Head of the Class
The University of Tennessee Lady Volunteer basketball team arrived at a collective epiphany as it began preparations for the 2005-06 season. It was high time that these student-athletes returned to the "Head of the Class" in the collegiate basketball world.
As students of the game, they enjoyed a great deal of success during the 2004-05 season - a 30-5 overall record, an SEC Tournament title, the Philadelphia NCAA Regional Championship and a trip to the 2005 NCAA Final Four. However, the returnees realized that they had failed at one of the most basic components of Lady Vol Basketball 101 at season's end. They didn't cut down the nets at the Final Four.
Because at Tennessee...
And along the way, we cut down championship nets.
That philosophy has not changed during the three-decade long tenure of University of Tennessee Lady Vol Head Basketball Coach Pat Summitt. The legend moved to the head of the coaching class on March 22, 2005, when she passed former University of North Carolina coach Dean Smith for the most all-time coaching victories of any NCAA hoops skipper with 880. This philosophy of education, graduation and cutting down championship nets has been embedded into the fiber of the 138 women who have proudly worn the orange and white jersey since Summitt arrived on campus in 1974.
The 11 student-athletes who will take to the hardwood for the Lady Vols in 2005-06 spent their off-season focusing on academics, accountability, initiative, sweat equity on the court and in the weight room and embracing a new sense of leadership.
"Following the end of last season, I saw an instant commitment to getting better each and every day from this group," said Summitt. "I'd have to say it was perhaps the hardest working off-season team in my 31 years of coaching. It was their idea from day one to get in the gym...to hit the track...to be committed in the weight room. They took ownership and became accountable to each other. It wasn't just a couple of players; all 11 committed to working hard on their own.
"On one hand you had players who knew what it was like to be in an NCAA title game, and they were extremely disappointed that they lost a big lead and didn't make it to the championship game in Indianapolis. On the other hand you had a mixture of younger players and injured players who got a taste of the Final Four for the first time and were excited to be there."
Nonetheless, both groups shared common denominators - the desire to be at the head of the class and cut down championship nets.
And the lessons learned from the past? Lesson #1, leadership has to be a constant - every practice, every game, from opening day to the final horn in April. Leaders don't take days off. You can be a vocal leader, you can lead by example, but you must lead. Lesson #2, improved math skills are a priority - simple division and percentages. If you repeat as the worst field goal shooting team in Tennessee history, as the 2004-05 squad did (41.6 percent), it will be hard to win BIG games. Lesson #3, develop a balanced attack. Make opponents pick their poison. With so many potentially outstanding scorers on the floor in 2005-06, become hard to guard. Lesson #4, the Summitt script hasn't changed. Offense sells tickets, defense wins games, rebounding wins championships. If you rebound, you can run and dictate the flow of the game.
Summitt cites senior leadership from 5-10 guard Shanna Zolman (12.5 ppg and 2.3 rpg) and 6-5 center Tye'sha Fluker (7.4 and 5.4 rpg) as keys to the off-season success and outstanding preparation for the 2005-06 campaign.
"To be sure, Shanna and Tye will make sure that the lessons are learned from the past," said Summitt. "This is their last go-round as seniors, and they want to end their careers with a Championship. Without question, Shanna is a terrific leader by example, and she has earned the respect of her teammates and coaching staff. It's time for her to turn up the volume.
"Tye now understands that in order for us to be successful from beginning to end, we must have a consistent anchor inside. We have size, speed and athleticism, but we need to have a player give us that game-in game-out factor in the paint. Tye's responsibility is to take our posts and serve as their leader and help develop that unit into our anchor on the court. Tye, along with Nicky Anosike, Sybil Dosty and Alex Fuller, have to develop into the most consistent and productive post game in America. "They have the size, the defensive skills and board presence - they just have to get it done every game."
A good problem to have, for the coach beginning her 32nd season, is that all 11 players want to get to the head of the class.
