Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Lady Vols' signing class has talent, bit of a mean streak

Amber Gray and Glory Johnson set aside their friendship much like they would a women's basketball warm-up suit when they take the court.

"Once we step on that floor," said Gray, who will sign a national letter of intent with Tennessee today. "We have the mindset that we have no friends."

Gray and Johnson, the Webb School star who also will sign with UT, often end up on the floor as a result. Gray remembers knocking down Johnson during an AAU tournament in Nashville two summers ago. Last year in North Carolina they both hit the deck after colliding while chasing a loose ball.

"It's the type of thing where we don't help each other up," said Gray, who plays for Lakota West High School in West Chester, Ohio.

And these two are going to be Lady Vol teammates. Imagine how that's going to work out?

Gray thinks it'll be great. Along with Johnson, she is well acquainted with signee Alicia Manning. Gray also has made an effort to familiarize herself with the three other members of Tennessee's signing class: Shekinna Stricklen, Alyssia Brewer and Briana Bass.

Collectively, these players have strong recruiting ratings. Johnson (3), Gray (4), Stricklen (8), Manning (15) and Brewer (20) are ranked among the top 20 national prospects by hoopgurlz.com. Scout.com has everyone but Bass rated among its top 18 prospects.

Gray thinks that they all have the right attitude as well.

"We all want to win; I've seen everyone play," Gray said. "We're willing to do whatever it takes to win, whether its beating each other up in practice or being cheerleaders on the bench."

Johnson has a similar take on her future teammates, who made their official recruiting visits the same weekend in early October.

"We all want to play the same way," Johnson said.

The first order of business will be building relationships, both competitive and otherwise.

Tennessee's recent recruiting history offers a mixed review of a six-player signing class. The celebrated six-pack of four Novembers ago was impeded by knee surgeries on the front end and then broken apart by the transfers of Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood and Sybil Dosty during their sophomore years.

It took three seasons for Candace Parker, Alexis Hornbuckle and Nicky Anosike to forge a power trio from the class. They spearheaded Tennessee's drive to a national championship last season.

Gray is well aware of the history but noted, "everyone's story is different. Who ever really knows what the situation is going to be? It's kind of hard to say how it's going to turn out."

At this point, the signing class isn't lugging the same amount of orthopedic baggage as their predecessors. Bass suffered a torn anterior cruciate knee ligament last season but has recovered. The 5-foot-3 point guard for North Central High in Indianapolis, who is flying low on the ratings radar, scored 26 points and scored the game-tying basket with five seconds left in regulation of a 65-61 victory over Mooresville last Friday.

With Tennessee losing at least four players and possibly as many as six after this season, there will be more openings and less hierarchy on the roster.

Bass could figure prominently in Tennessee's point-guard plans next season. The Lady Vols are losing starter Shannon Bobbitt and heir apparent Cait McMahan is recovering from offseason knee surgery.

Likewise, Stricklen, who already has been ringing up 30-point performances this season for Morrilton (Ark.) High along with her share of rebounds, assists and steals, might inherit a key role on UT's perimeter with Alexis Hornbuckle leaving.

The crowd will be gathering at forward, where Gray, Johnson Brewer and Manning will be deployed.

"It's going to be a dogfight for playing time,'' Gray said.

By her thinking, a good scrap probably is a good thing. Apparently, it hasn't hurt her and Johnson.

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