The Lady Vols last were on the court Nov. 29 when they beat SMU to take the Junkanoo Jam title in the Bahamas. Classes wrapped up this week with exams about to get underway to complete the fall semester. The basketball test comes from the Longhorns, who have beaten Texas A&M and were leading Stanford at the half before falling.
Mercedes Russell has played in all seven games this season – she is averaging 20.7 minutes per game – and will be needed against Texas, which has Nneka Enemkpali, a 6-1 junior forward, Imani McGee-Stafford, a 6-7 sophomore center, and Kelsey Lang, a 6-5 freshman center, across the frontline.
"It is always fun going against bigger players," said Russell, referring to posts in general, not meaning bigger than her.
Enemkpali is averaging 13.0 points and has tallied more than 20 points twice this season – against Texas State and Texas A&M. Russell competed with Enemkpali in USA basketball.
"She is really long, and you have to create your own shot when playing against her," Russell said.
The Lady Vols also have to get Russell the ball. The 6-6 agile post has had to scoop passes up at her feet and has watched a few somehow sail over her head.
"Mercedes, to her credit, has been very, very patient," Assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. "She has gotten some good looks, and I know we have missed her at times. We've got to address it, correct it and keep improving on it, which I think you're going to see happen."
Russell was asked about the errant passes and whether she had spoken to her teammates, but the humble freshman just smiled.
"The coaches have been telling them to throw them up to us, but some of those passes you just have to go and get them," Russell said.
The use of "us" is quintessential Russell. When asked if having starters Bashaara Graves and Isabelle Harrison already on board has helped her development, she said yes and immediately added Nia Moore, too.
"It's been an easy transition for me. Just with all of their help – Izzy, Bashaara and Nia. They are all so helpful with me with whatever I need," Russell said. "A lot of it is on post moves and especially on defense to stay straight up, keep the ball high so the guards can't hit it, stuff like that."
Russell is expected to make an impact in her first year – and she has, already fourth on the team in minutes played, second in blocks and averaging 9.3 points and 5.0 points per game – but she didn't bear the burden of having to take over from the start.
The adjustment from high school to college takes time, and especially for posts because of the physicality it takes to play inside. While new rules have addressed perimeter defense to the point the player can't be touched beyond one hand check, the pounding inside continues.
Russell's high school coach, Bill Wagner, told InsideTennessee last summer that she would need time in the strength and conditioning program. Wagner noted the difference he saw in the Lady Vols' underclassmen from the time he accompanied Russell on an unofficial visit in her junior year to the official one in her senior year.
"That is definitely true. It is a huge adjustment, the difference between high school and college is extreme, the physical part is really different," Russell said. "I think I am still trying to adjust to it.
"It's been a little tough, but it's just a learning process that I have to go through. I think I could play better. I am playing alright. I just need to get used to the adjustment."
Russell also is adjusting to college classwork and the fact nearly every hour of a student-athlete's life is filled.
"It's been pretty tough, the adjustment from high school to college," Russell said. "(Academic) work is a lot harder. There is definitely a lot more work. Practice, study hall, mentor meetings, tutors, nutrition, all of that.
"You really have to use your time wisely. I think I was a little prepared, but that is also something you have to adjust to."
One adjustment that has gotten better for Russell is jitters before a game. She mentioned after the Carson-Newman exhibition that she was very nervous.
"It's getting better," she said. "I think it was just because it was the first game of our whole season that I was like that. There is not as much jitters and nervousness."
Russell started the second half of the game against Oakland last month because coach Holly Warlick was displeased with the effort of her some of her initial starters.
"I didn't know until we sat down, and we were about to go out," Russell said. "I wasn't really nervous at all just because we were already in the flow of the game."
The fans get excited when they see Russell heading to the scorer's table as the curiosity about the freshman is as sky-high as her lanky 6-6 build, which observers think is closer to 6-7.
Russell hasn't been measured lately, but her initial physical at Tennessee listed her at 6-4, which surprised Russell. Maybe the tape measure had been trimmed because she is every inch of 6-6, at the least.
"Robert (Hubbs) on the boy's team, he is like, ‘I am 6-6, and you are taller than me,' " Russell said.
Ariel Massengale is 5-5, so her answer when asked about Russell's height is an amusing one.
"She is huge if you ask me," Massengale said. "Because I just look up at her, and she is touching the backboard."
That backboard was the source of two passes intended for Russell in the Bahamas. She managed to snare one and finish the play. The other nearly took off Russell's head.
"Don't tell anybody," Massengale said quietly with a smile. "Holly is still messing with me about that. I threw it out the back door. It was bad. Jordan threw it off the backboard, too, in the other game, and she caught it and finished and had an and-one. How come you couldn't catch my ball off the backboard?"
Jordan Reynolds played summer ball with Russell – both are from the state of Oregon – and it shows. Her passes to Russell, even in heavy traffic, have been pinpoint perfect, not including the Bahamas toss.
"Those years that we had in AAU were very good because we know how each other plays and so we play really well together," Russell said.
Reynolds and Russell both became interested in Tennessee while watching the national title years of 2007 and 2008. The interest never waned.
"That is definitely when both of us got interested," Russell said. "A program like Tennessee with a winning history was great."
