When Tennessee’s coaches met with their players last week, they urged the Lady Vols to separate the “off” from “season” when considering the next four-plus months.
Assistant coach Dean Lockwood referred to the time between now and the start of preseason women’s basketball workouts next August as a season in itself. The period has been assigned a different sort of urgency after Tennessee stumbled in the Oklahoma City regional final, losing to Louisville 86-78.
The way in which Tennessee lost — falling behind by 20 points before responding — will linger with coach Holly Warlick.
“I think there was a little bit of jitters,” she said. “We have to get past that. That’s up to us. We thought we prepared them the right way. Apparently we didn’t.”
The players’ mandate involves addressing their individual skills and improving their overall play.
“Where we are right now is not quite good enough; we have to be better,” Lockwood said. “That onus falls on every player.”
In an interview on the News Sentinel’s “Sports Page” radio show last Friday, Lockwood said, “In programs like ours, it’s generally understood, you’re always trying out. You’re always competing. There are no guarantees. There are no assurances.”
Lockwood went on to say, “It’s not cutthroat. At the end of the day, we need all of our players.”
The roll call includes incoming freshmen Mercedes Russell, Jordan Reynolds and Jannah Tucker. They figure to ratchet the competition for roles and playing time.
In Russell’s case, the impact could be dramatic. Although she’s been listed at 6-foot-5, Lockwood said that Russell actually stands at least 6-6. She was the most valuable player of the McDonald’s girls All-American game last Wednesday, scoring 16 points and grabbing 12 rebounds. During her high school career in Springfield, Ore., Russell scored 2,273 points, grabbed 1,642 rebounds and blocked 562 shots.
Warlick said Russell “makes us better in all aspects.”
Lockwood expects UT to experiment with a front line of Russell, 6-3 Isabelle Harrison and 6-2 Bashaara Graves.
“At one point or another, we’re going to look at that group playing together, whether they start or don’t start,” Lockwood said.
Reynolds, a 5-foot-11 guard from Portland, scored 10 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in the McDonald’s game. Lockwood described Reynolds as primarily a point guard but with combo-guard skills. She will join Andraya Carter — who underwent season-ending shoulder surgery last December — in the competition at point guard, along with returning starter Ariel Massengale.
“I think it’s going to be very interesting and that’s a very, very good thing,” Lockwood said. “There’s going to be a high level of competition for that position. I think it’s going to be very good for our program.”
Tucker’s profile has been diminished some by a torn anterior cruciate knee ligament suffered last summer. The injury robbed the 6-foot wing player from Randallstown, Md., of her senior season. Still, Lockwood foresees Tucker as someone who will play with “physical strength and toughness” and has the capability to shoot 3-pointers and drive the basket.
All three incoming freshmen, along with the returning players, likely will attend at least one session of summer school. Warlick said that new NCAA guidelines allow a coach to work with up to four players at a time for two hours per week when they are enrolled in summer school.
“I think it’s important for us to have that opportunity,” Warlick said. “It helps us set a tone for what a workout looks like.”
In that sense, they can make the offseason seem more like a season in itself.