Sunday, October 14, 2007

Lady Vols not above questions

Reigning national player of the year Candace Parker returns.

So do three other starters.

They're joined by a top-shelf freshman class.

They're all practicing in the new $16 million Pratt Pavilion.

They will play in renovated Thompson-Boling Arena.

An exclamation mark could punctuate any of these statements related to Tennessee women's basketball. That doesn't mean, however, there aren't questions surrounding the defending national champions. With preseason practice underway, here's five to consider:

Are they sufficiently motivated? The last time the Lady Vols were defending champs (1998-99), they meandered through the season and paid a dear postseason price.

Early clues then were a dreamy-eyed Chamique Holdsclaw yearning for March in October and how blase the players were about the end of their 46-game winning streak, which occurred in the second game.

An early clue this season might come courtesy of strength & conditioning coach Heather Mason, who said the players recorded the most voluntary summer workouts of her five preseasons at UT.

"When we started in (late) August, they weren't a new team,'' Mason said. "The chemistry was really strong."

Mason said that she geared all of her team conditioning drills around the number eight, as in national championships.

"They grasped the idea,'' Mason said and concluded: "This is us."

How will the freshmen help? Last season, Tennessee wasn't a great rebounding team until the postseason. This season, expect a great rebounding effort every time Vicki Baugh reports for duty.

The 6-foot-4 freshman, who has increased her vertical jump by three inches to 28 inches since arriving, has shown uncommon explosiveness around the rim and a nose for the basketball. Such play could turn out to be infectious.

Fellow freshman Kelley Cain actually looks bigger than 6-6, if that's possible. She grew up playing soccer. She was a goalkeeper - a useful apprenticeship for guarding UT's basket.

As for Angie Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone, if everyone else is doing their thing, they should have their share of open shots.

Overall, these four have the talent and seriousness to create competition and carve out roles for themselves.

What will be the style of play? Tennessee started out last season scoring 83-or-more points in four of its first five games and ended by winning a national championship with a measly 59 points.

The Lady Vols have the defense and rebounding potential to create the kind of explosiveness not seen since the 1997-98 team. But that will require maturity from the rookies and effort from everyone.

It's a worthy quest. UT coach Pat Summitt might have had it in mind when she advised Mason to have the players ready to sit in their defensive stances and run the floor hard.

Who will fill out the starting lineup? Parker, Nicky Anosike, Alexis Hornbuckle and Shannon Bobbitt are back from the last opening tip in Cleveland.

While ability will be an obvious consideration for the lone opening, player rotation could be the determining factor.

For example, senior Alberta Auguste has shown enough improvement in the preseason to be considered for the fifth spot. Her presence would give UT a starting five loaded with athleticism. But if she starts, UT doesn't have an experienced defender to sub for Hornbuckle.

Bjorklund might be a better pick for starter No. 5. The obvious reasons are her shooting and her 6-foot stature. Not so obvious is the deployment spreads the player wealth more evenly between starters and substitutes.

Are there any other issues? Not compared to last season when Summitt was coming off an emotionally wrenching offseason and the team was breaking in a new point guard.

Still, the Lady Vols need to develop more depth at the point, maintain their 3-point shooting and determine roles for the newcomers.

Although the leadership should be strong, team cohesion shouldn't be taken for granted, not with the unusual polarity between veterans and freshmen.

Maintaining a common ground ought to be like tending a garden. If they're diligent, it shouldn't be difficult.

Notebook: UT had mandated a break for Parker after she played for the U.S. national team last month. She thought otherwise Saturday and practiced, telling Summitt: "Coach I'm ready."

"It has been two weeks but it's a long season,'' Summitt said. "We'll watch and see."

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