KNOXVILLE (WVLT) -- Some defending champions give in to complacency and lose their edge.
Not Pat Summitt's Lady Vols.
As the Tennessee women's basketball team aims to defend last year's national title, it does so with a solid base of talent. Four starters and most key reserves are back; add to that the nation's top-ranked recruiting class, and you've got a heck of a team.
But Summitt has been around the game long enough to know that talent is secondary to chemistry. At Thursday's media day, she and her players stressed the importance of team unity, on and off the court.
"We have four of our five starters back, but now we've gotta throw in another person," said senior guard Alexis Hornbuckle. "So now there's that chemistry, so we're just gonna try to get it together and get it right now."
The group of newcomers is one of the program's strongest ever, both in its talent and diversity.
6-foot-6 post Kelley Cain is one of the tallest players in team history. 6-4 Vicki Baugh has drawn praise from Summitt as one of the team's fiercest rebounders. Guard Angie Bjorklund is a sharpshooter in the mold of Shanna Zolman, whose number (No. 5) she will wear. And Guard Sydney Smallbone has excelled in practice at the shooting guard position.
The Lady Vols host the U.S. Senior National Team in a Nov. 4 exhibition. They open the regular season at home against Chattanooga Nov. 11.
QUOTES FROM MEDIA DAY:
General Statements on this season:
“It’s been a great off-season for us. That’s something that we talk to our players about after every season, what’s going to happen in the off-season. Fortunately, we made a commitment as a basketball team to work really hard. I think that was a key to our success a year ago. The work that they did this summer - in terms of their strength and conditioning and their commitment to getting in and working on their skills - the feedback from our veterans was very positive excitement about our four newcomers. I told our Boost-Her-Club the other night that the good news is the new players are better than I thought they were. And they are better than I thought they were. They fit in, thanks to the leadership of our upperclassmen, and they’ve just worked really hard. Kelley Cain, at 6-6, has got great size, great hands, and a great presence on the floor. She’s a very smart player. Vicky Baugh, the upside to her game is tremendous just because of her athleticism and competitive drive. With Dean working with those two every day, I’ve already seen significant improvement. So I think our inside game is going to have more depth, which is going to allow us to shift Candace Parker to the perimeter some, and perhaps Alex Fuller as well. Then we have two freshmen who are coming in on the perimeter. Angie Bjorklund, she’s just got a lot of basketball savvy. I like the fact that she can shoot the three ball and put it on the floor, but her composure on the court has been something that’s really caught our eye, and I think that has settled our team down some in the half court game and given us some confidence from the perimeter. Sydney Smallbone, same thing, I’m really pleased. I’ve been running her at the point, and I don’t think she made a shot in three practices so I moved her to the two spot, and now she’s very comfortable. That may be the best spot for her as well.”
On the schedule:
“I’m excited that we’re going to play the U.S. National Team, because this team is very focused now on getting ready for our first exhibition game because of who we’re playing. I know that will be a big challenge for us. But I think just having that, although it’s an exhibition game, to them it’s a real game. So, that right there has definitely been a point of emphasis and just getting ready to play against some players that have tremendous experience and will really test us very early.”
On coming off the national championship:
“You always worry about what happens after you win a national championship, where you go from there. Certainly for this team, because it’s the first for any one of the players on this team and also our freshman class, they haven’t been there. I think this team has demonstrated through their practice and their off-season that they like being on the big stage, and they are very motivated. But starting right out with our first official practice, this is one of the hardest things to do in sports, and that is to repeat the performance of the national championship. It’s not going to be easy. You have a big target on you, and we understand that. We have to not look ahead. It is about daily improvement in practice.
I’m more concerned right now about us, as team, collectively committing each and every day to improve on our weaknesses and to play together as a basketball team. Two years ago we didn’t particularly like each other, we didn’t play well together, and we didn’t get to the Final Four. Last year we had great chemistry. What I see right now appears to be something that’s going to be a special chemistry.”
On blending in new players:
“There’s always a challenge of trying to blend in the new players with the veterans, especially if you don’t have good leadership. I have to say Alexis Hornbuckle has done a phenomenal job of taking those players aside and talking to them, just really going over the plays with them. To me, that speaks volumes. She wants to win. You talk about competitive. Alexis is one of the most competitive players that I’ve coached. The fact that she’s willing to give to other people and help make this process one that’s not a difficult transition - but something that they can grasp - I’m really pleased with that. She’s by far, right now, been the strongest leader on our team.”
“Last year we were the worst rebounding team in the history of the program. That has a lot to do with us, the post players, not working to rebound the ball. If I don’t get 16-a-game but get somewhere around there or just improve from last year, then I think that we won’t be among the worst anymore. Just help us get out of that rebounding slump.”
On her personal expectations:
“This time last year I was really just trying to find myself, what my role was. My role has changed every year that I’ve been here. I guess towards the end of last season I did learn my role, which is rebounding. So this year, I’m trying to add offense to it so that I can have the complete game.”
On the off-season:
“The off-season went well. We spent a lot of time in the weight room and in the gym taking extra shots and trying to improve our outside shooting. A lot of us played with various national teams this summer and we will bring that experience to the court for Tennessee this season.”
On the freshmen:
“They work very hard. They want to learn, get better and help the team. You can’t ask for much more from the freshmen right now. They are willing to accept any role thrown at them right now.”
On being a leader:
“I accept the challenge of being a leader. It is a proud moment when the coach looks to you to help the young players as well as do what you are supposed to do on the court. I don’t have a problem speaking up, it comes to me naturally.”
