Lady Vols relying heavily on freshmen as they open practice
By STEVE MEGARGEE
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee is eager to find out just how much its heralded freshman class can contribute right away.
The Lady Volunteers opened practice Tuesday seeking to bounce back from an inconsistent 20-12 season that ended with a second-round NCAA Tournament loss to Louisville . Newcomers will go a long way toward determining how much Tennessee improves.
Tennessee's freshman class features four McDonald's All-Americans in guard/forward Rennia Davis, guards Anastasia Hayes and Evina Westbrook plus center Kasiyahna Kushkituah. The class was rated first in the nation by multiple recruiting services, and each of the freshmen could have an immediate role.
"They play hard," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "They're smart basketball players. They bring a spirit that we haven't had in a while. I'm really proud of them. They really, really busted it in the offseason and in the summer."
The Lady Vols have endured a tumultuous offseason that included the departures of guards Diamond DeShields, Te'a Cooper and Alexa Middleton after guard Jordan Reynolds and forward Schaquilla Nunn already had exhausted their eligibility.
DeShields, who averaged a team-high 17.4 points last year, announced after the season that she would return as a fifth-year senior before changing her mind in June and launching a pro career. Cooper transferred to South Carolina and Middleton transferred to Iowa State.
Their losses leave Tennessee needing the freshmen to produce as soon as the Lady Vols open the season Nov. 12 against East Tennessee State. That's particularly apparent at point guard, where a lack of experienced depth leaves Hayes and Westbrook as Tennessee's most likely options.
"I think both Evina and Annie have the capability of running a basketball team," Warlick said. "I really like them being in at the same time. I'm not concerned about having a freshman there because they're very dedicated, committed and intelligent basketball players that know the game. We're trying to make sure they understand it and understand our philosophy and what we want out of them, and so far I've not been disappointed one bit."
Tennessee's freshmen will complement the senior duo of 6-foot-6 center Mercedes Russell and guard/forward Jaime Nared, who combined for 31.7 points and 16.6 rebounds per game last season. Both played for the USA Basketball Under-23 team that won a gold medal at the U24 Four Nations Tournament in Tokyo this summer.
Russell and Nared are the only returning players who scored as many as five points per game last season.
Tennessee's biggest mission is trying to find the consistency it lacked last season. The Lady Vols beat eventual NCAA champion South Carolina and runner-up Mississippi State on the road and knocked off Final Four participant Stanford and regional finalist Notre Dame at home last season, but they also lost six games to teams that failed to earn NCAA bids.
Warlick is counting on improved chemistry to make a difference.
"It's been very rewarding to see our kids be around each other," Warlick said. "It's a different feel. I think when you have team chemistry, you can feel it. I came in and just feel the positive energy."
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Updated October 3, 2017