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Dividing the playing time

Regardless of whether the starting lineup changes, Tennessee will reconsider how it shares the playing minutes for Sunday’s game at Rutgers.

“That’s a great question,” UT coach Holly Warlick said when asked Wednesday about playing time against the Scarlet Knights, Tennessee’s greatest test since facing Texas.

It likely requires a great answer from Warlick and her staff.

To date, every Lady Vol is averaging at least 12.7 minutes per game and nobody more than 27.6. The balance reflects UT’s schedule to date but might not be suited for the schedule to come.

“I don’t know if the time or the minutes will be that balanced,” Warlick said. “I think we’ll see how the game flows and how we’re playing and who’s playing well together. Things like that.”

The most important thing is winning.

“We have to win the ballgame,” Warlick said. “If somebody doesn’t get to play, they don’t get to play. Then we’ll figure it out the next game.”

In other matters:

— Warlick said she anticipates Jannah Tucker being available on Sunday. The redshirt freshman guard is believed to have served her disciplinary time for missing class. The variable is how she feels with respect to her surgically repaired left knee.

— The team is leaving for New York on Thursday and attending the play “Kinky Boots” on Thursday night.




Take time to make time

Tennessee altered its women’s basketball practice schedule this week and devoted more time to shooting.

There’s not enough time in any practice week, though, to do justice to this important skill. Therefore, it behooves the players to make time for more shots.

Lady Vols assistant coach Dean Lockwood estimated that a player would be fortunate to get more than 60 extra shots during the course of most practices.  But an extra half hour in the gym might quadruple that number.

“If you go in the gym and get a teammate with you, a coach with you, say you get two or three of you together with two balls,” Lockwood said, “I’ve done it where you can easily get 250 to 300 shots in about 30 minutes.”

Two such sessions per week could translate into 500-600 extra shots, not to mention added confidence and consistency.

The view from my seat is that the Lady Vols’ confidence in their shooting will be the most important variable in their success this season. Think the view from the bench is becoming similar.

Regarding extra shooting, Lockwood said: “I hope our elder statesmen — our seniors and juniors — will lead in this area. We have to develop the work ethic and also the understanding that that has tremendous value.”


Maddening reply

When asked about Tennessee leading scorer Nia Moore playing just five minutes against Texas, teammate Jordan Reynolds defended the Lady Vols coaches. The sophomore guard probably could’ve chosen her words more carefully, however.

“Whatever our coaches do, there’s a reason behind their madness,” Reynolds said. “So whatever they did, there’s a reason why they didn’t play Moore or something. Whatever their mentality was, we just stuck with them. We’re Tennessee, we’re going to stick together.”

— Chattanooga’s follow-up to its upset of Tennessee was a 57-52 loss at Arkansas State Monday night. The Mocs fell behind by 16 points. Guard Keiana Gilbert, who looked like an All-American in scoring 27 points against the Lady Vols, had 15 against Arkansas State.


Lady Vols leftovers

Some leftovers from Tennessee’s 67-63 loss at Chattanooga Wednesday night:
— Chattanooga freshman Keiana Gilbert’s 27 points were 10 more than her previous high. Her performance recalled LSU’s Danielle Ballard, a guard with a similar scoring resume who torched Tennessee for a career-high 25 last season.

“That’s what we do,” UT coach Holly Warlick said sarcastically after Wednesday’s loss. “We give everyone the opportunity to get a career high and she took advantage of it. She was outstanding.”

Gilbert hit 11 of 19 shots and grabbed five rebounds while playing the full 40 minutes.

Chattanooga coach Jim Foster described Gilbert as “gifted.”

— Tennessee’s 16-point halftime deficit (37-21) was its biggest since trailing Baylor by 25 on Dec. 18 2012.

— Tennessee’s 37.7 percent shooting from the floor was a season low. The guards shot a combined 8 for 26 (30.7 percent).

