While the Lady Vols basketball team has focused a great deal on the defensive side of the ball since practices have officially begun, it doesn't mean that they haven't been keying on their offense as well.
Due to the departure of five starting seniors from last season's team, which advanced to the Elite Eight, the Lady Vols' 2012-13 squad has looked to two returning upperclassmen to expand their role on the offensive end of the ball.
Senior guard Taber Spani and junior guard Meighan Simmons will look to be key scorers on a team that hopes to tip-off the Holly Warlick era to a fast start.
After the loss of Shekinna Stricklen, one of the team's top three-point threats last season, defenses are expected to key on the outside for Spani and Simmons. However, the two are ready to take their game to new levels.
"Over the summer I worked out really hard, and the past couple of days I've been trying to get in the gym and get extra shots and find other ways to score," Simmons said. "Even in practice I've taken things I've done on my own and try to make the adjustments in practice with defense on me."
Simmons will return as one of the Lady Vols' leading scorers. In her sophomore season she averaged 11.1 points per game and hit 51 three pointers, just five behind Stricklen's season total. Spani was the more consistent of the two from long range, as last season she shot 40 percent from behind the arc.
"You're always going to be trailed and (will) never have any breathing room unless a defense is playing in a zone," Spani said. "We've had to adjust, and as a player you want to maximize your full potential. I'm trying to take it off the bounce, do a lot of pull-ups and also (use) my strength to try and get into the paint and finish."
With their role growing in the offensive system this year, the team is also excited to see if All-SEC sophomore point guard Ariel Massengale has room to grow in her game. Massengale set the Lady Vols career record for most assists by a freshman, as she dished out 164 total assists last season and finished second in the SEC with 4.9 assists per game.
Despite a heavy burden on the team's three top returning scorers' shoulders to pick up where the graduated seniors had left off, they, along with senior guard Kamiko Williams, are also focused on being leaders and mentors on a team that includes five new incoming players.
"Overall they've done great," Spani said of the first year players for the Lady Vols. "Obviously it's a learning curve for them, but it's also one for us. We're trying to play a different style as well. The veterans are trying to be really encouraging with them and supportive in bringing them along. It's all a part of growing up and they're doing very well."
Warlick so far is pleased with the progress the new additions have made, and the players have noticed the impact of some new Lady Vols as well.
One of the four incoming freshman making her presence felt in practices so far has been forward/center Bashaara Graves. Graves, who was ranked fifth in the ESPNU Top 100 rankings for 2012, led Clarksville High School to a 37-1 record during her senior season. She filled the stat column, as she averaged 21.3 points per game, 11.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.5 steals and 2.3 blocks per game.
"She's moving up and down the court well and her post moves are far advanced for any freshman coming into this league," sophomore forward Isabelle Harrison said about Graves. "She is also being vocal and being a leader herself as a freshman."
The Lady Vols appear ready to step into their new assumed roles this season, and also look to be one of the fastest teams in the country on defense.
"I feel like this year it's going to be about defense," Simmons said. "We're not going to be the tallest team, but we are the quickest team. Our defense is going to be something that really will help us out."
The first action back on the court for the team will be Thursday, Nov. 1, when they take on Carson-Newman College in an exhibition game.