and the Lady Vols have watched two teammates have their playing days end at Tennessee
because of medical issues.
Cait McMahan, who also watched that Final Four on the bench with Cain, was slotted as the starting point in the 2008-09 season after rehabbing from her own major knee surgery. But McMahan's balky knees never recovered, and she was forced midway through that season to end her career. In the summer of 2009, Amber Gray suffered a stroke caused by a brain aneurysm and wasn't medically cleared to play at Tennessee. She opted to transfer to Xavier to try to continue her playing career.
Cain's surgery corrected a congenital condition in which her right kneecap slipped off track and sustained multiple subluxations over several years. The intricate surgery involved cutting the kneecap loose, realigning it to track correctly in a groove, weaving it back into place and inserting screws into her lower leg to help with support, which were removed 16 months later when they began to migrate out of the bone.
The rehab was extensive and Cain wasn't even cleared to jump – she remembers it had not been that long since she shed the crutches – at the time of the 2008 Final Four. After watching Tennessee win a national title, how badly does she want the same opportunity on the court?
"Itching to actually be on the court," Cain said. "To be where I am now from where I was then … I am just glad to be able to continue to play. Someone like Cait I give my heart out to her because she tried as hard as she could, and her knees wouldn't let her. Go out and play every day because it can be taken from you like that."
Cain arrived in Knoxville in the summer of 2007 with Vicki Baugh, who played a significant role in the 2008 national title game before tearing her ACL in the second half. The two post players have battled knee issues – Baugh suffered a second ACL tear; Cain has dealt with blows to the knee and those migrating screws – but they can finally anticipate taking the court together after waiting three years for both to get healthy.
Last season, Tennessee had just three true posts on the roster – Cain, Glory Johnson and Alyssia Brewer. This season, Baugh, a redshirt junior like Cain, and Faith Dupree, a redshirt freshman, enter the post mix and provide some much-needed depth. Cain welcomes the help.
"Especially Vicki because I haven't gotten to play with Vicki since I've been here, and we came in together," Cain said. "I am very excited about playing with her and I am excited that she is getting better because she has been through a lot herself.
"Faith is looking really good and seeing her in the runs, wow, she's completely different from last year. And she's come so far. I can't wait to see her play, too."
Dupree sat out last season to recover from back issues and used the off-season to work on her conditioning and endurance.
The players have mentioned this preseason that Heather Mason, the strength and conditioning coach, has put them through morning workouts that would be well suited to the track team. Mason uses the indoor football complex and its regulation field – 360 feet from end to end, including the end zones.
"I think we've been running track since we got here," Cain said. "It's hard sprinting the football field. The basketball court is 94 feet. That's a big difference. So if we can do that consistently making good times, we'll be really good on the court."
Coach Pat Summitt has made it clear that the team will run this season, and that includes the posts. Junior forward Alicia Manning, who can play on the perimeter or set up in the high post, likes the up-tempo style.
"If it was my decision I wouldn't even set up a play," Manning said. "I like to just play. I think with the speed we have and our post becoming so much more conditioned – they're going to be able to get up and down the floor – and Mickie DeMoss has thrown in a different kind of strategy about our offense, it's really going to have a strong impact."
"That's how I feel, too," Cain said. "If you don't have to run a play I would rather not."
DeMoss, who was an assistant at Tennessee for 18 years before leaving for stints at Kentucky (head coach) and Texas (assistant), has returned to Knoxville and has meshed seamlessly with Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick and Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood.
"She's bring some more, I guess you could say, spunk to it," Cain said. "She's full of energy. She's like Dean and Holly. She fits right in obviously. I am just excited for her to coach us."
Baugh shares Cain's enthusiasm about the post depth this season – and also the intention of the coaching staff to pick up the pace.
"I think being an older team and having a few freshmen, we will have a lot of team chemistry," Baugh said. "It's going to be easier for them to come in and learn our system. I think we have a great post game this year along with several guards who can do different things in different areas. It's going to be great seeing Kelley out on the floor deep in the block, along with Lyssi, along with Faith, and then Glory and myself being able to run the floor with the guards.
"I am excited about our half-court game, along with our running game and also I see our guards shooting lights out. I am excited to see how that goes down."
Junior guard Briana Bass has been shooting well in individual workouts, especially from long range. Both Baugh, at 6'4, and Cain, at 6'6, admire the 5'2 point guard and their voices of encouragement are readily heard when they are in the same workout group with Bass. It's also not unusual for them to pick up Bass and carry her off the court.
"Everybody looks at her like, ‘Oh, she's little, she can't do anything,' " Cain said. "Little do they know often she's the fastest one out there, she can handle the ball, and she has great court vision. She has a beautiful shot. I just want her to get more confidence in herself because we have all the confidence in the world in her and we constantly tell her.
"She has to get it in her head that she is good and she can't let anybody take that away from her. If she keeps playing her game and driving to the hole and getting layups, at her size not too many girls can do that, so she has a gift, and she's got to take advantage of it, I can't wait to see her play."
Summitt feels the same way about Baugh and Cain. She has waited three years for the linchpins of the post game to be able to take the court together.
"We're a lot better. A lot better," Summitt emphasized. "Vicki is one of the best athletes on the floor. Kelley understands what she needs to do. She knows how to play to her strengths.
"Vicki's athleticism is very intimidating, and Kelley's size is very imposing."
Baugh, who has participated in all of the individual workouts, is still easing her way back after two major knee surgeries. Cain, for the first time in her career, doesn't have significant knee pain and her head, after multiple concussions, is clear. Cain said assorted players have a few bumps and bruises from workouts but overall they're ready for the season.
"We're all doing well and eager to get on the court," Cain said.
Cain, like most players, was packed in ice after practice - including bags for her hips and midsection - but she still agreed to a video interview to field some offbeat questions about her roommates and what she's watching on television.
Kelley Cain has witnessed a Final Four from the sideline as she watched the Lady Vols win a national title in 2008 while she recovered from major surgery to realign her kneecap. Now, she wants to be in one as a player on the court, and she is also grateful that her basketball career, like her right knee, has stayed on track.