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.