Fleser: Sound of silence worries Lady Vols

Dan Fleser

My eyes see a better Tennessee women's basketball team this fall: deeper, bigger, more athletic and with more backcourt options.

My ears, on the other hand, aren't convinced. They're detecting communication lapses, silent stretches at practice and coaches regularly urging players to talk, as was the case during Saturday's scrimmage against the male practice players.

This battle of the senses isn't confined to my little world. The Lady Vols are well aware of the disparity, too. They can see and hear for themselves.

"We pretty much know when the gym's getting kind of quiet; we need to talk more,'' junior forward Alicia Manning said. "And then we have to adjust. It shouldn't really get to that point, but it does."

Manning is among the nine Lady Vols who are either juniors or seniors. Two of the juniors - Kelley Cain and Vicki Baugh - have an added redshirt season's worth of experience. Collectively this group has reached a crossroad in its competitive maturation. They readily acknowledge the importance of communication. Yet their actions still indicate a lack of appreciation for its real worth.

Tennessee assistant coach Dean Lockwood defined the undertaking as sharing information, relaying adjustments from the bench and challenging each other when necessary. Much of this occurs during the course of a game, which puts more responsibility on the players. He characterized their chatter as an acquired skill that comes with greater awareness and maturity.

"It's something that is often overlooked by teams that haven't quite done what they want to do yet,'' he said. "So they don't always see the value in it."

The Lady Vols won 32 games last season along with SEC regular-season and tournament championships. Their sense of accomplishment, though, was diminished by an NCAA tournament Sweet 16 flameout against Baylor. The Lady Vols clearly had something more in mind.

Since then, they've concluded that more volume would help their cause.

"It's gotten better but we still have a lot of room for improvement,'' Manning said of the team's communication skills. "I think it's going to be a pretty important factor."

The ongoing lapses reflect some prevailing circumstances. For instance, the point guard position usually is one of the most consistent sources of useful sound bites. But starter Shekinna Stricklen is quiet by nature. Fellow junior Briana Bass has improved significantly in this regard but hasn't claimed a backup spot. And freshman Lauren Avant is learning on the job.

Health issues also have clouded the picture. Sophomore Taber Spani knows from experience after being limited last season with a case of turf toe on her left foot.

"At times, I'd practice a whole practice on the outside of my foot,'' she said. "By SEC play, it really got bad."

Hard to be heard over such pain.

"Obviously everybody is a part of the team, whether they're on the court or not,'' Spani said. "(But) it's so much easier, so much more natural when you're on the court to have a voice."

Baugh and Cain have multiple knee surgeries on their medical charts. Baugh has missed most of the past two seasons.

Despite budgeting their practice minutes with the long haul in mind, both players have been on the court consistently during the preseason. At this point, UT coach Pat Summitt said that she's inclined to start both players. A consistent presence might coax them into having the floor more often.

"Me and Angie, (Bjorklund) we say things all the time, whatever comes to our head basically,'' Manning said. "Whatever (Baugh and Cain) say, it needs to be said. If they're speaking up we, for sure, need to get it together."

As the Lady Vols troubleshoot their lines of communication, the most delicate part of the process involves any rerouting through their personalities. Someone might not be talkative. Someone else could be worried about hurting someone's feelings. After four days off, last Monday's practice sputtered for traction at the outset and cried out for anyone to gather the group and say: Let's go.

They have to find a way to handle these situations. Manning summed it up in a simple mandate: "We should figure it out."

Without saying much, she said an earful.

"The walk has to match the talk,'' Lockwood said. "Because we're saying all the right things and I really believe they do want it but now our actions have to reflect it.

"If you want to be good and you know this helps you, the thing is they have to embrace it. It's time-tested."

Dan Fleser can be reached at fleserd@knoxnews.com.

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Comments » 12

PINK_CHAMPAGNE writes:

They are missing that Killer instinct! Some of them! If they find that competitive nature in them, and lose the passive and shy nature, they will be tough. Shekinna gets fired up at times! Manning is tough and so is Vicki! I look for Vicki to lead this team, keep them focused on the court. A vocal leader on the court is needed to pump them up.

Post players, hold your guards accountable for not getting the ball inside. Guards hold your post accountable for not working hard enough for position. Hold your forwards accountable for not taking shots. Speak up!

