Marta Suárez out for season, but Lady Vols basketball confident with mix of freshmen and veterans
Lady Vols basketball coach Kellie Harper took the stage for her third SEC media day and started with some tough news: sophomore forward Marta Suárez is out with a foot injury and will not play this season.
Suárez started the first 14 games for Tennessee last season and played in 22 games. She earned SEC All-Freshman Team honors and was expected to be a key returner for the Lady Vols.
"It's unfortunate for her, unfortunate for our team, because I think she brings great talent, great size and competitiveness to the court," Harper said. "So we will be there to support her throughout her rehab and look forward to getting her on the court in the future."
With Suárez out, it may increase the roles of newcomers sooner than later.
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Freshmen here to work
Harper has sung the praises of her freshmen and said they've already impacted the culture. Sara Puckett described the four freshmen as having a positive energy and all of them showed an eagerness to contribute.
"I'm just ready for anything they want me to do," Puckett said. "I'll give 100% effort every single time."
The No. 8 forward in espnW rankings, Puckett is one of the Lady Vols' options to fill the hole left by Suárez. She averaged a double-double her senior year (20.6 points and 10.1 rebounds per game) and her scoring ability and basketball IQ have impressed.
Karoline Striplin will provide depth in the post and Harper has already seen her physicality on the blocks.
"One of the most determined young women I've ever coached," Harper said. "I think she's just gonna figure it out somehow, someway."
Lady Vols have depth, versatility
Harper sees depth as one of the team's strengths, and she's not wrong. Especially with graduate transfer Alexus Dye and Keyen Green back from injury, there's no shortage of options at any position.
"We have players that we feel like can step in and make plays," Harper said. "Obviously Alexus Dye is very experienced. She brings unique skill set in that she is very athletic, plays with great aggressiveness on both ends of the court ... I think that experience and competitiveness alone will will help us immediately."
The other piece to that depth is how versatile players are on the team. There are several players who can switch between the one and two, three and four or four and five.
"We can really move people around, change the look of our team," Harper said. "We can put in a pretty good motion team that can spread the floor and shoot it ... We can put a lot of different looks on the court because of that versatility and I do think that could be a really good strength of ours this year."
Defense already making strides
The defense is already further along at this point than last season, which is something Harper credited to the personalities on the team.
"We're very aggressive right now and we're a little bit more risk-taking, maybe a little bit more ball pressure," Harper said. "I think our personalities are more in line of where I want to be defensively ... because of that we've been able to assess where they're at, and give them a little bit more and really, really push them on the defensive end."
One of those personalities is freshman guard Kaiya Wynn, who Harper said will be one of their better perimeter defenders "right off the bat." The Lady Vols would benefit from stronger defense around the perimeter after allowing nearly seven 3-pointers per game last season.
"Kaiya Wynn is very athletic, and very aggressive," Harper said. "Her high motor is infectious, I think we'll take on a lot of that personality."
An abundance of veterans
The Lady Vols have a strong mix of fresh faces and veterans. With Green, Rae Burrell and Jordan Walker, there is no shortage of leaders. Green was named by both Striplin and Puckett as a teammate who took them under her wing and helped them adjust.
"She's helping me see things on the court that I may not have see before," Puckett said. "And so I feel like she's done very well and I just feel like she impacted everyone else, also, not just me."
Walker said she's gotten out of her comfort zone already in terms of leading the team. She's learned her own style of leading and being more vocal.
"It's not like 'rah, rah rah,' like coach Kellie always says, but it's just guiding them, and if there's something I can help them go through, because I've been in their position, just to help them out and just to try to lead them through different things," Walker said. "I know that when I talk that they listen, and when they talk, I listen too, I feel like we built that trust with each other."