Reynolds, a guard, remembers well Alexis Hornbuckle, who recently practiced with the team when in town for the dedication of Pat Summitt's statue. Russell, a center, focused on Candace Parker. Both were in middle school for those Tennessee seasons but will be in Lady Vol uniforms on Jan. 2 when Tennessee retires Parker's jersey.
"That will just be a great night to be able to experience retiring her jersey," Russell said.
She considered other sports in middle school, including volleyball and first baseman in softball – Russell was tall at that age so her stretch at the bag for an incoming throw likely put her close to the pitcher's circle – but basketball was her focus.
"When I was growing up and all throughout middle school, I played softball and volleyball," she said. "Basketball was always my number one sport."
She also was an 80 percent shooter from the free throw line in high school, so her struggles from the stripe at Tennessee are surprising. She is 7-23 so far and shakes her head when asked about it.
"After I miss one I just think about it too much when I go to the line and then a lot of it is me not using my legs when I shoot," Russell said.
She smiles when it is pointed out that the issues are correctable. Russell gamely answers every question, but media interviews are also an adjustment as she is encircled for this one by writers for Internet, print and the Associated Press.
She likes Tennessee's up-tempo style, and she wants to help Tennessee this season.
"That has also been an adjustment, the up-and-down part of the game, but I like it when games are fast like that and not slowed down as much," Russell said.
"I just want to help them be successful. We work together so well, and we all just want to win. I think that is why we play together so well. We just want each other to be successful."
Lockwood was the primary recruiter of Russell, and she has leaned on him in Knoxville.
"He has helped tremendously," Russell said. "He always gives me tips throughout the whole game, what I should do, what moves would be good. He always gives me tips on defense."
Lockwood also is providing tips to Russell's teammates on getting her the ball. Her size has been an adjustment for them.
"Nobody on our team has ever played with anyone like her, other than Jordan, and if you notice, Jordan has thrown some beautiful passes," Lockwood said. Our team is adapting and adjusting and I think you're going to see it get a lot better with time.
"I think, quite frankly, some of them are fearful, because it's almost like, ‘I know she looks open, but we've never made this pass before. I don't want to get a turnover.' I think, once they do it more and more in practice, and we get more reps, we get more comfortable with it. Izzy and Bashaara will throw her higher passes than they've thrown in the past. It will happen. It is going to take a little bit more adjustment time."
Massengale agreed with internal scouting report.
"It is different playing with someone 6-6. I have never done it before with someone in my career," Massengale said. "Izzy and Bashaara can jump and get it, and you have to time that, whereas Mercedes might not jump as high as them.
"But she's 6-6, you've just got to be able to throw it to her hand. It is definitely something that we are learning. We are working on it in practice trying to get better. As long as she keeps posting and keeps working hard, we are going to do our best to get the ball to her in time."
Massengale also recognizes two things – entry passes to the posts have to get better, and the bigs need more shots.
"Honestly, it's not just (Russell), because we don't do a great job passing the ball to Bashaara or Izzy all the time either," Massengale said. "We just have to get better at being able to get our posts the ball. We work on it in practice, and it is just repetition. If they are open, we have to find a way to get them the ball.
"We rely on our posts. That is what this program was built on. We play inside-out. We are not always going to be shooting the ball as well as we've been shooting it at this point. They are in the paint. They are shooting layups most of the time, so we've got to be able to get them the ball."
It is a nice problem to have, though.
"Most definitely. I wouldn't trade it for the world," Massengale said.
Russell is also happy to be at Tennessee despite all the early adjustments and traveling cross country to go to college.
"I love the decision I made," she said.
Jannah Tucker UPDATE: Jannah Tucker, a 6-0 wing from Maryland, was originally in the same class as Mercedes Russell and Jordan Reynolds, but personal reasons prevented her from enrolling last summer with the freshmen.
Tucker will enroll for the spring semester that starts in January, but, even better for her and Tennessee, she can arrive on campus after Christmas when the team returns from break because the fall semester has ended.
"She wants something to do," Holly Warlick said. "Jannah has always been an active kid and all of a sudden she has all of this free time, and I think it's about to drive her crazy."
Tucker, who lost her senior year of high school because of an ACL injury, will have been off the court for two years when she arrives. So, Tucker will need time to return to basketball form, and she also has to decide if she wants to continue to play. Those answers will come soon enough.
Her talent is not in question, and Dean Lockwood recruited Tucker for three years. He first learned about her from Fran Burbidge, a Philly native, longtime and respected figure in girls' basketball and high school coach of WNBA reigning Rookie of the Year Elena Delle Donne in her senior year. Lockwood was headed to Washington, D.C., for a summer event when he got a call from Burbidge.
"I remember Fran calling me before a D.C. event and saying, ‘You're going to want to see this kid Tucker,' " Lockwood said. "I went and watched her play and it was like, ‘Wow.' "
Tucker later revealed that she had been in an abusive relationship last summer that she had hidden from family, friends and Tennessee. Criminal charges have been filed against her former boyfriend with the next court appearance set for early in 2014.
"It was a thrill to get her, it was tough going through all that but now that it's on the back side and we know all the circumstances, it will be very, very, very gratifying to see her," Lockwood said.
"When she comes on this campus and she walks out in her practice gear with the orange and takes her first bounce of the ball, I am just going to be thrilled. I will be happy if that young lady is happy here and feels a part of things."