No. 1 Russell Decides

No. 1 Russell Decides
No. 1 Russell Decides

When you stand 6 feet 5 inches tall, especially as a female, you attract a lot of attention.  And when you can hoop like the nation’s top ranked player, Mercedes Russell, can, even as a 17-year-old, you command a lot of attention.  But that is a spotlight that the Springfield, Ore., native has grown into, and just in time, as she announced her verbal commitment to the University of Tennessee on Tuesday.

“Nothing has changed,” Russell’s mother, Tammy Hill said, “I am not sure she ever felt she was in the spotlight.”

“I think I’ve opened up more and started talking more,” Russell said.  “I think eventually it’ll be more natural.”

Russell, who now is not a bona fide social media darling with more than 1,700 followers on Twitter, all while living in a city of less than 60,000 people, was not always comfortable in the spotlight, in fact the first time we tried to do an video interview with her, she warned us she wasn’t much of a talker.  Well nobody can say she didn’t tell the truth.  But more than two years later, with two FIBA gold medals around her neck and the No. 1 ranking in the 2013 class, she is ready to be the star in Knoxville.

“Mercedes’ approach is to continue to get better every time she steps on the court,” Hill added.  “I don’t’ think she has ever felt like she has reach the top which has kept her humble and grounded.”

Much has been made about the last graduating class from Tennessee and how they never took the team to a Final Four.  In some ways this could place even larger expectations on Russell’s shoulders than even her top rankings.

“I just don’t pay attention to it much,” Russell said of the hype and expectation.

So what if Russell isn’t the next Candace Parker?

Honestly she’s not Parker.  Their games and styles are not directly comparable.  Parker went to high school at Naperville Central, in a Chicago suburb.  Springfield is adjacent to Eugene, which is 105 miles south of Portland, hardly a suburb.  While both are skilled, Parker was lauded for her versatility while most are in love with Russell’s game for her high skill level at the center position.

For Tennessee, perhaps this is the recruit they have been missing purely for the fact that Russell is a true post player, even with her ability to pass, shoot and dribble.  The injuries to Vicky Baugh and Kelley Cain, both celebrated prep stars in their own right, as well as missing a seasoned true point guard, kept last year’s graduating class from cutting the prestigious mustard that fans on Rocky Top demand.  Nobody can dispute the talent the Lady Vols had at the 2, 3 and 4 positions.

But expectations in Knoxville are different, and head coach Holly Warlick has no intentions of letting them slip in the post-Pat Summitt era.  And for once a coaching change didn’t hurt a program’s recruiting.

“I had a great relationship with Holly and (assistant coach) Dean (Lockwood) before they announced Pat’s retirement,” Russell added.

With Russell choosing Tennessee over her other finalist, Louisville, her focus now shifts to a potential championship three-peat in the State of Oregon and possibly a little recruiting of her own.

“I’m definitely going to try and get a couple of those players to come with me,” Russell said of the laundry list of players considering the Lady Vols.

Russell joins fellow five-star prospect Jannah Tucker of Randallstown, Md., a 6-0 guard in Tennessee’s recruiting class to date.

#PeachStateTV Extra: Brandon Clay and Keil Moore sit down with Marques Burnett talk about Russell's impact at Tennessee:

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