The coaching staff assigned the book, “Good to Great,” by Jim Collins. Its subtitle is “Why Some Companies Make the leap … and Others Don’t,” and while it is marketed for businesses, the parallels to Lady Vol basketball of late are apparent.
After the team’s Wednesday workout at Pratt Pavilion and right before Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood headed to the book club meeting, he explained the reasoning behind the assignment.
“It’s a follow-up to his book, ‘Built to Last (Successful Habits of Visionary Companies),’ and they did an extensive and exhaustive study of what was the difference that allowed them to go from good to great,” Lockwood said. “It is studying principles of success and some are applicable and a few are not, but things that are applicable in a business setting can carry over to what makes good teams successful.
“It is like a class, and we are studying success.”
Tennessee has enjoyed some success in the past two years with SEC titles and appearances in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. But it’s not great, especially by Lady Vol standards.
“We’ve been good,” Lockwood said. “But we want to go to that next level. We are looking for the little details. What is it that we have not done as well or have we missed anything? Is there something conceptually that we could do better?
“And it stems from all of us – coaches, players.”
It was apropos for the start of this season. A year ago the Lady Vols fielded questions from the media about a roster of 14 players, rotations and roles on a crowded court.
Fast-forward a year and because of graduation, health and attrition, Tennessee is expected to start the season – the first exhibition game is Nov. 1 – with 10 active players. The 11th player on the roster, junior Kamiko Williams, had ACL surgery last July.
Alicia Manning, a 6’1 forward, fielded questions Wednesday about a smaller roster, rotations and roles. She immediately mentioned the book.
“We’re reading it as a team,” said the senior from Woodstock, Ga. “It talks about getting the right people on the bus in the right spots. That’s what our coaches are really focusing on, (no matter how many players) it’s the right people.
“I think that’s what we are focusing on whether it be 10 or 15. With this group that we have right here we’re going to make it work, and we’re going to have a lot of fun doing it.”
Manning has played inside and out for the Lady Vols during her three years in orange-and-white, and that flexibility will be crucial this season. Kelley Cain, a 6’6 center, decided last April to forego her fifth year of eligibility because of chronic hip and knee pain. Last week, the school announced that Alyssia Brewer, a 6’3 post, would no longer be on the team.
Those were two blows to post depth with the paint now anchored by three power forwards – graduate student Vicki Baugh, who is coming back from two ACL surgeries, senior Glory Johnson and freshman Isabelle Harrison. None of the three is a true center, though Baugh at 6’4 has the height and brings speed to the spot.
Manning will have to be ready to provide backup inside. Her original goal over the summer was to develop a consistent three-point shot but then the arc moved back by a foot and expanding to that range in one off-season wasn’t realistic. Manning can still hit the long ball on occasion, but her focus shifted to midrange shots and penetration.
“Now that we’re limited (by numbers) in the post game I think I will be placed there a lot this year, which I don’t mind at all,” Manning said. “I love to rebound. I think my role is to be that athletic post that is going to run the floor every time – you can guarantee that.
“Battle on the boards. Hit the midrange shot. Take some of these bigger posts off the dribble. Get to the free throw line.”
Manning will have to play a hybrid forward role – as will Taber Spani – as she also is one of the team’s better perimeter defenders. Manning and Spani can switch roles at different ends – Spani on the perimeter on offense with her deep three-ball range and inside on defense, while Manning moves to the outside on defense and into the paint when Tennessee has the ball.
“Last year I played a lot of perimeter defense and slide Taber to guard in the post,” Manning said. “We are so versatile. Our guards are huge. Strick can even guard in the post and put Glory out there to guard on the perimeter.”
Manning, a team captain, already was expected to have an expanded role as a senior. Her versatility is especially needed now.
“Yes, yes, yes,” Lockwood said. “Everyone of those kids becomes vital because when you lose depth there is one less cog in that wheel. Their ability to pull their weight, figuratively speaking, is important.
“She is tough. She presents a challenge for bigger players. She’s got quickness and speed to get by people and create problems. And then she is strong, she’s got enough strength and physicality, that she can contend (inside). She is a very versatile post. As a senior her confidence is at an all-time high. Her leadership and her confidence level injected into our team, those things are huge.”
Tennessee also has speed at all five spots on the floor. Meighan Simmons’ nickname is Speedy. Ariel Massengale’s ability to push tempo has already been noted by her teammates. Baugh runs the floor like a guard, so what Tennessee lacks in overall size it hopes to overcome with quickness.
“Our workouts with Heather our posts are finishing in guard times,” Manning said. “Heather Mason has always said when the posts are as fast as the guards and the guards are as strong as the posts, that is when you have a great team. That is exactly what we have right now. We’re going to take advantage of that full throttle.”
The roster may be smaller but it is senior-laden. There are four true seniors in Manning, Johnson, Briana Bass and Shekinna Stricklen and a fifth-year one in Baugh. Sharpshooter Spani, whose range already extends beyond the new arc line, is a junior. So is Williams, who remains in rehab mode after knee surgery but is progressing well. Simmons is the lone sophomore with three newcomers in Harrison, Massengale and Cierra Burdick.
The smaller size and veteran leadership mean roles are clearly defined with this team.
“Obviously we have a veteran team with so many seniors,” Manning said. “We’ve established early what our roles are going to be, and we’ve all earned our roles throughout the years we’ve been here.
