Lady Vol coach Pat Summitt wasn’t shy about expressing the most exciting aspect of her UT women’s basketball team on Monday afternoon.
Health. Lots of it.
“I'm just excited (about being healthy),” Summitt said at Monday’s Lady Vol media day at Thompson Boling Arena. “I think for this team, it's very important that we stay healthy. Right now, I feel really good about it.”
In her 37th season prowling the UT sidelines, Summitt admitted that, while injuries have been an issue in the past, Tennessee enters Tuesday’s exhibition contest against Carson-Newman a healthy team. But another challenging schedule awaits a team that lost no players to graduation from last year’s senior-less squad.
“We’ve got a tough schedule, and I’m glad,” Summitt said. “That’s going to bring out the best in us. It’s going to expose our weaknesses early. That gives us something to work on. With our schedule, we’ve got to be ready.”
Summitt’s latest roster could be the deepest in many years, with 13 players looking to compete for spots in the rotation. Summitt said the team's depth will be advantageous as the season progresses, especially if injuries begin to plague the squad.
“With us having 13 players, we have some depth,” Summitt said. “If we have an unfortunate situation come up, someone else has got to step in. With our maturity, we should be solid.”
Aside from sophomore Faith Dupree, who is practicing with the Lady Vols but intends to transfer, UT returns every player from last year’s squad, which won the SEC Championship before falling in the NCAA Sweet 16 to Baylor. But to reach the next step, the players said that experience will have to kick in down the stretch.
“Experience is everything,” center Kelley Cain said. “Especially with coach and her system, it takes some time to learn it and to buy into it. That experience is key; you'll be able to tell when we start playing.”
The senior Cain headlines a group of Lady Vol post players that aims to become the premier frontcourt in the SEC. Cain, who averaged 10.5 points and 7.7 rebounds last season, joins juniors Alyssia Brewer, Glory Johnson and Vicki Baugh as returning forwards in Summitt's system.
“Kelly Cain has really looked good,” Summitt said. “She has a great presence … Overall I think our post game is really solid.”
Despite a daunting post game, Summitt said UT’s backcourt aims not to be forgotten. Guards and All-American candidates Angie Bjorklund and Shekinna Stricklen return as a potent, one-two scoring combo, while wing Alicia Manning again brings defense and rebounding to the perimeter.
“Our guard play is the best it’s been in quite a while,” Summitt said. “I think our guards are understanding how to push and how to get the ball inside.”
Depth on the roster and quality guard play gives Summitt an intriguing option on offense: pushing the ball in transition. Plus, the addition of freshmen guards Lauren Avant and Meighan Simmons — players who have already gained high praise from Summitt — give the Lady Vols an even deeper crop of guards from which to choose.
“I want to push tempo,” Summitt said. “Give them some freedom as opposed to just feeling like we have to run set plays.”
“Our team’s fast, especially this year,” senior guard Angie Bjorklund said. “Speed is going be the key to success — getting it and going out on transition, plus our transition (defense), too.”
The return of assistant coach Mickie DeMoss — a staple of Summitt’s coaching staff for 18 years, which won six NCAA titles before her departure in 2003 to coach Kentucky — has boosted the coaching staff’s effect on players during the offseason.
“The coaching staff has been great,” Summitt said. “It’s been great to have Mickie DeMoss back. She’s a terrific teacher, and she stepped right in as if she’d never left. Our team’s really responded to all of our coaches.”
But the Lady Vols’ ever-present conference schedule — not to mention their non-conference slate — poses a threat not unfamiliar to Summitt’s method of scheduling.
“I can’t wait to play Baylor, I’ll be honest with you,” Summitt said. “Just to see where we are. Kentucky’s really solid. Theres so many good teams out there now, we know we have to be ready.”
But Summitt said if UT hopes to return to the Final Four, the key will be focusing on the task at hand.
“It’s possession by possession,” she said. “We can’t look ahead, and we can’t look behind. It’s in the moment.”