KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee believes its shortened roster shouldn’t limit its expectations.
The 13th-ranked Lady Volunteers have only nine available players due to knee injuries that will sideline guard Te’a Cooper and forward Cheridene Green for the entire season and a variety of injuries that caused guard Andraya Carter to forgo her final year of eligibility. Tennessee opens the season Friday at James Madison.
“It may affect how we play a little bit,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “Maybe we can’t run as much, we can’t press as much. But you have a capability of winning with who we have on the floor. They’re quality kids.”
Tennessee has dealt with similar situations before. The Lady Vols have encountered injury problems in each of Holly Warlick’s four previous seasons as coach, from the head injury that sidelined Ariel Massengale for much of the 2013-14 season to the foot surgery that sidelined Mercedes Russell for the entire 2014-15 campaign.
But the depth issues are particularly acute this season as Tennessee chases its first Final Four appearance since its 2008 championship. The Lady Vols have lost in the regional finals five of the last six years.
“You’ve got to keep grinding,” Warlick said. “You’ve got to keep moving forward. That’s what we’re doing. We’re down to nine players who can play, but they’re solid. They’re solid. You don’t have to worry about playing time. Everybody’s going to play.”
In the frontcourt, Tennessee must replace Bashaara Graves, who ended her college career as one of only five Lady Vols ever to combine 1,000 rebounds and 1,500 points.
Tennessee could use a big season from Russell, a 6-foot-6 junior center. Russell averaged 9.9 points and 8.3 rebounds but showed she’s capable of much more by delivering 25 points and 15 rebounds in a regional semifinal victory over Ohio State.
The Lady Vols also are seeking a boost from 6-3 graduate transfer Schaquilla Nunn, who missed the entire 2015-16 season with a broken foot after averaging 11.2 points and 10.3 rebounds in three seasons at Winthrop.
Tennessee’s backcourt must replace the playmaking and shooting ability of Cooper, who averaged 8.6 points per game last season.
“We’ve got talent on this team,” junior guard Diamond DeShields said. “We’ve got the pieces to do something special. What’s going to happen is that we are going to have to find it within ourselves because it isn’t (just) two or three people that will do it. It’s like what are the nine of us going to bring each and every night consistently to benefit this team.”
Tennessee needs DeShields to bring plenty.
DeShields arrived at Tennessee with much fanfare after being named the Atlantic Coast Conference rookie of the year her lone season at North Carolina. But after sitting out the 2014-15 season due to NCAA transfer rules, the 6-foot-1 guard battled nagging leg injuries and struggled to adapt to her new teammates last season.
Late in the season, DeShields turned a corner and helped Tennessee make a surprising run to an NCAA regional final as a No. 7 seed.
“I feel better physically and emotionally,” DeShields said. “I think that will transcend my game to another level and hopefully allow me to elevate my teammates’ games as well.”
Tennessee struggled to a 22-14 record last season and set a school record for losses before rallying in the tournament. Warlick acknowledged the Lady Vols were searching for leadership at times last season.
She says that won’t be a problem this year. Warlick praises the leadership that senior guard Jordan Reynolds and DeShields have shown thus far. Warlick also notes how much junior forward Jaime Nared has improved over the last year.
All of them are eager to show what they learned during a trying 2015-16 season.
“It was a character builder,” Warlick said. “I’m really proud of them. I think we’re building this year on how we ended (last season), and that’s a positive for us.”