Freshman sees bright side of change
Women's basketball has given new meaning to the word "huge" for Vicki Baugh.
No dictionary entry does justice to what the Tennessee freshman has experienced so far this collegiate season.
"I always thought I was huge,'' the 6-foot-4 forward/center said, "until I got here."
Until she came up against the likes of Oklahoma's Courtney Paris, Stanford's Jayne Appel or even teammate Nicky Anosike - to name a few long shadows.
"There's huge as in round," Baugh said, "or huge as in strong like Nick."
And huge as in the challenge faced by a freshman learning how to play on the low block against these giants with virtually no prior experience.
It's almost like playing a new game for Baugh, whose on-the-job training continues when No. 2 Tennessee (15-1, 3-0 SEC) faces instate rival Vanderbilt (13-5, 2-1) at 3 today at Thompson-Boling Arena (TV: FSN).
While Baugh played some down low on defense during her high school career in Sacramento, Calif., she was an all-court player on offense, where she scored 1,870 points and built the bulk of her prep All-American profile.
She came to Tennessee with no post moves, no footwork and no real sense for playing with her back to the basket.
"It gets frustrating but I always look at the positive side of things,'' Baugh said. "I know it's making me better and I'm learning something new that can only add to my game. I haven't lost what I had in high school."
To her benefit, Baugh has been able to learn without shouldering a heavy load.
She's averaging 4.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 13.2 minutes per game. Even with teammate Alex Fuller resting her achy knees - she will play today - and Tennessee down to eight players for Thursday's game at Kentucky, Baugh played her usual role. She came off the bench to score seven points and grab five rebounds in 16 minutes.
Baugh looked more comfortable on the court, probably because she scored both of her baskets while squarely facing the hoop.
Baugh isn't scrutinized like classmate Angie Bjorklund, who starts and is expected to be anything but a freshman.
Nor does Baugh have the same responsibilities as some of the opposing freshmen.
Two rookies - Jence Rhoads and Hannah Tuomi - start for Vanderbilt. The 5-10 Rhoads will be the fourth consecutive freshman to start at point guard against Tennessee.
She previews as the best. In three SEC games, Rhoads is second in the league in assists per game at 6.33.
She's fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio with 19 assists and nine turnovers.
By comparison, Baugh's role is secondary in nature. However, UT coach Pat Summitt is beginning to push for an upgrade.
"We have to have Vicki Baugh at a different level come postseason to make a run at a championship,'' she said. "I feel strongly about what she can bring to our team. If you look at her athleticism, speed and quickness and her ability to defend and board, there is such a great upside to her game.
"What I'm looking for now is some consistency on the offensive end in terms of being able to make good decisions and not rush."
Summitt revisited her timetable after Thursday's game, adding some urgency in saying, "We've got to get her ready. I keep saying postseason."
Summitt sounded like she was thumbing through a calendar, counting the days until March. Baugh's points and her relative composure against Kentucky were a source of assurance.
On the other hand, her traveling violation on a post-up move, a call everyone in the gym made along with official Dennis Demayo, was not.
"Her best basketball is so much out in front of her,'' said Lady Vols assistant coach Dean Lockwood, who works with Baugh. "It's hard to project how quickly a developmental process is going to take place."
Anosike has her own timetable for Baugh and it's pointing toward the offseason rather than the postseason.
"It's hard to improve throughout the season, really the offseason is where you really need to do most of your improvement," Anosike said. "I think she has to continue to stay positive this season. I think that's the biggest thing. And then the next biggest thing is to concentrate on the offseason."
Anosike knows what she's talking about.
As a freshman, the 6-4 center was in Baugh's basketball shoes, assuming the same role after playing in the open floor at St. Peter's for Girls School on Staten Island, N.Y.
"In my opinion, it's the hardest transition from high school to college that a player can make,'' Anosike said. "From someone who faces the basket to playing with your back to the basket. It's going to be a hard journey to make to being a true post player for her, just like it was for me.''
Anosike still wrestles with some of the shot attempts, along with the subtleties of space and timing. It's definitely a different workplace down low.
"When you're going toward the basket, speed is like the biggest advantage that you use,'' she said. "When your back is to the basket, you kind of have to slow down and I guess use smarts to see what's open.
"You have such a small space to work with from the block to the basket. When you're facing the basket and going toward the basket you basically have the whole (foul) lane."
Anosike thinks Baugh's athleticism will provide more leeway in her development. Lockwood said Baugh projects not as a pure post player but rather as a versatile, mobile power forward.
Even now the 47.9 percent field goal shooter is being encouraged to attempt face-up shots like she took against Kentucky and to dribble up the floor after pulling down rebounds.
"Her bread is going to be buttered as a midrange player,'' Lockwood said.
Still, she needs post skills to augment her fundamentals. Hence, the learning experience that felt like a starting-over process to Anosike.
"You're used to being such a great player, used to being the best player on the floor,'' she said. "Then you get here and it's like you really don't know anything. That can get frustrating. It's easy to get down on yourself."
Baugh characterizing her situation in terms of good fortune more than anything, talking about getting a free education to play basketball at a top program. If someone yells at her, she takes it as constructive, not personal.
"I understand it's all for help,'' Baugh said. "If they didn't care, they wouldn't say nothing."
Anosike definitely cares and is trying to be the teammate she longed for as a freshman. She watches Baugh for any signs of frustration and responds in golden-rule fashion.
"Every time I see it I make sure I go up to her,'' Anosike said. "That's something I didn't have when I was a freshman. I didn't have anyone come up to me and say, 'Nicky, you're only a freshman, you have time.' I didn't have anyone who gave me any positive feedback when I felt down. And I felt down a lot. I remember that my freshman and sophomore years. I just make sure while I'm here that doesn't happen to her."
That kind of support is, in a word, huge.