“At this point, especially with the amount of people that we have, everyone is going to have their specific role and if everyone does their part there should be no reason why we should not have a great year.”
For example, a conversation Manning and Simmons had over the summer involved shot selection. Last season Simmons, a shooting guard just out of high school, was tossed into the point guard spot by circumstances and played out of position and with a lot of pressure to handle the ball and score. Simmons accomplished that – she led the team with 13.5 points per game and had 104 assists, the only player on the team to hit triple digits in helpers – but the season ended with a 73-59 loss to Notre Dame in the Elite Eight and Simmons shooting 1-11, part of an abysmal 32.8 field goal percentage as a team.
“We talked about in the off-season working on shot selection and I think putting her on the wing spot and not having to have that much pressure on her to bring the ball up, having that pressure off of her and just being able to get her good shots and her knock them down is really going to help our team,” Manning said.
Simmons, the lone sophomore with the departure of Lauren Avant for health reasons – she transferred to Rhodes College in Memphis and will focus on her pre-med curriculum while playing the less physical brand of DIII basketball – and the three newcomers have seniors to set the example.
That was not the case when Manning’s class arrived on campus in the summer of 2008, and fifth-year forward Alex Fuller was the only upperclassman on the roster. Fuller tried to both ride herd and be the mother hen for a team of youngsters, but it was an exhausting and overwhelming task for one senior.
“We have definitely done a good job this year of taking our freshmen under our wing and showing them the right way to do things,” Manning said. “Is this what I should be doing? What does Coach want from me? All of those things we are telling them up front. We are so close as a team because we have been through so much that we didn’t always hold each other accountable as much as we should.”
That is a keen piece of insight about the team. As a group, the seniors have endured a lot on and off the court. They were freshmen for the worst season in school history and a first round loss in the NCAA tourney. A few months later classmate Amber Gray nearly died from a brain aneurysm. A few months after that scare, the team learned then-Assistant Coach Daedra Charles-Furlow had breast cancer.
Gray recovered and has since transferred to play at Xavier closer to her physicians after Tennessee’s medical staff would not clear up to return to the court. Charles-Furlow also prevailed and is now the team’s director of character development.
The seniors have witnessed their roster take major hits over the past three years with Cait McMahan, Cain, Baugh, Gray, Avant, Brewer and now Williams all sustaining serious injuries. Of that group only Baugh and Williams remain.
Then, in late August the team convened for a meeting after Johnson and Stricklen returned from playing USA basketball and learned that Coach Pat Summitt had early onset dementia and would still be coaching while dealing with the disease.
With all that the team has absorbed it was hard for the players to take an in-your-face-approach to teammates even when it was warranted. Accountability has become the players’ buzzword this preseason.
“That is the thing that we are focusing on this year – speaking up,” Manning said. “When it’s on the court it’s business and when it’s off the court we’re still going to be sisters and love each other.”
It is a very close team, especially the seniors, one so much so that Summitt remarked last season that it was the closest she had ever had in nearly 40 years of coaching. That bond began as freshmen when the team set records in the worst way and felt under siege by the coaches, media and fans, all of whom expected a lot more from a highly touted class.
“We had such a rough freshman year that it was like all we had was each other,” Manning said. “We had to be like that. You could say that hurt us a little bit (in terms of being willing to criticize each other since criticism was rolling in from everyone else), but I think it also makes us a really special team.”
The book club meetings have become not just instructive for the collective insight, but as a team-bonding session as well. A pair of players is assigned certain chapters and then presents a report to the team with discussion points or exercises. Refreshments are served such as smoothies, sandwiches and snacks – just like regular book clubs – and the informal setting allows for an open exchange of ideas and reactions to the reading material.
“It is a really great book,” Manning said. “It is a business book but it talks about businesses where they were good businesses and then there’s a pivotal point and a transition point that made them into a great company.
“That is what they see our team as. Are we a good team? Yes. But what is going to transition us to be a great team? A Final Four team? A national championship team?”
It is a receptive senior class to say the least. The group has yet to appear at a Final Four and every class at Tennessee has made at least one in its career.
“I am really competitive as it is so it is what I wake up and live and breathe every day is trying to get that national championship,” Manning said.
Manning’s class has been scarred, but it is also resilient. The remaining players have proven they can handle adversity.
“When we signed our letter of intent there was nothing that said it was going to be easy,” Manning said. “You don’t come to a Division I basketball program and think it’s going to be a walk in the park, especially playing for Pat Summitt. I put myself here so that I could learn and grow and I think that is exactly what has happened.
“You are going to have your trials and errors and mistakes but there are also going to be times where you are going to shine. You are going to learn from it and it’s not always through basketball but off the court.
“I am not a quitter and I knew that coming here would best prepare me for after basketball. I think it has. Pat has so much power with who she is and what she has done for the world, really, that she is going to be able to help me with my career path.”
It’s been three years in the making, but Summitt appears to have a team of players that will start their own engines. Summitt deplores having to coach effort. She will motivate as needed, but a player who won’t give consistent effort infuriates a coach who grew up on a dairy farm and never got an off day.
“You’re going to see the fire, and you’re going to see the spark that we lacked last year and that we lacked the year before,” Manning said. “This team it’s scary what we’re capable of right now.”