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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Holly Warlick and the Tennessee Lady Vols are more in their comfort zone going into the season.
Warlick is no longer adjusting to the roles of Pat Summitt's successor and rookie head coach, and the Lady Vols are once again Southeastern Conference favorites.
After a summer when every player remained on campus, Warlick is optimistic about her team's chemistry, work ethic and of course talent level.
"This year I don't have to coach a lot of effort," the second-year coach said Thursday at SEC media days. "The practices we've had, just the energy and the work ethic has been unbelievable. I think you can get where you want to go with the help of your team being on the same page. I thought last year, I don't think I had to prove myself, but it was different for our players, it was different for me.
"Every day, every game, I learned more, got more comfortable."
The result was a 27-8 season, third straight trip to a regional final and an SEC title for a team that was picked to finish fourth.
Warlick has five of her top six scorers returning. The Lady Vols still have to contend with Kentucky, which returns four starters from a team that went 30-6 and was the SEC runner-up.
Seven SEC teams combined to post a 14-7 record in last season's NCAA tournament. Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee all lost in a regional final.
The Lady Vols return preseason SEC player of the year Meighan Simmons and last season's league newcomer of the year Bashaara Graves. Joining the mix is 6-foot-6 freshman Mercedes Russell, regarded by some recruiting services as the nation's top prospect.
The team appears to have the talent to make a run at its first Final Four since winning the national championship in 2008.
"I think it's one of the most talented teams we've had in a while," Warlick said. "I think we've got pieces in place that could be special. I think for us it's a matter of staying healthy, staying focused and probably staying playing together."
So she set about working on the chemistry and leadership. Every player remained in Knoxville throughout the summer at her request.
"It has benefited us a lot more, because it has caused us to create a stronger chemistry and be more cohesive on the floor and off the floor," Simmons said. "We don't have to be together all the time, but we know something new about each and every player on the team. I think that's a great thing that she's done there. It keeps us together. It doesn't make us feel as if we're just individuals on a team, but we're a team."
Warlick's mission with Simmons was to improve her defensive play. Simmons averaged 16.8 points a game last season.
"Our goal for her is to play on both ends of the floor," Warlick said. "Meighan has a little bit developed a bad rap that all she cares about is offense. She's a great offensive player and as a freshman she was one of our leading scorers. So she's been asked to play that role.
"I think Meighan this summer and this fall has understood the importance of the defensive end. That's just a learning experience for her."
Kentucky has similarly high expectations, despite losing SEC player of the year A'Dia Mathies. No. 2 scorer and rebounder DeNesha Stalworth, a 6-3 forward, leads the returnees.
Coach Matthew Mitchell's Wildcats have gone 111-30 over the past four seasons. Kentucky assistant Matt Insell is another key departure, having left to take over Mississippi's program.
The Wildcats lost 83-53 to eventual national champion Connecticut, and they're aiming even higher this season.
"The Final Four and SEC championship," Stallworth said of the team's goals. "I think we could win a national championship if we all buy into the system and if we all just contribute on the floor."