After the Candace Parker, et al. era, it's been a bit of a rough stretch for Tennessee. The Lady Vols have suffered some growing pains as an extremely young group has learned to grow up together. But after what has effectively been a two-year hiatus, the Lady Vols just might be ready to make their customary runs at some national titles again.
Much like the year before it, the 2009-2010 season featured a very, very young team that was marked as much for its inconsistency as its potential. Despite winning the SEC regular season crown, the SEC tournament title, and a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament, they left the tournament in the second weekend when the Lady Vols went on a 7-minute scoreless streak against the Baylor Griners. But that was a decided step in the right direction after the 2008-2009 season that saw Pat Summitt win her 1,000th game and fail to make the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time in her coaching career.
But the shining hope for the Lady Vols comes in the exact thing that ultimately hurt them in the previous two years: their youth. The team had no seniors last year and returns everybody except Amber Gray, whose medical history ultimately cut her Tennessee career short.
Thanks to a complete lack of seniors last year, the cast remains virtually the same except for two new names:
|Last Year's Starters||Angie Bjorklund||G||Sr||6-0|
|The Rest||Lauren Avant||G||Fr||5-9|
The two newcomers are Lauren Avant and Meighan Simmons, a pair of 5'-9" guards that give the Lady Vols great hopes for solid guard play, particularly in future years. It's the one position that has been the bane of the team over the last two years, and these two lucky ladies get the opportunity to cut their teeth in the college game with a veteran squad around them. By the time they need to assume leadership roles in the team, they'll be well-versed in the expectations and abilities of the Lady Vols.
Bookending the roster are two seniors: Angie 3jorklund and Sydney Smallbone. Bjorklund is the offensive ace in the hole, with a three-point shot that can be absolutely lethal. She's quietly become more consistent over her career and now demands the full attention of any defense. Fail to guard her, and watch the threes rain; account for her and leave the interior open. While Bjorklund has had the more prominent career, we shouldn't forget Smallbone; she could have been a multi-year starter at almost any other school in the country, but instead chose to be a very necessary role-player for the Lady Vols.
The interior is the Lady Vols' greatest advantage with the ever-dominant Kelley Cain. (And now that Cain is an upperclassman, perhaps the officials won't feel compelled to call a ticky-tack foul on her in the opening minute. /Valentine'd) Even when she had a bad knee, her presence tended to tilt the court heavily in Tennessee's favor; in full health, she is is virtually unstoppable.
Defensively, the team can't be much happier about the progress of any player than Alicia Manning last year. Manning took the brunt of much of the fans' ire at the beginning of the season, as miscues and mental lapses made her one of the more inconsistent players on an inconsistent squad. But by the end of the year, her tenacity on defense and aggressive rebounding could single-handedly take the game away from an opponent. Above all other players, last year was her 'light-bulb' year where everything finally seemed to click for her.
All in all, this is a roster that is just now beginning to peak. From the power and size of players like Vicki Baugh to the speed and athleticism of Glory Johnson and Kamiko Williams, the balance of youth and experience on this team make for a very, very deep and talented roster - one that very rightly should set their sights on winning a national championship. Indianapolis isn't very far away.