Each year I sit down with friend and colleague Maria Cornelius, the Lady Vols senior writer for InsideTennessee.com, to get her perspective on the upcoming Tennessee season. Her presence at practices and games for almost two decades gives her invaluable insight into the team.
This year sees the return of center Mercedes Russell from foot surgery, and the activation of transfer Diamond DeShields. These powerful additions to an already-loaded roster have created much fan excitement.
Sue Favor: This is Holly’s fourth year as head coach. How has she changed since her first year?
Maria Cornelius: I think Holly Warlick is making the adjustment on and off the court. The demands on a head coach can’t fully be appreciated until you actually are in the job. She is accessible to the media – and that is critical for coverage of the program – and she has a good rapport with the fans.
I don’t think, in general, that people realized how devastating Pat Summitt’s diagnosis was to Warlick. Her office is a tribute to Summitt from her whistle to photographs on the walls and desk. I think going into her fourth season she has been able to find some emotional equilibrium with what happened to her former coach, mother figure and mentor.
The assistant coaches mentioned at Media Day last month that they all have a much better idea of what Warlick wants to accomplish and what she needs from them. This staff essentially has evolved together.
I think Warlick also is tougher now. She has to be a disciplinarian, and she will let it be known when she isn’t happy. Several players have seen some sunrises this fall for extra conditioning sessions when they ran afoul of Warlick’s expectations. Assistant coaches can be the buffer with players. Head coaches have to lower the boom. I think Warlick is more comfortable now in that role.
Sue Favor: There is a lot of anticipation around the return of Mercedes from injury and Diamond from sitting out. How have they looked in practice? How big of an impact do you think they will make on this team?
Maria Cornelius: Mercedes Russell has looked fantastic. She is still getting in top basketball shape and will need a few games this season to fully get her sea legs, so to speak, but she logged 34 minutes in the exhibition game, since senior Nia Moore was out (ribs; day-to-day). So, she can play extended minutes.
Russell gives the Lady Vols a true big inside at 6-6. She is pain-free and mobile now. It is important to note that she wasn’t injured. The surgeries essentially corrected the alignment of her feet. It was just better to do the operations back-to-back and let her sit a season to fully recover. More importantly, she had all summer to work out on the court and in the weight room.
Diamond DeShields played her freshman year in quite a bit of leg pain – and still won national freshman of the year at North Carolina. She would not have played last season even if she didn’t have to sit a year following the transfer because of the lower leg injury.
She is being eased back and hasn’t been fully released in practice. The intent is to have her ready for the long haul. She will log some minutes in early season games to test the leg, but I don’t expect her to really be turned loose until maybe December or January. She is a game-changer. DeShields and Russell will consume a lot of attention from the defense.
Sue Favor: In the past the Lady Vols have relied a lot on senior leadership. This year there are only two seniors in Bashaara Graves and Nia Moore. How does that effect the team?
Maria Cornelius: It was clearly a concern of the coaching staff as Holly Warlick mentioned several times over the summer and in preseason about who would step up as a leader among the players. Post players are rarely the leaders on teams. Former Lady Vol Nicky Anosike was an exception, as was Izzy Harrison. It is a role that usually falls to guards and perimeter players.
Nia Moore is naturally quiet and Bashaara Graves is not someone who would be forceful off the court. Both should make it a priority to set examples on the court. As far as overall team leadership, it is likely to come from a guard, such as Andraya Carter and Jordan Reynolds. Jaime Nared, while just a sophomore, also has shown some leadership abilities.
Sue Favor: How have last year’s freshman class – Dunbar, Nared, Middleton – evolved this year?
Maria Cornelius: Kortney Dunbar has shifted to a stretch four – and she could thrive there. It is similar to what Sidney Spencer did at Tennessee. While Spencer had a better midrange shot than Dunbar has right now, Dunbar has deep three ball range so she can pull defenses well out of the paint. She also is ideal to hit a trail three because it will be a post player or shorter perimeter player trying to pick her up in the open court.
Jaime Nared has a high ceiling for the Lady Vols and will help inside and out. She is a ferocious rebounder, too, and has some snarl to her game (like Spencer did). She is out with a broken hand sustained in practice – her hand got stepped on as she dove for a loose ball – but she is expected back in two weeks.
