Lady Vols open season today with touted freshmen

Lady Vols open season today with touted freshmen

November 12th, 2017 by David Cobb in Sports - College

Tennessee's Mercedes Russell (21) drives to the basket against Carson Newman's Jecca Simerly (4) during an NCAA college exhibition basketball game, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017 in Knoxville, Tenn. (Daryl Sullivan/The Daily Times via AP)

Photo by Daryl W Sullivan

Sixth-year Tennessee women's basketball head coach Holly Warlick lured the nation's top-rated recruiting class to Knoxville for the 2017-18 season. The four newcomers combine with senior leaders Jaime Nared and Mercedes Russell to comprise a talented but thinly insulated roster that is aiming to get the program back to the Final Four. Tennessee has made three Elite Eights and two Sweet 16s under Warlick but hasn't been to the national semifinals since 2008.

Its quest to end that streak begins this afternoon against East Tennessee State at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville.

Here's how the 2017-18 Lady Vols look:

Backcourt

GONE: Jordan Reynolds, Diamond DeShields, Alexa Middleton, Te'a Cooper

BACK: Meme Jackson

NEW: Anastasia Hayes, Evina Westbrook

There will be no easing Hayes and Westbrook into the action. The highly touted duo are expected to provide immediate production. ESPN ranked Westbrook the No. 2 player in the 2017 recruiting class and Hayes the No. 7 player. Both could be considered point guards, but that won't stop Warlick from getting them in the game simultaneously. The two combined to shoot 17-of-23 from the field in an exhibition victory over Carson-Newman, with nine assists and three turnovers. Jackson is a high-energy player who will be counted on to for defense and rebounding.

Wings

GONE: None

BACK: Jaime Nared, Kortney Dunbar

NEW: Rennia Davis

Nared averaged 15.6 points and seven rebounds per game as a junior last season and shot a career-best 42.3 percent. With such good and consistent numbers, it's hard to believe she was Tennessee's third-leading scorer behind Russell and the departed DeShields. Nared is taking on an even bigger role for the Lady Vols this season, and she has made it clear that individual statistics mean little to her.

"Jaime Nared has had to step up and be a lot of things for this team," Warlick said at the team's preseason media day. "She needs to be a scorer, she needs to be a defender, she needs to be a rebounder, and to top that off, she needs to be one of our strongest leaders. And she has stepped up to the challenge."

Davis is a do-it-all 6-foot-2 dynamo who erupted for 27 points and 13 rebounds in the exhibition game. Get used to hearing her name. Dunbar, a senior, adds depth and a veteran presence.

Frontcourt

GONE: Schaquilla Nunn

BACK: Cheridene Green, Mercedes Russell, Kamera Harris

NEW: Kasiyahna Kushkituah

Tennessee's post game starts with Russell. The preseason All-Southeastern Conference first-team selection turned down a chance to be one of the top picks in the WNBA draft so she could return for her senior season. In addition to being a focal point of the half-court offense, she will be a team leader tasked with grooming Kushkituah, a 6-4 freshman from Atlanta.

Look for Warlick to ease Kushkituah into a role. Green and Harris were held out of the exhibition game while recovering from minor injuries. With only 10 players on the roster, they will be called upon to contribute this season.

Contact David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com.