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VOL. 9 | NO. 9 | Saturday, February 27, 2016

Link

Dave Link

Once the Paragon of the Sport, Lady Vols Seem to be Fading From the Spotlight

By Dave Link

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As the 2015-16 regular season winds down, the Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team is navigating uncharted territory, and the winds aren’t favorable.

Tennessee’s Holly Warlick is experiencing the toughest of her four seasons as head coach, already having lost 11 games with two regular-season games remaining. No Lady Vols team under Warlick or legendary coach Pat Summitt has ever lost more than 11 games in a season.

(Ap Photo/Robert Franklin, File)

The Lady Vols began the season ranked No. 4 in the nation by the Associated Press and picked to finish second in the SEC by coaches and media. They had Final Four aspirations. Their roster was loaded.

Oh, how hard they have fallen.

Tennessee (16-11, 7-7 SEC) bottomed out with a 57-56 loss at LSU on Sunday. LSU (9-18, 3-11 SEC) broke a six-game losing streak and managed to climb out of the league’s cellar.

The Lady Vols fell out of the AP poll for the first time in 31 years, a streak that’s lasted 565 consecutive weeks. The seven SEC losses are the most ever for a Lady Vols’ team. UT was ranked No. 24 going into last week and went 1-2 with a loss to South Carolina last Monday (Feb. 15), a victory over Ole Miss last Thursday, and the loss to LSU Sunday.

Fans are furious. UT coach Holly Warlick is under fire. So is her staff. So are her players.

Critics are everywhere. On sports talk radio, on message boards, on postings below media reports, on Twitter.

Former major league Baseball player Delino DeShields, whose daughter Diamond plays for the Lady Vols and was a preseason All-American, drew national attention last week when he made several negative Twitter posts during UT’s 62-56 loss to the Gamecocks.

Here’s a sample:

“Good coaching recognize bad coaching”

“trying to beat the best without her best players on the court!#sad”

“Oh … Now you put her in!?!?!”

Diamond DeShields, who scored 21 points in 26 minutes against South Carolina, has started 12 of 27 games this season.

Her father is the coach of the Louisville Bats, a minor league team in the Cincinnati Reds organization, and he gave a mild apology with another Twitter post the day after his game-day postings.

It read:

“I want to apologize to Coach Warlick and Lady-Vol Nation. I’m not writing this to back away from my comments. What’s done is done. But my delivery was terrible and totally out of character.

“I’m part of the coaching fraternity and should know better. A lot of people have chimed in, but those who really know me KNOW that I want nothing but the best for Holly, her staff, and all the young lady’s (sic) associated with the program. Hopefully, we can all grow from this.”

While daddy DeShields backpedaled, Holly’s critics continued firing away after the LSU loss. As in, “Fire Holly.”

I don’t see it happening after this season.

Tennessee gave Warlick a raise and a one-year contract extension – through March 31, 2019 – before the season. Her total financial package is $665,000, and her contract includes $235,000 in possible bonuses.

It’s tough to see people turning on Warlick, one of Knoxville’s own. She played for Bearden High School. She played for the Lady Vols under legendary coach Pat Summitt and became an assistant coach at UT under her mentor.

When Summitt was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease before the 2011-12 season, Warlick helped coach the Lady Vols while Summitt remained on the bench. When Summitt retired in 2012, Warlick, who spent 27 years as her assistant, was hired to replace a legend.

Tennessee won or shared an SEC championship during Warlick’s first three seasons as head coach. Last March, Warlick led the Lady Vols to the Elite Eight round of the NCAA tournament despite the absences of All-SEC center Isabelle Harrison (knee injury) and Jasmine Jones (concussion-type symptoms).

Now, some folks want her fired.

Dearstone

Is the criticism justified? What’s wrong with the Lady Vols? How can the team shoot so poorly (41.1 percent, 26.3 percent 3-point range)? Why all the turnovers (17 per game)? Why all the blown leads?

I wondered about all that, so I caught up with Mickey Dearstone, the “Voice of the Lady Vols” since 1999, to get his opinion.

He’s been a member of the Lady Vols’ broadcast crew for 23 years and goes to practices, attends film sessions, calls all games, and travels with the Lady Vols.

This interview took place Feb. 17, two days after the South Carolina loss, at the offices of Cumulus Media, where Dearstone co-hosts the “Doc, Jeff, and Heather Show,” Monday-Friday from 6-9 a.m. on WNML (FM 99.1, AM 990).

Is all the criticism of Holly justified? Is it Holly’s fault the way the team is playing?

“Everything ultimately falls on the shoulders of the head coach. But is it warranted? No, and I’ve seen a lot of Xs and Os. I’ve seen a lot of women’s basketball. I’ve been to practice. I’ve been to film sessions. I’ve been to pregame film sessions. Not all of them, but I’ve been privy to a lot of them.

