John Adams: Mercedes Russell picking Lady Vols important start for Holly Warlick

John Adams
Head coach Holly Warlick demonstrates some of her ball handling skills for photographers during media day for the University of Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team at Pratt Pavillion, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. The Lady Vols will play Carson-Newman in their first exhibition game on Thursday at 7 p.m. (AMY SMOTHERMAN BURGESS/NEWS SENTINEL)

Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess

Head coach Holly Warlick demonstrates some of her ball handling skills for photographers during media day for the University of Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team at Pratt Pavillion, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. The Lady Vols will play Carson-Newman in their first exhibition game on Thursday at 7 p.m. (AMY SMOTHERMAN BURGESS/NEWS SENTINEL)

Passing the baton: Lady Vols carrying on tradition

Although one Tennessee women's basketball season is a day away, two other seasons are still a part of the conversation.

First-year coach Holly Warlick complimented her team Tuesday by contrasting its work ethic with its predecessor's.

"I haven't had to coach effort," she said at UT's media day. "That's been one of my concerns for past teams."

But by the end of the day, the past and present had to make way for the future.

A big part of that future could be Mercedes Russell, a 6-foot-5 high school All-American from Springfield, Ore. She announced her intention to sign with the Lady Vols late Tuesday afternoon.

Signing the No. 1-ranked player in the country was a big deal even when coach Pat Summitt was maintaining the championship dynasty she built. It's a bigger deal now.

It tells you that even though the Summitt era was cut short by a disease, the Lady Vols can still extend their recruiting reach to the far corners of the country in pursuit of the game's best players. Summitt, who suffers from Alzheimer's, now serves as head coach emeritus. Russell will get to know

her, but not as a coach.

You had to wonder how the loss of the game's greatest coach would impact recruiting. The answer came when Russell said "yes" — not to the legendary Pat Summitt, but to the program Summitt left behind and the assistant coach she groomed as her successor.

Coaches can't voice their elation over such news. They have to wait until the commitment becomes a signing. While they can't discuss Russell, they can discuss players like her.

When UT assistant coach Dean Lockwood joined the program in 2004, one of his first conversations with Summitt involved an incoming freshman.

"You're going to love this kid," Summitt told Lockwood.

The kid was 6-5 Candace Parker, who would become a three-time All-American and help lead UT to two national championships. Parker's versatility was as noteworthy as her size and talent.

"There were just so many things you could do with her," Lockwood said, making his point by shifting into a boxer's stance — first as a right-hander, then as a lefty — before running in and out of a nearby foul lane.

Russell's ball-handling skills might not be as advanced as Parker's, but she's also capable of playing inside or on the perimeter. The only negative aspect of her commitment is that she's unavailable for immediate duty.

The Lady Vols must replace their entire starting lineup from last season. Two of those starters, Glory Johnson and Shekinna Stricklen, were first-round WNBA draft picks. This team doesn't have that kind of talent.

But that prominent senior class is now remembered more for unfulfilled potential than production.

"Sometimes, last year's team didn't play as hard as it should have," Warlick said. "The talent was there, but I just thought at times we weren't as consistent. We have to make sure this team understands we can't be up and down."

Senior Taber Spani, who has assumed a leadership role, doesn't have to be coached up on the subject.

Asked if she thought last season's team underachieved, she said, "I thought we underachieved the last three years."

That's in the past. Russell is in the future.

Maybe the team in between will make the effort to bridge the talent gap.

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or adamsj@knoxnews.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/johnadamskns.

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Comments » 17

RockyTFrustrated writes:

#1 recruit in the nation! And she's from Oregon? WOW. Rocky Top you'll always have a large wide wonderful orange net to me!!

Keep reeling 'em in, Holly!

Couldn't happen to a better person, btw. And I was skeptical.....

I apologize, Holly. And congratulations.

Fall_Creek_Vols writes:

Not exactly a brilliant observation, but still one that's hard to argue with. Yes, it's great to have Russell. No, they haven't won a game yet.

Still, ya gotta admit...the future is suddenly very bright indeed.

voloffaith writes:

in response to Fall_Creek_Vols:

Not exactly a brilliant observation, but still one that's hard to argue with. Yes, it's great to have Russell. No, they haven't won a game yet.

