Keys of past may be Lady Vols' future

For the longest time -- decades, in fact -- there was no question about Tennessee's identity in women's basketball. The Lady Vols played aggressive, physical defense that wore down opponents. They were exceptionally motivated to control the boards. They could be a very good offensive team, but they also could survive those games in which they struggled to score.

And, most important of all, they believed at their cores that when the stakes were the highest, they would be the ones walking away from the table with the biggest pile of chips.

We say all this not to make Tennessee fans feel glum, or defensive, or angry, or angst-ridden. The time comes for every program that has a larger-than-life coach when that person isn't at the helm anymore, and then things can't continue just exactly the same as they had.

In Pat Summitt, Tennessee had a coach who was even larger than "larger than life." Now, as Summitt's longtime assistant Holly Warlick is set to begin her third season as head coach, Tennessee is still trying to get comfortable with its current identity.

But this could be the season when that really solidifies. And rather than look back wistfully at the last time the Women's Final Four was in Tampa, Florida -- in 2008, when Tennessee won its eighth NCAA title under Summitt -- the Lady Vols can approach the goal of returning to that city in April 2015 as a way to affirm who they are now.

A squad that really could look like the best Tennessee teams of old, but also have the stamp of the present and future.

"We're athletic, we're fast, we're strong," Warlick said. "And for the first time I can say we have a veteran group."

She means the first time since she elevated to the head coach's job, a move that became official in the spring of 2012 when Summitt moved to a coach emeritus role as she dealt with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type.

It's not that Tennessee has been devoid of upper-class leadership the past few seasons. It's just that with so many of her key players for this season having experience, Warlick can feel like it's a group that has both the refinement and the necessary hunger that perhaps were just a little lacking with recent teams.

That said, there was an unexpected bump in the road early this season, as Warlick announced suspensions Wednesday for four players for a violation of team academic rules. Senior Cierra Burdick and redshirt freshman Jannah Tucker will miss two regular-season games, while senior guard Ariel Massengale and sophomore Andraya Carter will miss one.

This is disappointing to Warlick, especially since two seniors are involved, but Tennessee has had more difficult things to deal with. However, we really don't want to overstate Tennessee's supposed woes of the past few seasons. The Lady Vols made it to the Elite Eight in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Last season, they lost in the Sweet 16 to Maryland, which went on to the Final Four. During that four-season stretch, Tennessee went 55-9 in SEC play and won the league tournament three times.

For most other programs, all of this is big-time stuff. But Tennessee's history of eight NCAA titles and 18 Final Four appearances tends to dwarf anything less. It's hard sometimes to keep in perspective that the Lady Vols have remained one of the nation's pre-eminent programs despite the emotionally draining hardship they have gone through with a cherished legend facing a devastating illness.

But Warlick wants the same fires to stay stoked in the program, no matter what. And now she has a team with numerous strengths -- including a keen understanding of just how a strong a conference it's playing in, and what it takes to still be standing late in the season.

Tennessee is No. 5 in espnW's preseason top 25, and is No. 4 in both the Associated Press and USA Today coaches' polls. espnW has Texas A&M at No. 4, while the other two have the Aggies at No. 5. All three polls have another SEC school, South Carolina, at No. 2.

But the power of the SEC isn't just concentrated within these highly ranked teams. It's a characteristic of the league as a whole, which has been the case the majority of seasons, actually. And Tennessee, even in years when it didn't win its league, was always buoyed by the SEC's competitiveness.

Tennessee went 29-6 overall last season, 13-3 in the SEC, led in scoring by lone senior Meighan Simmons (16.5 PPG.) You'd have to say Simmons was one of the great argument igniters in Tennessee history, someone who was both vigorously defended and criticized.

There were times when her shooting saved the Lady Vols, and times when it doomed them. Simmons' 80 assists to 93 turnovers last season -- and 304 to 362 in her career -- are indicative of a guard who at times needed to be a more efficient playmaker.

The Tennessee guard corps for 2014-15 might be better at bringing out the very best in the team's post play. Massengale, who played 19 games last season before being sidelined by a head injury, has 430 assists to 215 turnovers in her career. She's back and eager to make her last season at Tennessee her best.

"I'm feeling great, and so excited," Massengale said. "I just want to stay healthy, and am looking forward to this year."

"Isabelle Harrison is standing head and shoulders above just about everyone [in practice]. I think you will see a maturity about her. We are going to run a lot of things through Izzy, and we should." Coach Holly Warlick

Meanwhile, Carter returns after starting 21 games last season. And sophomore Jordan Reynolds can build on a breakout performance in last season's SEC tournament title-game victory against Kentucky. All three will see time at point guard, and Warlick has been happy with their workouts so far.

"Jordan went to a point-guard camp this summer, and it was awesome for her," Warlick said. "Both she and Andraya. I think it gave them some encouragement and some understanding in how they can lead, and what they need to do."

Freshmen Alexa Middleton, Kortney Dunbar and Jaime Nared, along with Tucker, will play in the guard/wing spots for Tennessee. The latter three are all 6 feet or taller.

So there will be quickness and size on the perimeter, to go along with both those qualities on the interior. Isabelle Harrison is the top returning scorer (13.6 PPG), and will be joined by fellow 6-3 center Nia Moore, and 6-2 forwards Burdick, Bashaara Graves and Jasmine Jones.

Center Mercedes Russell (foot surgeries) will be redshirting this season, as will North Carolina transfer Diamond DeShields. But DeShields -- last season's consensus freshman of the year -- could be a big factor in helping the team in practice.

And this really might be a huge season for Harrison, who forms the senior class alongside Burdick and Massengale.

"Isabelle Harrison is standing head and shoulders above just about everyone," Warlick said of how well the Nashville, Tennessee, native has practiced. "I think you will see a maturity about her. We are going to run a lot of things through Izzy, and we should."

There also seems to be a bit more of a confident lightness, for lack of a better term, to Warlick. She has handled Tennessee's challenges -- some that played out very publicly, others that were more behind the scenes -- with grace and grit. She has never tried to be Summitt, but does seem to have become more comfortable with being at the head of the table.

The players sense that, too. The seniors -- who played their first season with Summitt still on the sidelines, but with Warlick as de facto head coach -- really have made this journey side by side with Warlick.

Even with the ups and downs, there's still plenty of reason to believe this could be a season that evokes the better memories of an illustrious past.