On improving her game:
“Getting in the gym and taking extra shots has been a big part of the off season. In practice I have been trying to not take the ball to the paint as much because I know I can get to the basket. Instead I focus on how consistent can I be with my jump shots.”
On winning back-to-back titles:
“It gets tougher every year. Women’s basketball is getting bigger and better every year. Most women are practicing against guys and the younger players are pushing for spots. As individuals we must grow mentally and physically as well as gain a basketball IQ every game and every year.”
On shooting three-pointers this season:
“I think one thing I did learn this summer was it doesn’t matter how you score, it doesn’t matter the way you score, it’s doing what the team needs you to do, whether it’s shoot threes, whether it’s post up. I don’t really want to say I’m going to shoot more threes. I think I’m a better shooter, a much better shooter, than I was last year and more able to shoot threes, but that’s not important to me.”
On her comfort level with her position:
“I think this team has a unique opportunity to take advantage of mismatches. With our forwards, being able to have a position that’s taller, whether it be myself or Angie will be an advantage. Angie’s a pretty big three-player. We expect to have that and to take advantage of mismatches, whether it’s inside or outside. If it’s a bigger player, obviously taking them on the outside is better, if it’s a smaller player, post them up. I think we have a unique opportunity this year.”
On coming off a national championship:
“I think we’ve done a great job of not focusing on that. Obviously, we won a national championship. Not many people can say they have done that. We’ve talked and we want to repeat, that’s everybody’s goal at the beginning of the season, to be national champions at the end. I think we’re just working hard every day. There have been no signs of slacking off or not working hard over the summer. We’ve had a tremendous work ethic, and the first week of practice has gone really well.”
On the off-season:
“So far the off-season has been coming along very well. The freshmen are coming along nicely and the team is playing well together.”
On improving her play around the basket as well as from beyond the arc:
“I think I have improved my game because I have been practicing everyday in the off-season and during the summer. I think my three-point shooting has improved because of extra reps and improved confidence.”
On Candace Parker this off-season:
“We already know she is a great player and she has improved her leadership abilities during the past few months.”
On the new freshman fitting in:
“They are doing very well. They all bring different things to the team which fit nicely into the team chemistry.”
On playing Team USA:
“Playing against WNBA players should be interesting, because they are all aggressive and have the will to win. Playing in this game will give us all an opportunity to improve.”
On having a target on the team’s back:
“Every team is going to be coming for us, so we must play every game like it’s our last. It will just give us more of an opportunity to get better. We have to take each game one at a time and bring a high level of intensity.”
On her role as a junior this season:
“I like to think of myself as one of the seniors, because I have more of a role as a leader this year.”
On the freshmen:
“They bring a lot of height to our team. We are a much bigger team this year than we were last year. We added a couple of six-footers which should help with rebounding and put-backs.”
On how her recovery from knee surgery is going:
“It’s a slow process that takes time, but it’s worth it. The trainers are doing a great job. It gets frustrating but some people are in worse situations than I am. I’m just enjoying watching my teammates practice and have been hitting the weight room really hard.”
On the team chemistry:
“I think we are doing really well. Our four new freshmen have all picked up our plays quickly with the help of our veterans and the team is playing together nicely.”
On not getting complacent after a national championship:
“Not only are we trying to win another one, but we must protect the championship because we don’t want it to leave the state of Tennessee. Winning it this year would be a bigger accomplishment than last year.”
On her role this year:
“Being a positive vocal leader for all the players. Explain things and be there for the younger players when the coaches get onto them.”
On playing for coach Summitt:
“The first thing is that you have to rebound for her. She wants us to improve everyday, and I feel that I have already improved my game in my short time here.”
On her strengths outside of basketball:
“I’m good at video games, especially the racing ones.”
On upcoming season:
“I’m excited to get started. It seems like all the other sports are already in-season, but we are getting close.”
On the beginning of her career at UT:
“So far it’s been really exciting, being able to play with these girls. It’s my chance to play with the seniors, and I’m really excited.”
On the game she’s looking forward to the most this season:
“First one that came to my mind was Gonzaga, because I get to play against my sister. My whole family is coming to town, so I’ll be able to see everyone. That’s really exciting.”
On the transition to college:
“Right from the start, coming in as a freshman you don’t really know what to expect, but all of the veterans took us in and took care of us. They help us out a ton. So that has been a huge help.”
On the rebounding potential of the team:
“I think we have the potential to be one of the best rebounding teams in the nation this year. We just have to work hard, get positioned to get the rebound, and keep working, don’t stop.”
On joining a team that has already won a championship:
“It’s a lot to live up to, of course, and we want to win a championship too. It’s motivation to prove that we can help win one too. I think I’m adjusting pretty well, it’s not intimidating at all; it’s more of a motivation factor.”
On the game she’s looking forward to the most this season:
“I’m looking forward to all of them. It’s my first college season, and I’m just really excited about all of them.”
On this season:
“Coming in off of their national championship last year, being a freshman, I hope to learn as much as I can from the coaches as well as the players. To come in and learn and play the game to the best of my ability. Hopefully everything will go from there.”
On being a freshman:
“It’s been awesome. We came in this summer as well as in the preseason and the veterans really showed us what it takes. They showed us the ropes through preseason conditioning and preseason workouts. It’s been a good opportunity to learn from them.”
On the game she’s most looking forward to this season:
“Definitely the Notre Dame game! I grew up fifteen minutes from campus and one of my high school teammates is the point guard there.”
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