“There’s nothing in their scheme or Xs and Os that causes this team to miss shots and turn the ball over. It’s not like their plays or the sets that they’re running have people in the wrong positions. When you have players that throw it directly to somebody, not just something that’s tapped and then it’s a loose ball and they get the loose ball and head the other way, but when you throw it directly to the opponent, that’s not the coach’s fault.

“They are not telling them to throw it to the other team. So yeah, it’s her responsibility. (Warlick) knows that. But this is a team that has struggled in two facets, and that’s shooting and taking care of the basketball.’’

Did you see this coming at all?

“No. I told everybody it was a Final Four team. But I bought into the ‘Diamond DeShields was a difference maker,’ way of thinking, and I didn’t think about it enough before I said that.

“But if you stop and think about it, her stats aren’t that far off from when she was at North Carolina [she transferred] as far as shooting is concerned. She’s turning it over more now from what she did (at North Carolina), but her shooting stats are about the same as what they always were.

“And she sat out last year, and you can take the best player in the world and sit them out a year and it takes them a while. She didn’t play in the Italy trip (in summer). She didn’t play but maybe three or four minutes in the USA team that she was on, and then didn’t practice until right when the season started with the games.

“So you take a high-caliber player, and then all of a sudden thrust them into a team concept instead of an individual concept, and all of that you have to learn to do over again.

“She’s a phenomenal talent. She really is. She does things that nobody else on the team can do, but she’s trying to fit in, sometimes she tries too much, and then sometimes she doesn’t do enough to fit in, and she’s learning the team concept thing, and it’s been a struggle for her.

“So, I think that’s the difference because Mercedes Russell is better, Bashaara Graves is Bashaara Graves, Jordan Reynolds is not shooting the ball well. She evidently didn’t get enough shots in in the summertime, so she’s struggled shooting the basketball. And the list goes on and on. There’s been a little bit of a drop-off for everybody except for Mercedes Russell, and she sat out last year too, and it took her a while to get into the swing of things.

“And then Jaime Nared was hurt. She had the broken hand. She didn’t play for the first seven or eight games, so it’s just been a constant struggle getting everybody on the same page and playing together, and I didn’t foresee that coming.’’

What are the primary problems, obviously with shooting and turnovers coming first.

“It’s all from chemistry. I think it’s chemistry, and I think that you have a lot of players that are learning to play with Diamond, and you have Diamond that’s trying to learn how to play with other players, and I think that’s the biggest problem.

“It’s not that they don’t like each other. It’s not that they don’t hang out together and do things together. It’s just when it’s on the court, they are learning as they go because it’s even a lot different than practice.

“Holly’s said before they practice a hell of a lot better than they play. But in the game, it’s a little bit different when you’re having to still be in that learning mode, learning everybody’s nuances and what they’re going to do when they get the ball and where they’re going to throw it when they get the ball.

“They’re learning all of that stuff on the fly, and part of it, the biggest reason, is that Diamond wasn’t able to practice with them in preseason to kind of get used to it on the practice floor.

“She had shin problems, then she had a little bit of a knee problem that they were being real cautious on. She practiced I think before the first exhibition game. She didn’t play in it. Before Central Arkansas (Nov. 15 opener), I think she might have practiced about a week, and that was it.’’

Can they turn around in the SEC and then the NCAA tournament?

“Oh yeah. Again, against South Carolina, they get beat by six by the No. 3 team or 2 team in the country and had 19 turnovers, and then South Carolina scored 16 points off of those 19 turnovers. Well, you eliminate five or six of them, you only have 12 or 13 turnovers, you win the ballgame.

“But that was just the glaring stat in that particular game. So yeah, you can get dressed out for any game and then all of a sudden it clicks and you only have 10 turnovers, and you play like gangbusters.

“They can do it, and then once they do it, then you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Can they be consistent in doing it?’ I think they’ve learned how to close out a game and win a close ballgame.

“They played a lot better at Vanderbilt. They got up by 18, Vanderbilt made a run, and cut it to six down in Nashville (69-51 win Feb. 11). They ended up winning by 18, so they weathered the storm and then continued on and finished out the game.

“I think they’ve learned from the losses on the road to those ranked teams how to win a close game. They just have to cut out the turnovers so it’s a close game.’’

Can Bashaara Graves, senior forward from Clarksville High, be a key player down the stretch?

“I think she has to be. She just missed basically two and a half games because of an ankle injury, and even going up against taller players (against South Carolina), she didn’t score a lot of points against South Carolina, but she rebounded the ball extremely well. She can definitely be a factor with some help inside. A lot of people look to her as a senior, ‘Why is she not leading this team and stuff like that?’

“That’s not her personality. She’s one of the quietest girls on the team. She’s just not a vocal player. But she’s one of the toughest players Tennessee has. So yeah, she could be a key, but I think they’re going to have to find somebody from outside to get their shooting touch and knock down some shots.’’

Many thought Diamond DeShields would be the go-to player. Why hasn’t that happened?

“She wasn’t able to practice. She sat out a year and then wasn’t able to practice that much, and then she’s learning to play in the Lady Vols’ system. There’s nothing wrong with the system, but even Candace Parker, she was a go-to player, but she was still a team player.

