Whether the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga women's basketball team continues its streak of Southern Conference championships could hinge on the knees of three of its players.
Forwards Capriee Tucker and Bailey Dewart and guard Kiara Smith are all working their way back this preseason from major knee injuries. Tucker and Dewart redshirted last season following surgery, while Smith, who had surgery before her freshman season in 2008, played in 21 games in 2009-10 but averaged just 5.2 minutes an appearance.
"I feel like a veteran because I've been here so long, but at times basketball-wise I'm still catching up with the other players because I've only been on the court a limited amount of time," said Tucker, who played in seven games as a freshman during the 2008-09 season before suffering her third ACL injury.
The 6-foot Tucker, who can help give UTC some much-needed depth in the post, has had major surgery twice on her left knee and once on her right. Despite the rigors of rehab, she said she has never thought about hanging up her sneakers.
"I haven't gotten to that point yet," she said.
Tucker has been fully cleared to play since April, which has given her plenty of time to again get comfortable on the court. But Dewart and Smith are still held out of certain activities and could be for a while.
"I don't have a meniscus anymore, so I'm just going to have to deal with it," said Dewart, a 5-11 wing whom coach Wes Moore wants to use at the 4 spot.
Dewart played in 16 games as a freshman and in 18 as a sophomore before suffering a season-ending injury. Like Tucker, she is very eager to get back on the floor after missing all of last season.
"I have my good days and my bad days," Dewart said, "so when it's really good I'm just like, 'This is awesome!' But you never know when it's going to start aching. When you have bad days, it's really frustrating.
"Practicing feels so awesome because I'm so tired of just watching."
Dewart recently was held out of four straight practices and Smith also has good days and bad ones. Moore said if the two of them were "100 percent, if they were healthy and without pain, there's no doubt that they would be big factors for us."
As the Lady Mocs, winners of 11 straight SoCon titles, prepare for their Nov. 12 season opener against East Tennessee State, Moore is hopeful that all those troublesome knees will stay strong.
In the meantime, he practices Dewart and Smith when team trainer Erin Weaver says they can go and is getting some freshmen prepared to play significant roles.
"Again, if they're healthy I know what kind of players they can be for us," Moore said. "With our numbers being where they are, we're having to prepare more players than ever to play more than one position."