the spark that has turned a tight match into a solid victory for the Ladies, and the mere threat of her outside scoring makes it very difficult for opponents to tighten down on interior defense - an asset that becomes deadly for players to be discussed shortly.
Meanwhile, Sydney Smallbone couldn't have had a more polarized role; the consummate backup, Smallbone has only seen starting time when other players made their way in to Pat Summitt's doghouse. In comparison to others on the team, Smallbone is not the most gifted player (which is no insult by any means), but she has the one asset that Summitt cherishes most: an inability to quit or give anything less than her best when on the floor. Perhaps the most resilient player on the team, her mental toughness has been key in holding things together, even though she's not a front-and-center player.
The two seniors have a terrific cast around them as they embark on their farewell tour of The Summitt. Starting with two redshirt juniors.
Vicki Baugh is the team's definition of a hard luck case. An ACL tear kept her out of much of the 2008-2009 season, only to re-injure the ACL a few games later. Last season, a meniscus tear required surgery and again sidelined her. When healthy, however, Baugh is a tenacious 6'-4" forward who plays hard on both ends of the court. She is the next option for a true center after Kelley Cain, giving the Lady Vols two options at a position that very few teams ever have any players to fill. She will be an intriguing player to watch, having absorbed three years of Summitt education but having missed most of the time to apply those lessons on the court.
Kelley Cain is likely the cornerstone of this team on the court. At 6'-6" with surprising balance and quickness, she is unstoppable in the paint for nearly every school in the country (there are perhaps 5 schools that can reasonably keep up with her in the interior). To date, only two things have slowed her down in her career: a knee injury two years ago that hampered her mobility, and a penchant for early whistles that end up placing her on the bench in the first half. In neither case do I hold anything against Cain; in the latter, women's refs are just not used to policing anybody with her skills, and it's easy to call things that may not actually be fouls simply because most women's teams can't play as she can.
Make no mistake, though; Cain will pull the team through several games this year. In full health and in her junior year, she is the one player on the team that opposing coaches will watch her tape and tell the team, "She's going to beat us; let's just try to minimize the times she gets the ball and hope the rest of the team goes cold."
Shekinna Stricklen poses the other unanswerable riddle on the team. A 6'-2" point guard is just not something you see in the women's game. Shekinna got the job a couple years ago simply because the team had no other options for the point, but the converted forward has really taken to the job. She has the authority and court awareness to manage the offense and find the right attack points. At the one-on-one level, she is quick enough to keep up with most of the quark-guards employed by other teams and physical enough to drive through blocks and double-teams. Her long-range shot is also decent enough to keep defenses honest; if they double-team 3jorklund on the perimeter, Stricklen can easily make them pay with an open jumper (or, even easier, simply feed the ball to Cain and let Kelley settle matters up close and personal).
Alicia Manning has become one of my favorites. She had a bit of a rough go initially, but has found her place on the team on the defensive end of the court, where the guard has become an absolutely tenacious drive blocker and rebounder. Her intensity on defense is exactly what Summitt has been looking for during the past two years, and I fully believe that the other plays will learn to feed off that energy this year, and that we won't see those hideous 13-0 runs that doomed the Lady Vols against Baylor in the tournament. Whether she starts will be a matter of Summitt's preference for balance between offense and defense, but she will see significant playing time, no matter what the opening tipoff may look like.
Glory Johnson is another junior that gives the team plenty of reasons to be excited. Her sheer athleticism and speed in the interior makes her a terrific complement to Cain, Baugh, and Brewer. Rather than relying on power like the other forwards and center on the team, Johnson prefers to outrun the opposition and get to the hoop via finesse. She's has to learn that her one or two tricks that worked in high school eventually get figured out at the college level, but she clearly began to expand her repertoire during the latter half of last year. Hopefully this offseason has given her a chance to add polish to her play and become the all-around athlete we know she can be. If so, the interior rotation for the Lady Vols is absolutely scary: Cain, Brewer, Johnson, and Baugh as the primary interior, with Manning and Stricklen (!!) able to rotate in as needed.
We'll continue the look at the Ladies with the remaining six players later on. But if you can't tell, I'm really excited for this year.