Tennessee has been in the hunt for Mercedes Russell essentially since the beginning of her recruitment. And the Lady Vols will be there at the end when the 6-foot-5 center from Springfield (Ore.) High School makes her final choice this fall.
ESPN HoopGurlz's top-ranked prospect for the Class of 2013 has narrowed her choices from 10 schools to two: UT and Louisville.
"They've been frontrunners pretty much from the get-go," Springfield coach Bill Wagner said.
Russell has made multiple unofficial visits to both schools, and Wagner said that Russell is comfortable with both coaching staffs. Wagner said that coaches from both schools will make home visits later this month. Russell will make an official visit to Tennessee the weekend of Sept. 20 and visit Louisville the following weekend.
"She's still up in the air with her decision," Wagner said. "She might have a slight lean one way or another but she's not saying."
Russell's name came up this summer in connection with North Carolina after four players — including Russell's close friend, Stephanie Mavunga — verbally committed to the Tar Heels. But Wagner characterized the situation as fueled more by "speculation than actual truth."
"She never visited (North Carolina),'' Wagner said. "She never had a lot of conversation with the coaching staff."
Russell averaged 26 points, 15 rebounds, six blocks and five assists last season. She was named the Class 5A player of the year for Oregon. With just two schools vying for a player of Russell's stature, the competition figures to
be fierce. Wagner doesn't expect things to overheat, however.
"Obviously it's a fight; both programs want her,'' Wagner said. "But I don't see it getting nasty. I think each program respects the job the other has done."
In other recruiting news, post player Kendall Cooper will visit UT the weekend of Oct. 22 instead of this weekend. And guard Rebekah Dahlman is expected to visit the weekend of Oct. 20.
King's Honor: Former UT coach Pat Summitt was presented with the Billie Jean King Legacy Award by King herself Tuesday at the U.S. Open. The tennis icon added some personal praise by saying, "Pat changed the face of all sports, not just women's sports."
Summitt, who has been diagnosed with early onset dementia Alzheimer's type, stepped down after last season to become a head coach emeritus for the Lady Vols.
"Billie Jean's efforts opened so many doors for so many people and so a lot of us could be able to pursue our passion,'' Summitt said. "I am so glad to be here with all of you."
Summitt was in Atlanta on Wednesday night to be recognized by the WNBA's Atlanta Dream. She will be honored before the Tennessee Titans' game against New England on Sunday in Nashville.
Doubly Motivated: Janet Mick wasn't thinking solely of Candace Parker when the Lady Vols season ticket holder launched a campaign to encourage UT's athletic department to retire the jersey number of the former All-American sooner rather than later. Mick also had Summitt in mind.
"We want to get this done for Candace while Pat's still a part of the program,'' Mick said.
Mick, who said that she has been a Lady Vols' fan for 35 years, has started a petition on change.org and has collected 205 signatures.
"What I was hoping to do is get some signatures behind it first," Mick said.
Parker's last season with the Lady Vols was 2008, when the three-time All-American led UT to a second consecutive national championship. The last Lady Vol to have her number retired was Tamika Catchings on Dec. 7, 2003, two years after she graduated.
"This probably would be done some time down the line," said Mick, referring to Parker. "Could they consider doing it sooner?"
Another Early Start: The Lady Vols again plan to utilize the women's basketball guidelines established last season, allowing teams to start preseason practice 40 days ahead of their season opener. Teams are limited to 30 practices during the extended time frame.
While the date of UT's first practice isn't set yet, the Nov. 9 season opener at Chattanooga will allow them to start in early October.