Still, ya gotta admit...the future is suddenly very bright indeed.

"Bright" ORANGE that is!!!!!!! Please park that Mercedes at Thompson-Boling ma'am.........

SummittsCourt writes:

It's not just signing Mercedes Russell, it's those who will want to play with her that really sets things apart for the Lady Vols. She's going to be an all time great because she will play hard and be coached well.

BTW, it's nice to see Taber sees what we all saw the last three years.

snafu14u#241639 writes:

Very significant news. On a lot of levels this is huge. Impact on the team and wins/loses, and on the brand. I live in Oregon and this young lady is top notch and special. She is very much a "Summitt" style player. And could bring others of the same ilk. This news made my week. BonzaiVol

VolsFan4Lyfe writes:

For all the TRUE fans out there...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=...#!

tturley#297658 writes:

Welcome to Big Orange Country Mercedes, look forward to seeing you play the next four years!

atnvol#283282 writes:

Good to see things heading in the right direction....good luck this year Holly.....this team giving total effort will be a great step for the future.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to SummittsCourt:

It's not just signing Mercedes Russell, it's those who will want to play with her that really sets things apart for the Lady Vols. She's going to be an all time great because she will play hard and be coached well.

BTW, it's nice to see Taber sees what we all saw the last three years.

Agree with all. For all their apparent talent, it rarely seemed that last year's team, as well as their immediate predecessors, just didn't seem to understand that, to succeed at the highest levels, you just HAVE to play as hard and smart as you CAN, ALL THE TIME! Or that it OUGHT to mean something special to wear the LV colors. Maybe one could put some of the blame last year on the hullabaloo about Pat's condition and all the tributes and such that went with it, but they just didn't seem to have the hearts of champions that allow them to use such circumstances as inspiration rather than distraction, as if there just wasn't enough praise and recognition to go around for them. Hopefully, we have seen the last of that attitude over there.

murrayvol writes:

Seems all the good news is on the roundball front lately.

Mercedes, the Volunteer Nation welcomes you.

murrayvol writes:

in response to johnlg00:

Agree with all. For all their apparent talent, it rarely seemed that last year's team, as well as their immediate predecessors, just didn't seem to understand that, to succeed at the highest levels, you just HAVE to play as hard and smart as you CAN, ALL THE TIME! Or that it OUGHT to mean something special to wear the LV colors. Maybe one could put some of the blame last year on the hullabaloo about Pat's condition and all the tributes and such that went with it, but they just didn't seem to have the hearts of champions that allow them to use such circumstances as inspiration rather than distraction, as if there just wasn't enough praise and recognition to go around for them. Hopefully, we have seen the last of that attitude over there.

Last year was difficult for players, coaches, and fans and it does no good to assign blame. It's just the way it was.

I believe change is gonna come.

CarlChilders writes:

Hope no one photoshops the ball out of that picture.

voloffaith writes:

in response to CarlChilders:

Hope no one photoshops the ball out of that picture.

Hey mister happy days guy it is her INDEX finger.........geez we celebrate your cerebral moment...........

ModelMaker writes:

This is really great news. I'am really looking forward to watching her play. Great accomplishment for Holly and her staff.

CarlChilders writes:

in response to voloffaith:

Hey mister happy days guy it is her INDEX finger.........geez we celebrate your cerebral moment...........

Of course it is, but I thought something on the lighter side might be good for a few readers. Sorry I made your day more miserable.

OrangeBloodFlood writes:

in response to VolsFan4Lyfe:

For all the TRUE fans out there...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=...#!

Thanks for the link.What a classy young lady,a welcome addition to the Lady Vols program.This story reflects what I've thought all along,this was one of the most underachieving recruiting classes Pat ever recruited(Holly and one of their teammates agreed).Glory Johnson turned it on at the end....too little...too late !

johnlg00 writes:

in response to murrayvol:

Last year was difficult for players, coaches, and fans and it does no good to assign blame. It's just the way it was.

I believe change is gonna come.

Of course you're right; I didn't mean to single out any particular one. There was surely a strange zeitgeist around the whole program since Pat's diagnosis. Hopefully, they have all gotten over most of that by now. I surely loved what I saw last night from this new bunch!

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