By the time a freshman plays in the NCAA tournament, she isn't really a freshman anymore. At least that's the adage. Accumulated wisdom is supposed to shape her into something more like the player she will be as a sophomore than the naive new arrival of the previous fall.
Its freshman class at the forefront of a resurgence with the promise to end a decade-long Final Four drought, Tennessee had reason to hope there was a kernel of truth to the line after a 15-0 start this season. Following a brutal four-game stretch that included a meltdown at Notre Dame and a blowout loss against Mississippi State, that adage becomes a necessity for Rennia Davis, Anastasia Hayes and Evina Westbrook.
They have talent. They need to be quick studies over the final 10 games of the regular season. They and the rest of the team now know what remains to be learned.
"The willingness to learn is just as important as having talented kids," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said before the recent stretch of three losses in four games against ranked opponents. "You can have talent, and if they think they know everything, they're not going to get any better. If you're willing to receive coaching to get better, you know you've got kids that are special."
It is perhaps a good omen, then, that one of them hasn't really been a freshman for quite some time. The hours of college credit that Davis brought with her to Knoxville said plenty about her willingness to learn.
On the court, Davis is Tennessee's third-leading scorer and rebounder this season. She trails only seniors Jaime Nared and Mercedes Russell in both categories. The 3-point touch that potentially makes the 6-foot-2 forward such a nightmare to defend has proved inconsistent, perhaps part of the reason Westbrook has been the bigger freshman scorer over the past month, but there doesn't appear to be much that is beyond Davis' ability on a basketball court.
"That is one kid that is so willing to learn," Warlick said. "She hasn't tapped the surface of how good she can be."
And it's also why she is ahead of most freshmen in tapping that potential off the court.
When she was still just a freshman in high school, Davis learned she would be signing up for an accelerated learning program offered through her Jacksonville, Florida, school. It was initially her mother Sheretta's idea. Davis went along without complaint because, well, it wouldn't have done much good to complain anyway.
"Getting a college education is the start of doing well in life," Davis said, "at least in our household."
"That is one kid that is so willing to learn. She hasn't tapped the surface of how good she can be."Tennessee coach Holly Warlick on Rennia Davis
If completed, the program allowed high school students to graduate with an Associate of Arts degree from Florida State College at Jacksonville (unaffiliated with the university in Tallahassee). As a freshman and sophomore, that just meant keeping grades and test scores in good standing to remain part of the program. But as a junior and senior, Davis and a dozen or so others from her high school took all of their classes at the college alongside regular students.
They rode high school buses to campus, but there wasn't much hand holding beyond transport.
"I would say I had more freedom my junior and senior year than I probably have here now at the University of Tennessee," Davis said. "Of course we went to class because we wanted to stay in the program, but we weren't obligated -- nobody checked to see if we went to class. We were just 16- and 17-year-olds around adults all the time."
As a result, Davis enrolled at Tennessee with essentially two full years of class credit, a total Lady Vols director of academic support services Dr. Brian Russell estimated at about 55 hours. That compared to perhaps 10 to 15 hours of advanced placement credits that some high school students might carry into college. That flexibility should allow the hotel, restaurant and tourism major, with a minor in business administration, to graduate in as little as two and a half years and complete most or all of a master's within four years.
Just as she competes against upperclassmen like Texas' Ariel Atkins and Brooke McCarty, Stanford's Brittany McPhee and South Carolina's A'ja Wilson on the basketball court, Davis also takes classes alongside more sophomores, juniors and seniors than her fellow freshmen.
"It's the quiet thinkers that are the ones that are most impressive when we get into the academic realm," Dr. Russell said. "She definitely has a different kind of mindset academically. She's not going to be the loudest, she's not going to be the most talkative in class. But she's there doing extremely well. And when you get to know her and she opens up, she's got an incredible personality. She's driven, and she's got this motivation to use every opportunity while she's at Tennessee to make sure she has an opportunity to live that dream."
As a freshman, even one who in some ways isn't a freshman, Davis lives a regimented life -- as she noted, more even than in the high school program. A mandatory daily breakfast is followed by classes and tutoring through the early afternoon and then basketball practice. She concedes that there was a time before college when she was as competitive in the classroom as she is on the basketball court, that it bothered her if someone got a better grade. That might not be entirely gone, but perhaps crucially to managing her current workload, she has learned to focus on herself.
"I wouldn't say it was easy," Davis said of the transition to college, on and off the court. "Everybody has their days where, I don't know, you just question it. But for me, this is something I want to do. I want to get my master's degree and I want to go play professional basketball. So from the school aspect and the basketball aspect, I understand I have a bigger goal."
That goal, too, came courtesy of her mother, but this time more indirectly. After basketball runs its course, or perhaps in conjunction with a career on the court, Davis wants to run a restaurant. She envisions a soul food menu, a few steps up from fast food but far from froufrou. The kind of place where people can gather, eat and be comfortable. For while she learned to value an education at her mother's elbow, those hands were often engaged in feeding the family.
"For me, outside of basketball and probably sleep, I'm not really interested in that many things," Davis allowed. "But when I would be around my mom in the kitchen and she would cook, I just started adapting to it and getting more comfortable around it. I understand basketball is not always going to be around, so If I'm going to have another job, I want it to be something I like. After basketball, my next love is cooking, so that's why I said I want to own my own restaurant."
To make the most of the lone season shared with Nared and Russell, Tennessee needs its youngest players to be something more than freshmen by March. It needs them to be quick learners. That Davis already was in August hints at why this might just be the group to pull that off.