Top Lady Vol recruit to decide soon

Mercedes Russell, the top women's basketball prospect in the country in the class of 2013, is back in Oregon after an official visit to Knoxville. Go inside with Inside Tennessee to read the latest on her recruitment.

Mercedes Russell, a 6-5 center from Springfield, Oregon, has been down to two schools for some time – Tennessee and Louisville, which she will visit later this week – and her high school coach expects a decision is likely to be made soon as to where she will attend college.

Throughout the process Russell has said very little publicly – outside of re-tweets on her Twitter account – with coach Bill Wagner handling the intense media interest in his player. Throughout the process, Russell has remained level-headed.

"I don't think it has affected her at all," he said in a phone interview Monday with Inside Tennessee. "I haven't noticed a change in her at all in this whole thing."

Wagner, the head coach at Springfield High School, made the trip to Knoxville this past weekend – he also came on Russell's unofficial visit a year ago – and has been the one to offer an ear when needed and to also let her sort out the process.

"We want to make sure this is her visit," he said. "I want her to ask the questions. I want her to see things. I want her to do things. But the bottom line is if she has a question or she needs anything, I am just there as a support system. We trust both universities that are still in it for her. They have done a great job with her."

Russell got a heavy dose of peer pressure last spring when a few friends committed to North Carolina, but she withstood the entreaties to join them and eventually settled on Tennessee and Louisville.

"When you meet her she might come across as pretty shy, but she is doing a good job as far as really thinking this process out," Wagner said. "I know that she is getting ready to make her decision. I know that she is pretty excited about that.

"She never let the outside influences steer her or influence her or anything like that. From pretty early on she realized Louisville and Tennessee were going to be the two that she was really going to consider and she has been focusing in on those."

After a cross-country trip to Tennessee and back Wagner won't make the trek to Louisville, but he has already been to the Big East school on a prior visit.

"I've been there a couple of times with her," Wagner said. "Both schools are great. Both have done a tremendous job in recruiting her."

As far as a decision between the two schools, "we're going to let that play out as it goes," Wagner said. "If she comes back from Louisville and she has some questions … there is obviously no need to rush it. She is going to sign in the early period (Nov. 14-21) so she will decide before signing day. It could be she comes back as early as next week and says, ‘Yep, I know where I want to go,' or maybe she still has to think about some things and weigh out some things.

"I would guess no more than the next two weeks she will probably have a decision."

Russell established early in the process that she was willing to play far away from home. Wagner noted the dominant national program on the West Coast is Stanford, and Russell was willing to look to the east after trimming the Cardinal from her list of possible destinations.

"In order for her to go compete at such a high level she was going to have to travel," Wagner said. "She understood that early on. I think she is looking forward to it. It will be a new start, a new adventure."

Russell's size and skill set mean collegiate expectations will be set upon her early, and her high school coach believes she has the ability to be a major contributor as a freshman. He also noted how important strength, nutrition and conditioning would be for her.

"No matter what program she goes to the nutrition and strength programs will be huge," Wagner said. "We don't have the facilities here to really contribute the way both programs that she is looking at will. They also have specialists that will help take care of her.

"Her body is going to transform no matter where she goes."

Wagner was in Knoxville a year ago and noticed on this recent trip the physical changes in the sophomores at Tennessee.

"You look at the change in the body between some of the freshmen to their sophomore year," he said. "It is pretty noticeable. So she will change physically. And obviously I'm biased a little bit, but I think she can step on and be a starter from day one for either program.

"And that is not a knock on any of the other players. I just think she is that talented."

What can help set Russell apart from other bigs is her ability to handle the ball, much like Candace Parker did for Tennessee.

"For a kid that size who has grown that quick in such a short period of time – she has probably grown seven or eight inches within the last three or four years and a lot of times when kids grow that quick they are not as smooth," Wagner said. "But I think her footwork is amazing for a kid that size."

Russell is capable of establishing position in the paint – Lady Vols assistant coach Dean Lockwood calls it "double bury" because both feet are in the paint and the hips are low – despite considerable effort by opponents to keep her off the blocks.

"She does a good job of getting deep position and finishing around the rim," Wagner said.

There is a Parker-esque quality to Russell's game, too, and that is her handle with the ball.

"I think one of the things that is most impressive about her is her ability to make plays off the dribble," Wagner said. "Her ball handling for someone that size is amazing.

"We're going to run her at point guard a little bit this year. She is the best ball handler on the team. She is going to be able to initiate the offense and then she'll get back on the block. It is not like we are going to put her just strictly on the perimeter.

"But she has the skill set to handle that situation where she can take people off the bounce or she can go and post up on the block."

It is easy to see why Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick made Russell a top target. Tennessee needs post players and the Lady Vols want to run an up-tempo offense in which the bigs aren't limited to just making the outlet pass. Parker was a point-forward at times for Tennessee and would initiate the offense from the top of the key or the wing and then dip into the paint.

"She is pretty versatile," Wagner said of his star player. "She doesn't have just one part of the game. She can do a lot of things. Her passing ability, she can take it off the rim and go coast to coast. She can find people in transition and make plays."

Parker is someone that Russell has mentioned on Twitter and, based on Wagner's assessment, there are definite similarities in their game.

"Candace has been her favorite player all along," Wagner said. "That's the thing about Mercedes that I think is also different is that she does watch a lot of women's games. She is a student of the game. She watches it. She learns.

"I know that she watched pretty intently the practices and the scrimmages that were taking place this last weekend. She is always trying to get better. Her work ethic is unbelievable. I think that is what I am most impressed with her about. This is a kid who has been rated as number one recruit in the nation but yet every day she comes to the gym she brings it and tries to get better.

"I don't know if she necessarily patterns her game after Candace but she obviously has the ability to do a lot of things that she does, and I think that she just wants to get better every day."

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