The Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team had its first official practice of the 2020-21 season last month.
"We're excited,” head coach Kellie Harper said before the official start of practice. “We're excited about getting to play basketball and this upcoming season. I understand we still have to be flexible and we have to be able to pivot at any moment, but we've had good practices. We've had a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm, and our players have been positive throughout this time. They seem pretty eager to take the court against an opponent. So, I've been thrilled. I love the way that this team is shaping up, and I'm excited to see what we can do."
In her first year as the Lady Vols’ head coach, Harper led her team to a 21-10 overall record and a 10-6 SEC record.
Tennessee was tested early in the season. In just the third game of the season, the Lady Vols faced off against then, No. 15 Notre Dame. The young Tennessee team defeated the 2018 NCAA Tournament Champions, 74-63. The Lady Vols started the season 7-0, before falling to Texas, 60-66. Tennessee would suffer its second loss of the season, 51-78, at the hands of then No. 1 Stanford, before entering SEC play.
The Lady Vols entered SEC play as the No. 22 team in the nation. They took care of business in their first conference matchup, defeating Mizzou, 77-66. Next up, they faced a tough Kentucky team that ranked No. 13 in the country. Tennessee would give them a battle but ultimately fell by just four points. The Lady Vols found their groove again, as they won four straight, before falling to then, No. 3 UCONN in the Basketball Hall of Fame Revival Series.
After a brief stint with success, Tennessee hit a rough patch as they lost its first five games in February, including a loss to then, No. 1 South Carolina. The Lady Vols would eventually rebound and take the final three games of the season.
Tennessee earned a spot in the SEC Tournament. They defeated Missouri before falling to Kentucky in the third round. That would be their final game as COVID-19 canceled the NCAA Tournament.
Old and new players
Tennessee will bring back eight of its players from the 2019-20 roster, including four starters.
Rennia Davis, Jordan Horston, Rae Burrell and Tamari Key are all expected to be key contributors to the team’s success in this upcoming season. The Lady Vols return five of their top six scorers and rebounders from the previous season. Specifically, Harper will retain players who contributed 80.8 percent of the team’s scoring, 76.4 percent of the rebounding, 78.6 percent of the blocks, 71.0 percent of the steals, and 64.8 percent of the assists.
Kasiyahna Kushkituah, Jessie Rennie, Jaiden McCoy and Emily Saunders will also return to Rocky Top for the upcoming season. Kushkituah will look to be the backup center for Tennessee as she has made 12 starts in her career and finished last season with 5.4 points per game and 4.4 rebounds per game in 31 games played. Rennie should continue to provide some spark off the bench as she shot 46 percent from three last season for the Lady Vols. McCoy and Saunders will hope to break out of their depth role and they average just 11.3 and 8.2 minutes, respectively.
The new faces for Tennessee include; Jordan Walker, Keyen Green, Destiny Salary, Tess Darby and Marta Suárez.
"I love our freshmen this year, and I honestly wish I came in with as much confidence my freshman year because I think I would be a lot further along,” Davis said. “The freshmen this year are willing to talk but also willing to learn. They have great personalities, great presence, the vibes, and the energy, and I believe you don't come across groups like that often, so I am excited for the freshman and what they will bring to the team and they are all going to contribute in some way as well."
Walker is an All-MAC graduate transfer point guard from Western Michigan. Last season, she finished with a line of 16.0 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.1 steals per game.
Green is a first-team All-ASUN graduate transfer forward/center from Liberty. During the 2019-20 campaign, she recorded 13.9 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, while shooting 59 percent from the field.
Salary, Darby and Suárez are all four-star prospects. They will bring length and versatility to the guard and wing positions for Tennessee.
Currently, UT has not released its full schedule for the 2020-21 season. According to the NCAA, games will start as early as Nov. 25, with SEC play starting on Dec. 31. The only game on Tennessee’s schedule is currently UCONN. The two teams will play on Jan. 21 for the Hall of Fame Revival Series.
However, even with the schedule still being finalized, expect this Lady Vols team to be at the top of the polls.
Tennessee is bringing back most of its players from last season. The team’s chemistry should be rock solid, even with the modified offseason. The Lady Vols also bring experience with this team. One worry from last year is that there were too many fresh faces, but even with eight of their 13 players being freshman and sophomores, they have all played college ball except for three of them, (Salary, Darby, Suárez).
The Lady Vols also features two nationally recognized players. Davis earned a spot on first-team All-SEC, while Horston joined the SEC All-Freshman team. Newcomer, Green, was also named No. 15 on ESPN’s “Newcomer Impact Rankings.”
Despite the uncertainty about how this season will go down. One thing is for sure, this Lady Vols team will be fun to watch.