Angie Bjorklund's teammates will know what she's thinking this season.
Tennessee's junior guard intends to have her say on women's basketball matters. In the process, will her teammates also know what she's been eating?
Sounds like too much infor-mation. Not so, said Nicky Anosike. As a freshman, the former Lady Vol used to hear from senior teammate Shyra Ely in a chipotle-breathing manner and remembers such moments as having the right amount of inspiration.
"I don't know why to this day, but she always used to yell at me,'' Anosike said of Ely. "She would get right in my face and yell at me. I knew what she had for pregame (meal), that's how close she was.
"I remember the Rutgers game. We had to beat Rutgers to get to the Final Four in Indianapolis and she just laid into me so hard. There are no hard feelings, but it really put a fire underneath me, and I just really wanted to go out there and give whatever I had."
These encounters comes under the general heading of leadership. The undertaking can be as difficult as it is necessary, particularly at Tennessee where the stakes are high.
Prevailing circumstances increase the challenge. The communication lines of explanation and encouragement run from veterans to younger player but, for the first time in program history, there are no seniors on the UT roster. Furthermore, the junior class' stature has been diminished by multiple knee surgeries for Vicki Baugh and Kelley Cain and a minor playing role for Sydney Smallbone.
Anosike regrets not channeling her inner Ely in the one season she played with the group to better prepare them.
"I know the coaches told me a lot of times not to be so harsh on them,'' Anosike said. "... A lot of times when I would watch their games last year, I kind of felt like it was partly my fault for not preparing them for last year because I wasn't tough on them at all."
At present, Bjorklund stands squarely before the bully pulpit. She shed her usual sunny disposition last March after a 22-11 season ended with a shocking first-round NCAA tournament loss to Ball State and warned her teammates, "If no one is motivated right now, the returning players, then they need to leave."
Although Bjorklund favors more candor, she's not stocking up on breath mints.
"I don't have sudden outbursts,'' Bjorklund said. "I always try to encourage my team as much as possible and have that positive reinforcement.
"But when I do say something, they know I mean it because I don't yell at them, so to speak, in that negative sense. So when I do, I think they really key in and listen to me and respect that."
Bjorklund and the Lady Vols still are adapting leadership responsibilities to their personalities. Their methods probably cannot be adequately forged until they are put into the heat of competition.
No. 8 Tennessee's first exhibition game is Thursday night against Carson-Newman College. The opener against No. 7 Baylor is Nov. 15 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
While tone and content are open to interpretation, last season should reinforce a fundamental truth about participation: Bjorklund better not be the only Lady Vol at the pulpit.
Leadership last season largely rested on the shoulders of Alex Fuller, the lone senior. She all but buckled under the weight of her role. UT assistant coach Dean Lockwood, the man of a thousand metaphors, described Fuller as a basketball Batman, who needed a Robin.
"To me personally, Alex, at times, seemed any combination of frustrated, exasperated, angry, somewhat isolated, all of those things she went through,'' he said.
He has vivid memories of Fuller after a listless 66-56 loss at Kentucky on Feb. 19, an outcome that could've been avoided with more toughness and leadership.
"It was like you told her that she was in a glass cage for the rest of her life,'' Lockwood said. "There was a key out there, but no one knew where it was.
"You don't know who to be mad at but you're mad. There were times when it really taxed Alex far beyond even what we knew."
Bjorklund is willing to share the floor with all of her junior classmates. In fact, she's encouraging them to join her.
By virtue of playing point guard, sophomores Shekinna Stricklen and Briana Bass might aspire to speaking roles, too.
Whoever exercises the right to free speech better back up their words with an honest effort.
"I think that part is hard for anyone, even if it does come to you naturally, because how do you tell someone you need to box out or you need to do this when you're not perfect yourself,'' Anosike said. "I think that's really difficult, but if people respect you and you're not trying to go 50 percent, you're going 100 percent every day, I think that makes it a lot easier."
Anosike, the locker room lawyer her last two seasons at UT, has been around this team the past few weeks while recovering from knee surgery. She occasionally took part in practice. She said that Bjorklund and Baugh are her leadership nominees. In Anosike's eyes, they have made the effort, and they have the strongest ties to Tennessee's last national championship season of 2007-08. As freshmen, they both played in the title game against Stanford. Baugh suffered a torn left anterior cruciate knee ligament during the second half. She had the same injury last February.
"I definitely have so much respect for her with two major surgeries in one year," Anosike said of Baugh. "How many people can really bounce back from that? I think the fact that she's going to be on the floor after two major surgeries like that is enough to earn anyone's respect."
Lockwood said that Baugh has been having a say during film sessions. Her on-court presence likely will correspond with her recovery. She pulled herself early on Saturday, but she's already logged enough practice minutes to have her moments.
During last Sunday's practice, she literally pushed freshman Faith Dupree out to her proper defensive position. Whether in or out of the action, she was demonstrative during a scrimmage session. Later, she was in the ear of sophomore forward Alyssia Brewer.
Bjorklund, meanwhile, has been offering glimpses of a more demanding nature.
"Once and awhile now, I've heard a little more edge in her voice,'' Lockwood said. "She's talking to somebody about something. Maybe a team she's playing on (in practice) they've gotten beat or something and Angie's voice will take on an edginess that I haven't heard.
"I don't think she's settled on it yet (but) I think she wants to be a voice more so than she's been."
If Bjorklund raises her voice, she will be speaking in a manner Anosike thinks no coach can match, not even UT's Pat Summitt. Anosike describes being yelled at by a teammate as "a whole other language" with the words hitting "a different part of you."
"Pat is not out there playing with you,'' Anosike said. "She is on the sideline coaching you. And when someone is out there at battle with you and barking at you it kind of puts you in a different place because someone you've gone to war with is someone that you don't want to let down because they're out there fighting with you."
Lockwood appreciates the separate language players speak among themselves. He considers the difference to be vital to a team's progression. In a past scouting report, he referred to a quote from former NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer addressing this evolution.
"On any good team that I've been on,'' said Lockwood, referring to Schottenheimer's experiences, "there comes a point where the players take the wheel. I think he described it 'the players steer the ship.' There you go."
From Lockwood's perspective, coaches provide information, implement strategy and set standards. Eventually the team huddle breaks, however, and a referee motions the players to the court. At that point, the cause is best served by team leaders gathering together the rest of the players and essentially saying "we'll take it from here."
"There comes a point on good teams where that happens,'' he said. "And that's what we've got to wait and see with this bunch yet."
Dan Fleser covers the Lady Vols. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Practicing good leadership might seem like a tall order but attention to detail can help shrink the responsibility down to size. From my vantage point, here's some observations that might help with the process.
Talk, talk, talk: One of the basic elements of leadership is communication. Since a player wouldn't think twice about practicing her shooting, why should talking be any different. Constant chatter should be second nature on the court as a way for players to connect and assist each other.
Do your homework: Psychological profile material on every player is readily available. The info is like a scouting report for a would-be leader wanting to reach a teammate. Use it.
Come together: When a teammate is getting chewed out in practice, rally around her. When going back to Pratt Pavilion for extra work, bring a teammate along. Players have told me this for two decades: When it matters most, all you have is each other.
Storytelling: Veteran players and coaches alike ought to share stories about past leaders. This could happen anywhere - at dinner, on a trip, etc. Whether these tales are funny or thoughtful, they're all instructive.
Get uncomfortable: Freshman Kamiko Williams and sophomore Alyssia Brewer need extra attention. A creative touch is advised, since both have been getting an earful from UT coach Pat Summitt. Their skills alone make these players a worthwhile project. Any lady volunteers?
- Dan Fleser