Alexa Middleton has worked on getting her shot off quicker and ball security. Tennessee is playing with low numbers because of injury, and the Lady Vols want to run, so Warlick plans to deploy the roster.
Sue Favor: How are freshmen T’ea Cooper and MeMe Jackson fitting in?
Maria Cornelius: Both initially struggled with the pace and physicality of college basketball, as all freshmen do. Jackson was in catch-up mode when it came to conditioning, but she plays hard when she’s on the floor and has some much-needed attitude. She also can hit the long ball and enjoys playing defense. She wasn’t heralded in high school and has something to prove. Like any freshman, she needs some veteran guidance, but she can be a significant contributor as a freshman.
Te’a Cooper arrived with all the accolades and, like Jackson, had to make the adjustment to college-level practices and workouts in terms of length, intensity and expectations. The All-American accolades mean you are talented, but they don’t get you up the infamous Gate 10 ramp at Neyland Stadium. The best thing for Cooper and Jackson is that they arrived early in the summer and went through strength and conditioning. Both made steady progress all summer and fall.
The SEC is the deepest conference in the country – it is the only major conference in women’s basketball where the last-place team has a legitimate shot of beating the first-place team – and loaded with athletes.
Cooper will make her mark as a freshman, no doubt, but it’s a steep learning curve in the SEC, especially at point guard. How big of a mark she makes is in her court. It will be one of the season’s storylines worth following – how quickly will Cooper adjust to college basketball in a physical league full of players that grind every game. She has the talent to succeed. Will she have the will? That is a question every freshman has to answer over the course of a long season.
Sue Favor: Will they live up to their preseason picks of second in the SEC and fourth in the nation?
Maria Cornelius: The talent is there. Tennessee has to do what it hasn’t done since 2008 – stay healthy. For the last seven seasons the Lady Vols have taken a torpedo broadside in terms of injuries, especially to players who had to be on the floor for Tennessee to have Final Four-level success.
If the Lady Vols can keep key players suited up all season, I like their chances to win the conference and be in Indianapolis. DeShields and Russell simply change the dynamic on both ends.
Sue Favor: How is the junior class looking?
Maria Cornelius: It definitely changed. Jordan Reynolds is the only true junior since Jannah Tucker transferred and Mercedes Russell took a redshirt year. Reynolds is joined by redshirt juniors, Carter and Jasmine Jones.
Carter will defend, swipe the ball and keep rebounds alive on the offensive end with her leaping ability. The question is will she score? She put up 19 points in the exhibition game so that was a great sign. She has to keep that up with 10 points a game or so – Warlick will gladly take more – as she is so valuable to Tennessee on the defensive end.
Jones essentially missed last season under the concussion protocol as she never returned after taking a blow to the face against Stanford in December. She will need time to get her sea legs, but she is a tenacious rebounder and will get to the rim with the ball. Jones also can be assigned to the other team’s go-to player so she is invaluable on defense.
Reynolds is a gamer. She can post up and get to the paint from the point guard or wing position. She also has plenty of experience. Reynolds knows what Warlick wants done on the court and is steady and dependable. Coaches like those kind of players. A lot.
Sue Favor: How is team chemistry?
Maria Cornelius: That is an excellent question. This is a very young team overall with several new parts to implement with two freshmen, a transfer and the return of Jones and Russell. In past years, the Lady Vols have talked about how close they are, but that can sometimes be overrated. This team hasn’t said that but what matters is how they connect on the court. It’s too soon to tell because the early season injuries have led to some patchwork lineups. I would expect the answer to this question will evolve over the season.
Sue Favor: Is anyone going to surprise this year?
Maria Cornelius: MeMe Jackson is an easy choice simply because she didn’t arrive with a resume of honors. She made an unofficial visit to Tennessee during her junior year in high school and committed in February of 2014. She ignored attempts by others to get her to de-commit and stuck with her decision to go to Tennessee. Warlick appreciates her loyalty and steadfastness. She has to get used to a college pace – practice and games – but she has the capability to succeed in an athletic league.
Kortney Dunbar was used sparingly as a freshman and has the chance to log significant minutes as a sophomore if she continues to develop at the stretch four spot. She needs reps and confidence, which go hand in hand. She is learning how to play inside, so she needs time to develop there, but her three ball is outstanding and she could become a very difficult player to guard in college.