Programs with the reputation and resume like you find within Tennessee women’s basketball seem to have solutions for every concern – it’s not like the Lady Vols always avoid hiccups, but the cure always seems to be within reach.
Down to just a handful of upperclassmen heading into 2017-18, Tennessee didn’t quite have that air of inevitable dominance, a feeling that got a little more relevant after the team bowed out of last season’s NCAA Tournament in the second round. How would head coach Holly Warlick guide her team into that other lane, the one that has led to eight NCAA titles?
Turns out a cluster of fresh-faced freshmen might have the right touch, and fans will get a good look at the upcoming Cancun Challenge, as Tennessee takes on Marquette, Oklahoma State and South Dakota in back-to-back-to-back showdowns.
Rennia Davis, Anastasia Hayes, Evina Westbrook and Kasiyahna Kushkituah make up one of the nation’s most imposing batch of freshmen, players who will see plenty of court time and not be particularly troubled by the fact that in Knoxville, excellence doesn’t have the luxury to slowly brew. Davis and Westbrook have started in all three UT games (all wins), and it may not stop there.
“These freshmen are being counted on a lot early, and they are in the mix early. They are getting a lot of playing time and experience; they are outstanding players, and we needed them,” said Warlick, who is in her sixth year as head coach, having taken over for Pat Summit. “We tossed them in the fire quick, and they are responding. We’ve taken some baby steps, and that’s OK. They get the system and the process; their ability to listen and learn is half the battle, and they are tuned into what we want.”
Through all her years as an assistant and associate head coach for UT, Warlick clearly learned how to attract recruits and get them to be inspired by, and not daunted by, the task of suiting up for the Lady Vols. In fact, next year’s incoming class of freshmen is also ranked in the top three in most assessments, so Warlick is proving to have a sharp eye for talent as well as having the endurance to fight for it.
“Recruiting is tied to the success of your program. Great players make your team go, and coaches do the rest. You have to have talent to be successful,” she said. “It’s a love-hate relationship; you love meeting new people and kids, but you hate the travel. It’s never-ending, and you might like a break from it, but it’s a must. The staff works well together, but you have to do it.
“We’ve been turned down on kids I thought we’d get, and we’ve gotten others … it’s an emotional roller coaster. You have to learn to go to the next kid; you have to have talent going in the right direction for you. A lot of the process of coaching is getting leadership (in the roster), and the player-coach relationship is key.”
The freshmen have several places to turn for help and wisdom, beginning with senior center Mercedes Russell, who came to Tennessee as the nation’s No. 1 ranked recruit. She piled up 16 points and 10 rebounds per game last year, rounding into an all-court force after missing her entire sophomore year with foot problems.
“I think things with the freshmen have been pretty smooth, to be honest. They are adjusting well, and their speed in games looks pretty good so far,” Russell said. “I know it’s tough; it’s an adjustment going from high school to college, not just on the court but off of it. Academics and basketball … there’s a lot more practicing, meetings and film, and it takes a lot of time.”
Outside of the trip to Mexico and a couple games in Decemeber in California, the Lady Vols don’t have road trips to confront; the fact that the younger elements of the roster could use some team bonding time makes the Cancun Challenge a tidy fit for Warlick and a help in preparing for the difficult SEC slate to come.
“It’s a tough schedule; the games in Cancun are going to be tough, three days in a row. As the season goes on, the younger players will understand it, and maybe they are a little naïve. They will learn,” Warlick said. “The conference is just brutal, but I’ve not known anything different. The players knew what the expectations were when they decided to come here.
“The Cancun Challenge is a chance for players to be in a fun environment, but also extremely competitive. We are going down there making it about the games, but the atmosphere is different from the regular grind. They’ll have a chance to hang out, maybe with some other teams, and just be outside of normal basketball.”