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Sam Webb: I hear Russell performed well at the Tournament of Champions.
Kelly Byrd: “Yeah, he made the all tournament team. He had a couple of big games. He had actually four or five. Five really special games, he scored 23 on Saturday night against the New York Panthers. He had six threes. He just played really well. He is continuing to work on his game and he knows that he can shoot the ball great. I think he told you that he wants to be more complete so he has just been working hard on his ball-handling, his rebounding, defending. We are just really excited for him. He is working hard. One of the hardest working kids that I have ever seen.”
Sam Webb: Russell didn’t hesitate naming Iowa his leader when I spoke with him before. Now other programs are turning up the heat. How do you think that’s affecting things?
Kelly Byrd: “He would tell you that (Iowa) is up at the top. He would also tell you that probably in the last month, what has really surfaced for him are two major categories. One is the coaches and the programs that over the last year and a half that have built the best relationship with him, and then the other one would be location. We went out and visited Arizona because they were real interested last summer. We went out to their elite camp in August and had a great trip, but on the way home, he kind of looked at his mom and I and said, ‘boy that is a long way from home, isn’t it?’ I don’t think that he is opposed (to going far away from home) necessarily if it is the right situation and the right opportunity. I don’t think that he would be completely opposed to going away from the region here. I just think that the longer he has thought about it, he is really interested in seeing what is two, three, four hours away. He is going to Kentucky’s Elite Camp the second week of June. He is going to visit Louisville. He had a great visit to Michigan State. He is going to Michigan to visit with those guys. I think location wise, if he finds a place that is close, my bet is that he will probably lean that way. The fact of the matter is… back to your question… on the first front, Iowa has really built a relationship with him. Coach Lickliter probably a couple of weeks after he got the job at Iowa last year, watched Russell for the first time. Coach Lickliter and the assistants, they made a huge impression on him and they have been persistent. Coach Lickliter came to one of his high school games this year, here in Ft. Wayne (IN). They have come and watched him practice. They have come and watched him in open gym in June. They have just made a huge effort to communicate their commitment to him and that has meant a lot to him. I think in some ways because they were the first ones, I think sometimes with a kid the very first one that showed interest, they kind of feel loyal to. But beyond loyalty I think he really likes what Coach Lickliter did at Butler. I think that style of offense that rewards the shooter. I think he really likes that and they have just been great with him. I think on the relationship side, Iowa is still way up there. On the location side, gosh there are a lot that are right up there near the top I think.”
Sam Webb: Has Michigan said anything to you about their elite camp? Is that something that Russell might participate in?
Kelly Byrd: “You know, they did say something about that, but just kind of the way it stacks up with commitments that he had already made and plans that were already in place, he is probably not going to do the elite camp there. He is going to do the Kentucky Elite Camp, June 8th and 9th and then the end of June, I think the 21st and 22nd, he is going to do the Iowa Elite Camp and I think that will be it for elite camps in June. It is kind of tough too, because you know how it is… June is the only month that you get to practice and play with your high school team. I know he feels some loyalty and some desire to be with those guys. They just got a new coach just a few weeks ago, so he is a little anxious about making sure that that goes well and he wants to make that transition as smooth as possible. He will do those two camps in June and after what he did down in North Carolina this last weekend, I think there has been some talk about he might get invited to the Rebook 100 or 150 or whatever that is. We are just waiting to hear back from those guys on that one in the next week sometime as well.”
Sam Webb: It wouldn’t be surprising if he were invited. Everyone knows he can shoot, but it was the swagger that he played with that really stuck out. He has a presence about him on the floor that it looks like he feels like every shot, he is not afraid to take any shot out on the floor. It is one of those things with shooters. He looks like one of those kids that could miss 20 shots, and the 21st … he thinks he is going to hit it.
Kelly Byrd: “That is true (laughter). It is really true. I think playing with (the Blessed IJN AAU squad) has been great for him. Eric Vaughn, the coach just saw something in Russell two years ago when he was 14 and gave him a chance to play up as a 14-year-old. Then last year as a 15-year-old, he had him playing with the 17-elite team. This year, obviously he is right back in there with the 17s. You are really right… he has got a confidence and a mindset that has really been good for him.”