So Joel caught this yesterday, but it bears repeating: Kelley Cain is effectively retiring from basketball. After four seasons, her body just couldn't take it anymore. It's not really about next season for her; it's about the rest of her life, and after numerous knee surgeries, plates and screws being inserted and removed in places that shouldn't have metal in them (hint: this is any and every place in your body, unless you're a cyborg), and numerous concussions, this was it.
When healthy, Cain was a dominant interior force. That wasn't often this season, if at all. She was consigned to the bench early thanks to the emergence of Glory Johnson as an equally dominant interior presence (albeit in a different way), and in an effort to conserve her, Pat Summitt chose to limit her minutes as much as possible. In retrospect, the writing was on the wall.
That doesn't invalidate work from previous seasons, though, most notably dominating Brittany Griner in their first encounter and the main interior presence for the Lady Vols her first two seasons. Again, even that comes with the caveat "when healthy". This doesn't come as surprise to anyone who followed the team closely; Cain was on borrowed time.
She's previously said she'd play until she wasn't able to anymore, and it was obvious most of this season that she wasn't going to last. That isn't a knock on her; some people just don't have the body for high-level athletics, even if the talent's there. Those of you who are baseball fans: Mark Prior is a textbook example. Greg Oden may or may not be on his way down this path, and those are the names I can think of off the top of my head.
In a prior life, I was a heavy baseball stathead and a fantasy baseball geek (it's arguable that I'm still both of these, but it's not as ardent as it was). It seems odd to say, but I learned there that being healthy is indeed a skill, even if there's plenty of other talents that make a player worthwhile. Cain, for better or worse, didn't have that skill anymore, and far be it from me to criticize her for choosing now to walk away. That's her choice, and I'm in favor of it. The rest of her life is far more important than 39 games next season.
Lauren Avant is also leaving the program (hat tip to BloodSpite for catching that). We didn't see much of Avant, but from what we could tell, she didn't have an off switch. Heck, she didn't even have a dimmer with how she plays; it was all out, all the time. The Comeback In Memorial Gym doesn't happen without her, and Tennessee may be short its starting point guard. Like Cain though, I can't be too upset over this; the rest of your life is far more important, and if she's going to med school(!) then I can hardly fault her for not wanting to serve as a test subject.
Below the jump: what's this mean for next season?
We'll address Cain first, since this doesn't really mean much. The four-deep post rotation we were so excited about never really came to fruition; most games, it was only three of Cain, Johnson, Vicki Baugh, and Alyssia Brewer.that saw significant PT. In some respects, this should help ease rotation issues. Of course, Summitt saw this coming; incoming freshman Cierra Burdick (currently the #3 overall recruit per ESPN, and the #1 power forward) should see the floor, and while it's probably too much to ask for her to be a significant contributor, having the #1 incoming 4/5 is a nice luxury to have.
Right now, the Ladies lack a true 5 outside of Brewer. That isn't a problem against most teams they'll face; really, Baylor is the only legitimate threat with a 5 that causes serious matchup trouble. Based on the last two meetings against them, Cain wasn't able to help there either. It's worth going in a different direction, and Burdick will have a great mentor in Glory Johnson (and if you had any idea I'd be writing that sentence two years ago, I owe you a cookie or a beer, but not both, because they wouldn't go well together in most cases). The Ladies should be fine.
Avant's departure troubles me more; Meighan Simmons is the 2 guard of the future, but what happens if she can't get off the 1? Taber Spani is a capable enough 2, but she's not the kind of shooter who demands attention most of the time. Simmons - for her faults - is a dangerous enough shooter to command attention when that's all she has to be concerned about. If she has to deal with distribution as well, that may present difficulties like we saw this season (although an offseason to handle responsibilities will be great for her).
Once again, it's recruiting to the rescue. Ariel Massengale (#4 overall, #1 point guard) should step onto campus and hopefully be ready to contribute from day one. It's likely we'll see some quasi-wonky rotation of Simmons, Kamiko Williams, and Massengale early in the season until she adjusts, but she should be ready by the time February rolls around. I always give extra leeway to PG development, because if we've learned anything as Tennessee basketball fans over the last couple of seasons, it's that point guard play needs time to grow before it can flourish.
Or heck, Tennessee could just roll out Simmons-Spani-Stricklen-Johnson-Baugh. Not like most teams could stop that, anyway.