— After missing three games with a mild concussion, Jasmine Jones scored 16 of her career-high 19 points in the second half. But the junior forward missed UT’s final shot at tying the score, missing everything on a pull-up jumper off the dribble with five seconds left. Warlick indicated there was an option on the play to feed Bashaara Graves.

“The plan was for me to drive but I took a bad shot,” Jones said.


Who’s starting

Tennessee utilized its third different starting lineup of the women’s basketball season Monday night. Wouldn’t be surprised if No. 4 reports for the opening tip Wednesday night at Chattanooga.

Given the glut of early season punishments and injuries, the uncertainty doesn’t rise to the level of concern — not yet anyway.

But the situation bears watching, particularly after the Lady Vols needed more than 10 minutes Monday night to take their first lead against Tennessee State. Wasn’t a problem against the overmatched Tigers, as evidenced by the 97-46 final. But Chattanooga will present more of challenge. The degree of difficulty will rise further at Texas on Sunday.

What to watch going forward:

— Tennessee’s commitment to its pressure defense: Is this a 40-minute strategy or will UT be more selective in its deployment? The consideration will have a bearing on the process.

— Jordan Reynolds: UT coach Holly Warlick values the sophomore guard’s knack for pushing tempo and has started her all four games. Her 5-foot-11 size and athleticism are ideal for pressing.  To date, she has 23 assists and six turnovers. But she’s also shooting 26.3 percent from the floor and averaging just 4.5 points per game.

—  Does Tennessee start two guards or three? How devoted UT is to pressing factors into this determination. So does rebounding and shooting. Both have been streaky so far this season.

— Do personalities come into play?  There’s been no evidence of that to date. Rather than starts, a bigger problem might be spreading the playing minutes throughout a deep roster. However, Warlick considers that to be a good problem.



More about Warlick

Tennessee women’s basketball assistant coach Jolette Law has more in common with her boss, Holly Warlick, than just a resume.

Along with having experience as both an assistant and a head coach, Law also shares similar personality traits, ones which don’t transfer easily when a coach slides over one seat on the team bench.

As an assistant for 12 seasons at Rutgers on C. Vivian Stringer’s staff, Law said she played the role of “the buffer” which was comparable to Warlick’s role as an assistant to Pat Summitt. But as a head coach, Law said there’s little choice but to become “the hammer.”

“She’s the one that made everything feel good, made the kids feel good,” Law said of Warlick. “Now as the head coach, you have to have the last say.”


Unusual but not unprecedented

Tennessee suspended four players on Wednesday for a violation of team rules pertaining to academics.

While such disciplinary action was unusual, it wasn’t unprecedented.

Four Lady Vols were disciplined to start the 2000-01 season. The punishment was staggered across one exhibition game and three regular-season games. Gwen Jackson sat out the exhibition, Michelle Snow missed the season opener and Shalon Pillow missed the first three regular-season games all for violation of team policy.

Someone in arena dining was winking and nodding these three through the check-out line. Apparently some benefited more than others.

Semeka Randall, meanwhile, already was on the books for missing class the previous season. Her punishment was missing a two-game trip to Maui. Ouch.

“Everyone knows team policy,” then-head coach Pat Summitt said. “Everyone knows the rules. If they don’t abide by them, they’ll sit.”

There was an echo in head coach Holly Warlick’s explanation last Wednesday of her disciplinary action.

There’s another likely correlation as well. Like before, the latest punishment reflects a firm hand but not necessarily an eagle eye.

Assistant coach Dean Lockwood compared last week’s discipline to getting caught speeding.

“I’ve probably speeded more times than I’ve been caught,” he said during an interview on the News Sentinel’s Sports Page radio show.

Lockwood described the system in place in the following manner: “It’s one of those things. We’re not saying it’s 100 percent fail-proof but we do check.”

Based on my 26 years of covering this program, that assessment isn’t unprecedented either.