Timed_vol (Inactive) writes:

Sometimes...

well, often you have a 'beat' player who by default is the leader. This team really does not. The question then is 'do they have mutual respect'?? I think they do, but I'm not there.

It may just come down to the big girls pushing the team a little bit. Why them?? Basically from where they play, especially on D.

It's very early, I think they'll be fine.

I still worry about the PG....

richvol writes:

These girls need to set a fire under themselves. With all that talent and being too laid back to speak up they could very easily underachieve...I hope not.

Timed_vol (Inactive) writes:

What we gotta keep in mind...
there are 2 GREAT players in the game: Moore, Griner. Then, there are several 'near-great' players like Ogwumike and the Notre Dame girl.

After that...well, we are in the 'after-that' category. We now have experience and depth. No unstoppables (Stricklen could be, but will she?).

In my view, this is mostly positive; we wont' rely on just one player, though I bet we ride Kelley pretty hard. It will also mean teamwork and roles will be key.

I think they will be just fine. It always takes a while in a new season to work out the roles, to get in the flow. We have 3 new players to work in: Simmons, Avant and Baugh. Yep, Baugh. She has played maybe 2, 3 games in 2 years?? Playing and practicing are way different.

YankeeVol writes:

I've always been a fan of the "strong, silent type". Granted, some on-court talking is essential, but if you are quietly determined and you don't let up, those are good qualities, too.

Hounddog writes:

Maybe they are just focused. Hounddog

orangecountyvols writes:

Just a little something to add, FWIW..........I know what Fleser is saying. To have this subject about talking is all about communicating on the court with each other.

On the other hand, some teams like to just 'talk' whether that be to the press, on television, or whatever. If we can back up the talk, we'll be fine.

tonyvick#213307 writes:

...then Pat will say what need to be said, "We Ain't Leaving Here Without A National Championship!"

VolunteerLifer writes:

Sounds like an abscense of leadership. Someone needs to step up.

SoddyVol writes:

I would like to see any one of these good players who knows she is good, be determined to prove it and not afraid to let everyone hear her disappointment when others aren't trying hard enough regardless of how many minutes she gets.

Timed_vol (Inactive) writes:

in response to YankeeVol:

I've always been a fan of the "strong, silent type". Granted, some on-court talking is essential, but if you are quietly determined and you don't let up, those are good qualities, too.

yv,
what they are after is the communication so that they are all 'engaged' like moving gears. The little things, like encouragement, but mostly calling screens, picks, doubles, all that.

How many times did we see Shannon Bobbitt get creamed because no one warned her of a vicious pick coming up??

I know what you are saying: it can be flat annoying with some teams 'chatter'. Nice to have that balance, is my point.

PINK_CHAMPAGNE writes:

in response to Timed_vol:

What we gotta keep in mind...
there are 2 GREAT players in the game: Moore, Griner. Then, there are several 'near-great' players like Ogwumike and the Notre Dame girl.

After that...well, we are in the 'after-that' category. We now have experience and depth. No unstoppables (Stricklen could be, but will she?).

In my view, this is mostly positive; we wont' rely on just one player, though I bet we ride Kelley pretty hard. It will also mean teamwork and roles will be key.

I think they will be just fine. It always takes a while in a new season to work out the roles, to get in the flow. We have 3 new players to work in: Simmons, Avant and Baugh. Yep, Baugh. She has played maybe 2, 3 games in 2 years?? Playing and practicing are way different.

I for one, hope they ride kelly and Vicki all season long. There is no reason those two should not be able to put up 15 to 20 points per game. Last year Kelly should have had more touches,as well as Brewer. Don't get me wrong, I hope the perimeter players put up good numbers as well, Angie, Shekinna, and ? Last year, I complained because I did not think they put the ball in the post enough. Then I watched closely some games, and realized that at times, the post players were not working hard enough for position, they were just standing, with the exception of Glory. But Glory was always whistled for fouls when she worked for her position. But I appreciated the effort. So it works both ways, the guards need to be looking for them, as well as looking for their own shot,and post players need to work harder for position. With that said, I hope we ride the big girls all the way to the title. It will take an inside out duo to win this title!

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