"With the talent and competitiveness on this team, everyone will want to sit on the front row. Not everyone can sit there - there just are not enough seats," Summitt said. "I see our players defining their roles and decisions being made every day in practice as to who will sit in the front row. It's up to their individual hard work and commitment to our team game."
This season Summitt and her staff welcome back 10 players and add newcomer Lindsey Moss. Summitt shared that the off-season was also a time for her staff to reflect, regroup, refresh and retool their coaching approach as they entered the 2005-06 campaign.
"I think when we reflected back on last season, as a coaching staff, we realized that we may have given young players too much information early," Summitt said. "We had such a large group of players transitioning from high school to collegiate basketball that we may have overloaded them a bit. Everything was new from terminology to the pace of the game.
"Initially, this year will be more of a refresher course - teach, re-teach and repetition - followed by an advanced class but covering the same material...collegiate basketball, Lady Vol style. They are more comfortable with the subject matter, and we'll be able to work on the key components of the game in a very productive manner."
Right off the bat, Tennessee's veteran lineup will be looking for players to step into the vacancies created by the graduation of 6-2 All-America forward Shyra Ely (14.4 ppg and 7.0 rpg), 6-0 guard/forward Brittany Jackson (8.3 ppg and 2.1 rpg) and 5-9 guard Loree Moore (5.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg and 3.3 apg). The trio became just the third Lady Vol class to attend the Final Four each year of their careers and posted a phenomenal 55-1 record in regular season SEC play. "Shyra, Loree and Brittany had productive careers and were part of an outstanding run of victories in SEC play," Summitt remarked. "Dropping just one regular season SEC game in four years really sets the bar high for anyone who follows that kind of performance. It's a great challenge and legacy to pass on."
Certainly ready to accept that challenge is Zolman, who returns as the Lady Vols' leading scorer at 12.5 ppg. As a junior, Zolman connected on 68 three-pointers and buried 86 percent of her charity tosses while recording 25 games in double figures, including two break-out contests where she dropped in 28 points. Once again, "Z" showed that she can extend a defense in a hurry. Let her step back, and she will drain treys all night long. Play her too close, and she will drive to the bucket. Get there too late and foul her, and her free throws are automatic points.
"Shanna has proven to be a big-game player, and she is definitely a `go-to'," said Summitt. "Leadership, extending the defense and getting to the free throw line are keys for her. Additionally, she is very improved at the defensive end of the floor. She plays great position defense and is committed to it - it's a priority for her."
Zolman's senior classmate is Fluker, who stepped up her game and earned 22 starts as a junior in the paint, posting 7.4 ppg and 5.4 rpg. Intimidating on defense, she was credited for 28 blocks - second-best on the team. As indicated, Fluker has been asked to take on the role of helping to establish the "anchor" on the block. Last year, she improved four of her five career marks and returns as the second-leading rebounder on the squad.
"We are asking a lot from Tye'sha in the coming season, but I think she is ready to take on the challenge," said Summitt. "First, she needs to be consistent, and we must be able to count on her in every game. For us to be successful, we need Tye to be there from the start to establish the anchor. Second, she has the size, strength, mobility, touch and post skills to be a productive package in the paint," continued Summitt.
Tennessee's seniors, along with juniors Sidney Spencer (5.2 ppg and 4.0 rpg) and Dominique Redding (4.0 ppg and 1.6 rpg), take the "Head of the Class" theme very seriously from an academic standpoint. All four have been on the Dean's List at UT, earned All-SEC Academic honors, and Zolman secured a spot on the 2005 ESPN The Magazine Academic All-America District team. Got GPA? These four sure do.
Spencer, a 6-3 forward, had earned a spot in the starting lineup and was playing the best basketball of her career when she was felled by a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee on Feb. 23, 2005, and missed the final 10 games of the season.
"A healthy Sidney gives us a different dimension to our post game," Summitt said. "She is very skilled and can extend and confuse the defense with her ability to play the 3, 4 or 5 spot. Sid is a smart player but needs to develop an aggressive mindset on the offensive end and be willing to be a go-to player. As a defender, she has a great presence and understands the nuances of position play," remarked Summitt.