A gamble worth taking

With women’s basketball season at hand, a ticket promotion being offered by Tennessee this season ought to be of great interest to Lady Vols fans.

Fans may purchase a “Big Orange Ticket” for any game for $30. If the Lady Vols win that game, fans receive a ticket to the next home game. Fans will keep getting tickets for subsequent games until a home loss occurs.

When you consider the Lady Vols’ .932 winning percentage at Thompson-Boling Arena, a Big Orange ticket could turn into several tickets.

“In creating the mini-plans for the upcoming season, we wanted to improve the fan experience and reward Vol Nation for their support,” said Jimmy Delaney, UT’s assistant athletic director for sales & marketing.

The Coke Six Pack includes games against Stanford, Texas A&M, LSU, Georgia, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

Lower level seats for any three of four holiday games (Wichita State, Stanford, Oregon State and Missouri) are available for $45.

For games against Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi State and Oregon State, fans may purchase four tickets and four $8 concession vouchers for $60.





More Media Day

A few leftovers from Wednesday’s Media Day for women’s basketball:

— Redshirt freshman guard Jannah Tucker, who’s recovering from offseason knee surgery, said she might experience a little contact in practice as early as next week.

— Head coach Holly Warlick said there was a chance sophomore center Mercedes Russell might have been able to return in January after undergoing offseason surgery on both feet. But Warlick wasn’t in favor of Russell returning for an abbreviated season.

“I don’t want to sell her short on her college career and have her have half a year,” Warlick said.

Russell, who said both of her feet already “feel great”, appreciates her coach’s consideration.

“I think it’s going to be good for me in the long run, just because of my health,” Russell said.

— Despite the loss of leading scorer Meighan Simmons, Tennessee returns 70.7 percent of its scoring from last season. The Lady Vols also return 83.2 percent of their rebounds, 81.7 percent of their assists, 79.5 percent of their steals and 68.9 percent of their blocks. Russell sitting out the season apparently results in the latter percentage. She led the team with 40 blocks last season.

— Tennessee’s least amount of depth is at the post position and junior center Nia Moore has been slowed lately by a sprained left ankle. She said it’s the first ankle injury she’s ever had.


A matter of consistency

The five-questions preview of Tennessee’s women’s basketball season for and Sunday’s editions of the News Sentinel, had a recurring theme.

Consistency cropped more than once as a key variable. Suppose this would be the case for any team or season. But when we last saw the Lady Vols, they had just  stumbled out of the NCAA tournament, looking nothing like the team that had stormed through the SEC tournament two weeks prior.

I submitted my SEC preseason ballot last Thursday in advance of Tuesday’s media day in Charlotte, N.C. My top three picks were South Carolina, Texas A&M and then Tennessee.

The Gamecocks weren’t a difficult choice as champions. All five starters return from last season’s regular season championship team. Plus, the nation’s No. 2 ranked recruiting class has been added featuring 6-foot-4 A’ja Wilson, the top recruit.

Choosing between A&M and Tennessee was a difficult call. The Aggies return a trio of standout guards. One of them, junior Courtney Walker, might turn out to be the best player in the conference. She averaged 21.2 points per game last postseason and led A&M to the Elite Eight. The Aggies also have added 6-5 Khaalia Hillsman, a five-star recruit, to their frontline, thereby addressing their most glaring weakness in two losses to Tennessee last season.

The Lady Vols, meanwhile, have lost leading scorer Meighan Simmons. She played one of the best games of her collegiate career at A&M last season, scoring 26 points and shooting 12 for 19 from the floor. Foot surgeries, meanwhile, have sidelined 6-5 Mercedes Russell for the season.

All three teams will be among the top six of the Top 25 preseason ballot I’ll submit to the Associated Press later this month. Their tug of war over the top spot in the league could continue over bigger prizes.

Tennessee ought to benefit from having swept its top conference rivals last season. In general, the Lady Vols still have more experience. This season, that ought to translate into more consistency for this team – no question.