Rookies should fit right in at Tennessee

Originally Published: November 8, 2004
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

We all know freshmen come along at their own pace, not always exactly as expected or planned. Sometimes they're faster, sometimes slower. Sometimes, health issues get in the way of everything.

Tennessee has a much-hyped class of freshmen, and it's only logical to assume they'll make a short-term and long-term impact.

Shyra Ely
In five Final Four games over the past three years, Shyra Ely has reached double figures just once.
But injuries and subsequent surgeries already have Alex Fuller out for the season and the supposed biggest diamond in the tray of gems, Candace Parker, is out indefinitely. Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood also is sidelined due to injury.

After Tennessee's exhibition opener, coach Pat Summitt said that Parker was ahead of schedule and Wiley-Gatewood would need to be re-evaluated.

Even if the absolute worst proved true and all three missed the season, there are other freshmen, led by Alexis Hornbuckle. And this won't be the only season of their careers.

"First of all, it's exciting for me to take on this challenge -- and it is a challenge," Summitt said. "I really want to teach them and to really help them through not only the basketball part of it -- but we're also focusing on academics and time management. Things that will make a difference throughout the rest of their lives.

"I'm like a kid in a candy store; I'm so excited. I always get excited at this time in the year, but there's something different with who we have here. I look at it as an opportunity to bring all these people together as a family and a team."

Summitt will never run out of energy or inspiration, at least not while she's still alive and kicking. If it gnaws at her that Tennessee has lost its last four NCAA Tournament meetings with UConn, she has dealt with it the only way she knows how: Keep plugging away.

Last season after UConn beat Tennessee for the second consecutive year in the NCAA title game, Huskies coach Geno Auriemma took a philosophical, almost conciliatory tone. He knew his superstar Diana Taurasi was leaving and Tennessee had hit this recruiting jackpot. While he's certainly not conceding anything, he realizes Summitt has as much tenacity as he does.

Further, this has the capacity to be just the right mix at Tennessee. There's veteran experience, led by Shyra Ely, Loree Moore (rehabbed from her knee injury last season), Shanna Zolman and Brittany Jackson. And while I don't think complacency has had even an overnight stay in Knoxville, there were certainly times when the program was less hungry. Come this spring, it will be seven years since Tennessee won it all.

Which isn't a long time by most standards, obviously, but it is for Tennessee.

Summitt has said that Sidney Spencer, Moore and Zolman have all, in particular, caught her eye with how much work they've done over the summer and how prepared they are coming into this season.

These also are kids who seem to have a very strong sense of the "Tennessee way" and desire to continue a legacy. That has to rub off on everyone who plays at Tennessee, but some even more than others.

Zolman seemed to really come of age in the Final Four last season and has expanded her game. Moore is exactly the kind of point guard teams need to win championships. And Spencer is both versatile and tenacious; she's a lot tougher than she looks.

In the post, Ely and Tye'sha Fluker need to show this season that they can be as consistent as they are talented.

(By the way, think there's any chance that by midseason, all the Tennessee players will consider putting apostrophes in the middle of their names like Tye'sha and Sa'de? How about Coach Sum'mitt?)

Again, the Tennessee schedule is loaded even beyond what the SEC guarantees, which is a lot. It's almost unnecessary to even say that, actually. It's like saying Tennessee will have orange on the uniforms.

And, not that Tennessee needs the edge, but it will be one of the hosts in the new eight-site, early-round NCAA Tournament format (total number of NCAA games Tennessee has lost at home: zero) and will most assuredly be in the Mideast, advancing to the regional in Chattanooga, Tenn.

It's not at all fair to the effort that has to be expended to say the Final Four is "guaranteed" for Tennessee, but let's just say it looks pretty good. If it happens, it would be the program's 16th.

Summitt always says it never gets old. Losing there, though, has. Which is why Summitt spent so much time and hard work procuring this crop of freshmen. And no matter at what pace they grow, she's expecting quite a yield.

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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