“I never will forget that last shot against LSU when she drew the defense and threw to somebody else and didn’t force it. She threw to Nicky Anosike when Tennessee won the national championship her last year (2008). But she knew. She learned how to play to be ‘the player’ that they depended on, and at the same time, be a team player, and that’s hard to do. It’s really hard for somebody that’s never had to do it before.’’

What did you think about her dad’s Tweets during the South Carolina game.

DeShields

“First of all, I’m not on social media for that particular reason. He apologized. It is what it is. I think Twitter has probably taken the place of phone calls. I know in all the years I worked with Pat Summitt she would get phone calls from parents, but nobody was on Twitter back then. And I think it’s unfortunate, and I think that Delino wished that he hadn’t done it because I don’t see anything positive that could come out of that for anyone involved, Holly, the program, or Diamond for that matter.’’

What about all the blown leads? Is that lack of confidence factor?

“Yeah, it’s a confidence factor. The Kentucky and Texas A&M games were two games that were kind of identical in the end in that they needed somebody to be a stabilizing force that they could get the basketball to and they could count on, and Diamond’s not it right now just simply because of a lot of indecision on what she’s going to do with the basketball.

“A team has to have somebody who’s like, ‘OK, let’s put it in their hands.’ Late in the game South Carolina puts it in the hands of A’ja Wilson and (Khadijah Sessions), they put it in their hands in a close ballgame because they know they’re going to make plays.

“Everybody else is OK with that because they’re looking for them to make the big play, and [UT doesn’t] have anybody really to count on right now to make that big play or that big shot.’’

Where does Warlick stand as far as her status as head coach?

“They’re not going to make a change this year. I think they just gave her a raise before this year based on the three conference championships, either regular season or tournament. They’re not going to get rid of Holly.

“To judge whether a coach can coach or not on one season out of four after three successful years is just absurd to me, and I think it’s absurd to the administration at UT. They’re not going to do that.’’

Warlick didn’t sign any players last fall. Is that a major concern? Do they have younger players coming up who can help, or enough coming back for next year?

“Well, you lose one starter (Graves). She hasn’t signed anybody. They went after the top players in the country, like Lauren Cox and people like that, and didn’t get them. That’s a sign of the times because before Tennessee would pick who they wanted, Connecticut would pick who they wanted, and then they’d sign those players and then you’d go on and see each other in the Final Four.

“But there’s so many good teams now, those players have more choices to go to. You can go on the recruiting sites where it lists the schools that players are interested in.

“It used to be Tennessee, Connecticut, Baylor, Notre Dame. Now there’s like three lines of them. Maryland’s in there. Ohio State’s in there. Texas A&M, Texas is back on the recruiting trail heavy, plus the West Coast schools.

“So it’s a lot tougher time now than what it was before. Yeah, it’s a concern they haven’t signed anybody. They lose one starter, so it’s not like your cupboard is going to be empty. And if this team turns it around and plays like they’re capable of playing, then it’s not going to be that big of a deal. They can concentrate on this upcoming recruiting class.’’

You’ve been around the program for a long time and seen a championship won, and you’re probably pretty close to Coack Warlick. Has it been tough for you to call games this year?

“It’s been frustrating. I do things probably a little bit different than a lot of people do that do games on the radio. My focus is to be like a fan that’s doing it on the radio, and I try to be like somebody sitting on the 12th row in the center section and watching the game.

“And I know there’s a lot of fans that have been frustrated with this year’s basketball team. I think if you listen to my broadcasts, you’ll pick up on frustration at times when I’m doing the games. It’s still been a lot of fun to do, but it’s been frustrating. Holly’s frustrated. I’m frustrated. The rest of the coaches and players are frustrated, and the fans are frustrated.

“It’s not like there’s not anybody associated with this program that doesn’t care. Everybody cares, and everybody has the same feelings. It’s been a real frustrating year. When I talked to Holly a few minutes ago, I said, ‘As frustrating as this season has been, there’s only two games, two wins, that separates the No. 9 team and the No. 2 team in the conference.’

“Years past, if you lost 10 games, you’d be out of it, and you’d have to go and you’d have to play the first day of the (SEC) tournament on Thursday, and that’s what Tennessee did in ’97, and then they went on and won the national championship.

“That’s hard to do nowadays. There’s too many teams you’ve got to beat. I think if somebody asked me to describe the season, it would be frustrating, but I haven’t given up hope on them yet because I honestly do think that it’s something they can correct from one game to the next, and when it clicks, and they get those things corrected, they get their confidence shooting the basketball, and play together where everybody’s on the same page as a team, when it clicks, they’re going to be a dangerous team that people are not going to want to face in the NCAA tournament.

“Now if it doesn’t happen, they may win one and come to the house, or maybe not even win any. You can’t ever tell. But if it clicks and they start playing the way they are capable, they are capable of beating anybody out there. I honestly believe that.’’

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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