Lady Vols need big season from 6-foot-6 Mercedes Russell
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee's Mercedes Russell wants to build on the momentum she established in the NCAA Tournament and meet the considerable expectations that surrounded the 6-foot-6 junior since her arrival on campus.
Russell averaged a double-double in the tournament and had a 25-point, 15-rebound performance in a regional semifinal victory over Ohio State. She delivered the production many Lady Volunteers fans anticipated from Russell when multiple recruiting services rated her the nation's No. 1 overall prospect in the class of 2013.
''It definitely helped my confidence, I would say, in a lot of ways,'' said Russell, of Springfield, Oregon.
Her development is critical as the Lady Vols deal with a lack of frontcourt depth following the graduation of Bashaara Graves, one of only five players in school history to combine 1,000 career rebounds and 1,500 points.
Overall depth is a concern for Tennessee, which opens the season Nov. 11 at James Madison. Tennessee's roster includes 11 players, but only nine of them are available this season because of injuries to sophomore guard Te'a Cooper and junior forward Cheridene Green.
But the lack of proven performers is particularly evident in the frontcourt.
''I definitely have a lot of responsibility just because I'm the only returning post,'' Russell said. ''As an upperclassman, I know I have to step up and help the other posts. I know the responsibility I have in the frontcourt is huge.''
Tennessee's coaches have made that clear.
Assistant coach Dean Lockwood says the staff hasn't set particular numbers for Russell to target but adds that she needs to be a ''pretty consistent double-double performer.'' Coaches say Russell is stronger and gained confidence and assertiveness.
''We need to get Mercedes the ball more,'' coach Holly Warlick said. ''That's difficult when people are keying in on her, running a zone and packing it in on her. That's hard because Mercedes shoots a great percentage, so we've got to find ways to try to get her the ball a little bit more, and she has to work a little harder (to get the ball). I think she's doing that right now. It's a compliment to her, but it also forces her to take her game to another level.''
Russell has been accustomed to dealing with high expectations. She was Tennessee's highest-ranked recruit since Candace Parker signed with the Lady Vols in 2004.
Injuries and inconsistency have made it tough for Russell to live up to that ranking, although she has been productive.
Russell spent her entire freshman season dealing with foot problems that limited her effectiveness. She eventually underwent surgeries on both of her feet and sat out the entire 2014-15 season to recover.
''Last year was really truly Mercedes' freshman year,'' Warlick said. ''Her (actual) freshman year, her feet were bad. She couldn't even run up and down the floor.''
She returned to action last season and averaged 9.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks, although her real breakthrough came in the postseason. She had 13 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and shot 68.6 percent from the floor in the NCAA Tournament.
Russell's emergence helped Tennessee make a surprising run to a regional final as a No. 7 seed during a season in which the Lady Vols went 22-14 and set a school record for losses. The Lady Vols need her to make even more strides as they chase their first Final Four appearance since their 2008 championship season.
''Her being a high school player of the year, people say, `Oh gosh, we expect to see Breanna Stewart or Tina Charles,'" Lockwood said. ''She hasn't been that yet, but at the same time, she's been very consistent. Last year she was very consistent for us in terms of productivity, field-goal percentage and rebounding.
''We want more - and I think she knows she's capable of more.''