Lady Vols will have new look but same old determination
This was the menu: chicken, ribs, jalapeño corn, green beans, macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes. With homemade ice cream and brownies for dessert. Coach Pat Summitt whipped it all up herself.
Well, not all of it. The Tennessee managers also helped.
"Every one of them can cook," Summitt said, chuckling. "So I put them to work."
The occasion was what she calls "family night" with her players this past summer.
"They came over to the house," Summitt said, "and we just made a big circle in the living room/dining room area and everyone brings a photograph of their family. Then I started off and talked about my childhood and how I grew up. We went around the room and shared our stories.
"What it allows you to do is really get to know how they grew up, and who's been instrumental in helping them become who they are. What people had the greatest influence and why."
That seems especially important with this year's team, as there are several new faces and the need to establish a different identity with the departure of five senior starters.The megastar, Candace Parker, is gone. So is the defensive spark plug, Alexis Hornbuckle. And the wise owl, Nicky Anosike. Plus Shannon Bobbitt and Alberta Auguste, who proved that junior-college transfers could indeed be impact players at Tennessee.
Those five led the way to two consecutive NCAA titles, leaving a much younger team for 2008-09 with several players whose names we're not very familiar with yet. Even so, Tennessee's expectations aren't any different.
Last April at the Final Four, a reporter tried to somewhat delicately ask Summitt about the mass departure of starters, almost tiptoeing around it as if he were afraid it was a subject she really wouldn't want to address.
Summitt, though, didn't have any hesitation talking about it. She seemed so confident, in fact, that it was clear she wasn't worried about the transition. And now, going into this season, she seems just as upbeat about the program redefining itself while still accomplishing the same things Tennessee always does.
"This may sound a little weird, but I'm looking forward to it," she said. "It's going to be different. A new challenge for me, and I'm ready to embrace it.
"I don't think that we lack talent. We lack experience. We lack in some situations an understanding of what it takes to be one of the best teams in the country, because so many of these players have not experienced the college game. We've got six true freshmen and a redshirt freshman in Kelley Cain. They have a lot to learn, and in some of their cases, they have to get a lot tougher, mentally."
They also have to develop a comfort level with each other. Figure out who are the true alpha dogs, who are the peacekeepers, who's typically upbeat, who more often needs a word of support.
So that night in Summitt's living room gave the Tennessee program a chance to focus at the same time on what kind of people they all were -- not just who they seemed to be as coaches and athletes.
"It was important to be able to learn about all the new players," said Alex Fuller, the team's lone senior. "But also to get to know things I didn't know about people who'd already been there."
Indeed, different aspects of players' personalities are bound to come out now that last year's seniors are gone. That would be the case with any team losing so many important players at once.
Fuller, who is from Shelbyville, Tenn., came into Knoxville along with Parker, Hornbuckle and Anosike in the fall of 2004, but she sat out that season (as did Parker) because of knee problems. She provides the most experience for the team this season, which also has sophomores Angie Bjorklund, Sydney Smallbone and Vicki Baugh (who appears to be recovering well from a knee injury suffered in the NCAA title game).
Forwards Glory Johnson and Shekinna Stricklen are the rookies who've most impressed Summitt thus far. The others also are expected to be contributors: Briana Bass (she's a 5-foot-2 water bug, like Bobbitt), Amber Gray, Alicia Manning and Alyssia Brewer.
Cain, a 6-foot-6 center, got time to watch and learn last season as she sat out with a knee injury.
Fuller, now in kind of a mother-hen role, sees the big key for this team being how quickly it plays defense the way that's expected (actually demanded) at Tennessee.
"I definitely think we are the underdogs, but that's OK," Fuller said. "There's been talk we're such a young team that some people don't think we're going to be on the same level as last year. But we need to just forget what the people outside of the program think."
It's doubtful that anybody who follows women's basketball really thinks the Orange Crush will be some shadow version of itself. Nobody's wondering if Tennessee is very good, because it always is. It's just a question of whether it's national-championship good.
Another person gone from last season's title team is Nikki Caldwell, a former Tennessee player who left her assistant's job in Knoxville to take over as head coach of UCLA. Replacing her is Daedra Charles-Furlow, a two-time Kodak All-American when she was at Tennessee.
Charles-Furlow joins a coaching group that will have to do more teaching, obviously, with so many new players.
"And probably the most demanding person on our staff right now is Heather Mason, our strength and conditioning coach," Summitt said. "The discipline that she instills through her techniques of training has really given us an edge as a program. But it's going to take us some time.
"And I know how important it will be for me this season to sit down more and have one-on-one meetings, as well as team meetings."
Perhaps the most important one already took place, though. When on a summer night with full stomachs, the immediate future of Tennessee basketball took time to really look around and think not about who wasn't there but who was.
Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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