Mention Redding to the coach and a quick smile appears. As a sophomore, the 6-1 forward doubled her playing time while serving yeoman duty in a back-up role. Redding showed that she could be a cool customer under pressure, coming off the bench to tally seven points in as many minutes in the SEC Championship game against top-ranked LSU. As a junior, she is penciled in for a bigger role.
"Dom appears to be ready to contribute in a significant way and have an impact on the play of this team," Summitt said. "She has always been a player that would come off the bench and make shots. She is committed to being solid defensively and rebounding at both ends of the floor for us. I'm excited for her."
Likewise, Summitt is equally enthusiastic about the four sophomores and the two redshirt freshmen in the second-year class. While Anosike (6.7 ppg and 6.1 rpg), Dosty (2.5 ppg and 2.4 rpg), Alexis Hornbuckle (8.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg and 3.1 apg) and Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood (3.9 ppg and 1.5 rpg) were wowing Lady Vol fans during their rookie season, classmates Candace Parker and Fuller were sidelined rehabbing knee ailments. The good news is that all are healthy and ready to go.
Anosike, a physically-imposing 6-4 center, registered 25 starts, tallied a team-high 33 blocked shots and made 181 trips to the charity stripe as she was named to the SEC All-Rookie Team. Additionally, an excellent student, she was also selected to the SEC All-Freshman Honor Roll. She returns as UT's leading rebounder after spending a summer helping the USA win the U19 World Championship gold medal.
"Nicky's work ethic, intensity and competitiveness have a great impact on our team," said Summitt. "To elevate her game, offensively, Nicky must be a consistent scorer, and defensively, she has tremendous potential to be an enforcer in the paint. She is a versatile defender who can guard on the perimeter or in the post and fits into our scheme as a full-court defender as well," said Summitt.
Hornbuckle, a rangy guard at 5-11, was just plain fun to watch as a rookie and begins her sophomore year as a seasoned veteran with 21 starts. She led the team in assists (110) and steals (64) in her first season and emerged as one of the best rebounding guards (5.4 rpg) in Lady Vol history en route to All-SEC Rookie Team status. She claimed SEC Player of the Week honors after leading the Lady Vols with 14 points, six rebounds and four assists in the win at Connecticut.
"Alexis has natural leadership qualities, and is a great combo guard and an outstanding rebounder from her position" Summitt said. "She can score inside and out and is great at putting the ball on the floor and penetrating to the basket. Additionally, we will be asking more from her defensively this season with the graduation of Loree Moore," explained Summitt.
Hornbuckle's sidekick in the backcourt is 5-9 guard Wiley-Gatewood, who saw action in just 13 games as a rookie due to nagging patella tendonitis which eventually required surgery in March. Glimpses of her game found a player who could thread the needle, nail treys under pressure and step to the charity stripe with ice water in her veins. She did a little of each, scoring the final six points en route to a career high of a dozen in the win over Connecticut last January. She was UT's best free throw shooter for the season, connecting at a 91.7 percent clip.
"We're excited to have her back," Summitt said. "Sa'de is a naturally-gifted point guard with a terrific feel for the game. She makes timely decisions that you can't teach - she sees and delivers. She is physically and mentally tougher since her surgery, and she is ready to step in and run this team. Sa'de is a big play person. She can create or take and make shots," said Summitt.
Dosty is a 6-3 post who was the most accurate shooter on the team last year, connecting on 56.5 percent of her shots. She showed that she is capable of making things happen in a hurry with an 11-point and 11-rebound outburst in 14 minutes of playing time in the win over DePaul. She appeared in 27 games and averaged 2.5 ppg and 2.4 rpg.
"This season Sybil is more prepared for an up-tempo game" Summitt said. "Last year she was our most accurate post player, offensively, and had a very good off-season preparing to contribute to our front line attack. I would call Sybil one of our most improved post players," commented Summitt.
