"CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE"
The 2009-10 University of Tennessee Lady Volunteer basketball team realizes that its success in the coming season depends entirely on how it collectively empowers its "Circle of Influence."
Thirteen players are shoulder-to-shoulder, ready to start the task at hand. Central to their success and at the core of their circle they realize the following: the Tennessee Lady Vol basketball program has the richest tradition of any team in the nation. That's a fact. And the players who choose to pull on the orange and white uniform to represent Tennessee know better than most of the privilege and, sometimes burden, it is to be with the nation's elite program. There are the expectations of adding to the eight national championships or the 27 (combined) Southeastern Conference regular season and tournament titles. Players anticipate their opportunity to excel and join the elite group of 100 percent graduated Lady Vols, or the athletically acclaimed 19 State Farm/Kodak All-America Tennessee players named to 33 different teams, or aspire to add their name among the 12 Olympians or the 58 players who have been crowned as Lady Vol NCAA Basketball Champions.
"Our circle of influence this season will impact a team that appears to be invested, unselfish and committed to unity, togetherness and team work. Because of this, I think we will have an exciting year," said UT coach Pat Summitt, entering her 36th season at the helm of the Lady Vols and the NCAA's all-time winningest coach, starting the campaign with a 1,005-193 overall record.
There is a price to pay to maintain the program's lofty status, and each and every player is expected to contribute in her own individual way. It's not easy being everybody's "BIG" game and walking around with a larger than life invisible bulls-eye on the back of your jersey or enduring the comparisons to other Lady Vol teams and the expectations of a trip to the Final Four every year.
"I can see a big difference with this team over last year," said Summitt. "There's a lot I like about this team. We are much more mature, serious and focused. I think we have learned valuable lessons, and we have invested at a different level as far as our training."
Perhaps better than any other team in the history of Lady Vol basketball, the 2009-10 squad fully understands the expectations of the program. Last year's roller coaster 22-11 season may be in the rear view mirror for the 10 returning players and coaching staff, but it will never be out of sight.
"I try to be realistic now," Summitt said of the 2008-09 team. "It was the youngest group we ever had, and while I think all of our players wanted to come in and hold the tradition high, they were not ready and there was really no way to fast-forward it. As much as we wanted them to commit to our offensive and defensive schemes, be committed to each other and to board play and all that goes into having a great team, they were young and they just weren't ready to handle it.
"They were the youngest team on the biggest stage and at times they were overwhelmed and didn't quite understand what it took to be successful."
Despite the historical negatives - tying the most losses in school history with 11, losing for the first-time ever in an NCAA Tournament First Round game, dropping a program-high five SEC regular season games and turning in the lowest field goal shooting average in UT history at .413 - the 2008-09 team tempered the negatives by helping to deliver Coach Pat Summitt's historical 1000th career NCAA win.
Regardless of the historical highs or lows, in the coming season the returning players understand the positive impact that can be achieved within their circle of influence as they bring three talented rookies into the fold.
"I think this team understands the importance of gaining knowledge and sharing it and getting each other's back on every play like veteran teams do instinctively," Summitt said.
The Lady Vols had one senior last year (6'3" post Alex Fuller, 7.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and enter this season, for the first time ever, with no one in the senior class. Besides losing Fuller to graduation, Tennessee also lost 5'4" junior point guard Cait McMahan (4.4 ppg, 1.3 rpg), who decided to hang-up her career after dealing with chronic knee pain.
"I'm not concerned with not having a senior class. Focusing on what you don't have is disempowering," said Summitt.
"I see leadership across the board in our freshmen, sophomores and juniors this season. Leaders have a way of rising to the top, and several players already have made their voices heard."
Three of those voices belong to the junior class, consisting of shooting guards Angie Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone and post player Vicki Baugh. As rookies, they garnered invaluable experience playing on the 2008 NCAA Championship team. As sophomores, they tasted the bitter disappointment and experienced the humiliation of a first round loss in the NCAA Tournament.
"This team, especially our junior class, wants to do things the right way," emphasized the head coach. "They are invested in our system both offensively and defensively and they are paying attention to detail to get it right."
At 6'0", Bjorklund (12.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.6 apg) can play at both guard or forward and returns as Tennessee's most prolific three-point scoring threat, connecting on 40.8 percent of her shots last season (62 of 152). Overall, she was the team's second-leading scorer as a sophomore and led the team in scoring eight times, including dropping in a career-high 29 points against Old Dominion.
For all of her scoring ability, the team would benefit if she scored more and passed less. "Angie is a key to our perimeter game," Summitt explained. "A lot of times she tries to be a great teammate and distribute the ball. First and foremost, I want her hunting for shots, opening up our inside game and not being the assist leader.
"Because of her ability to knock down threes, she's also playing well off the dribble when she ducks and darts. This season Angie appears to be more confident in helping us to establish a strong offensive attack." read more