Impatiently waiting in the wings while tenaciously rehabbing their knees, Fuller and Parker are sophomores academically and rookies in eligibility. Tennessee fans have been anticipating Parker's arrival and her ability to wow the crowd with dunks since she inked her scholarship papers in November 2003.
Parker's high school accolades could fill their own section in this media guide. Suffice it to say she earned a double tractor-trailer load of honors on the prep level but is anxiously awaiting to make her mark in the women's collegiate game.
"Having been off the court with her injury, Candace is just getting comfortable with her team, herself and the game," said Summitt. "She has great presence and instincts. Candace can play inside or out, handle and pass. She has developed and all-around game and the skills to go with it. Defensively, she has a terrific presence and loves to start her offense with her defense," emphasized Summitt.
Parker had a rehab buddy in Fuller, who arrived at Tennessee realizing that she was going to redshirt. A 6-3 forward, Fuller is the lone Tennessean on the roster hailing from the high school hotbed of Shelbyville. A multi-dimensional player and a prep All-American, Fuller knows all about cutting down championship nets.
"I'm pleased with the progress Alex has made since getting back on the floor," Summitt said. "She's a frontline player who gives us both a face-up and post-up option. Alex has a good feel for the game and a nice shooting touch. She is different from other post players since she has solid forward skills to add to the post game. She'll help us stretch defenses," said Summitt.
The Lady Vols' lone newcomer is 6-1 guard Lindsey Moss, who hails from Alpharetta, Ga. (Chattahoochee H.S.). Moss went to both sessions of summer school and quickly assimilated herself with her teammates and the collegiate game.
"Lindsey is a skilled shooter and a solid passer with great open court vision," Summitt said. "We're excited about her offensive game and her ability to step out and shoot the three. As our only true freshman, she has blended in quickly with her teammates," said Summitt.
Eleven Lady Vol players are anxious and excited about the prospect of getting to the "Head of the Class." Along the way, they had better consult their syllabus and be prepared at a moment's notice for pop quizzes along the way to mid-term, final and comprehensive exams. Their report card at season's end will certainly reflect their work ethic and attention to detail.
The opposition, well, the 29 tests, during the regular season will again grade the depth of this Lady Vol team and the development of the offensive and defensive games almost immediately. In addition to the perennial Southeastern Conference powerhouses, the Lady Vols will also tangle with a slew of top rivals, including Michigan State, Gonzaga and Maryland in the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands at Thanksgiving, as well as regular season meetings with Connecticut, Duke, Stanford, Texas, Louisiana Tech, Notre Dame, Temple and Old Dominion.
"You know, I say this every year," chuckled Summitt, "but this year the SEC - from top to bottom - will be stronger than it's ever been. There are several teams who are greatly improved, and I see us in the thick of things as we try to defend our SEC Tournament title and hope to regain the top spot in the league during the regular season. To be sure, the SEC schedule will be extremely challenging, no matter if we are in Knoxville or on the road," said Summitt.
The SEC regular season schedule will seem like one midterm exam after another, 14 challenging tests in all, due to the continued high level caliber of players, coaches and teams in the league.
Final exams will start in the postseason, as the 2006 Southeastern Conference Tournament will return to the Alltel Arena in North Little Rock, Ark., Mar. 2-5. The Lady Vols will then be on the road for all NCAA postseason play in First/Second Round and Regional contests in March before culminating with comprehensive final exams scheduled at the NCAA Final Four in Boston, Mass., April 2-4 at the TD Banknorth Garden.
If the 2005-06 Tennessee Lady Vols are students of their sport and pass their 29 tests throughout the regular season, are proficient during their mid-term exams and pass their final exams with flying Orange and White colors, then they will certainly go to the "Head of the Class."
And if they find themselves in that lofty position, perhaps then they can lecture about the
2006 Boston T Party...Tennessee Lady Vols' style.