Over the course of the past five seasons the Lady Vols have failed to appear in the Final Four.
A big reason why? They have been unable to knock off teams with star players like former Baylor center Brittney Griner and her team that ousted the Lady Vols from the NCAA Tournament twice in that five-year span.
Skylar Diggins of Notre Dame – though not a skyscraper like Griner, who stands 6-foot-8 – knocked UT out in the 2011 Elite Eight.
However, with those superstars now departed, the No. 4 Lady Vols believe they might have just the piece to get their team over the hump this season.
With Mercedes Russell only three games into her Tennessee career, the 6-foot-6-freshman center has logged big minutes off the bench and played a factor in the Lady Vols first two road wins against strong competition.
"The size we have down low this year, especially with Mercedes, is going to be big for us," junior forward Cierra Burdick said. "We've seen in the past years what size advantages can create and we don't think any team will be able to outmatch us down low."
In her debut against MTSU, the former Gatorade National Player of the Year showcased her size and length. Not only did she nearly post her first double-double of her career with 11 points and seven rebounds, but she rejected three shots and altered many others as well.
What has impressed many teammates of the highest ranked player to sign with Tennessee since 2004 is the way she has gelled so quickly on the court with the other bigs down low.
"We have a tough inside game," sophomore forward Bashaara Graves said. "Coming in, Mercedes has done really well with us. Our chemistry down low has come really quickly. It gives us and advantage because some teams don't get that until later on in the season."
While Russell is not an overpowering post player, she is versatile and is much more than a one-dimensional player.
"Her passing abilities have impressed me a lot," said Graves of her freshman teammate who only turned the ball over three times in UT's first two games. "She also has the ability to score big points in the paint for us. We really need her height this season. She is a great rebounder and keeps the ball high."
The Springfield, Ore., native has led the Lady Vols this season in blocks while averaging two a game, and helped her team out-rebound their first two opponents 95-88.
"Given our depth, strength and height, we expect to dominate other teams in the paint," Russell said. "Our goal is to crash the boards and give our team second and third chance points."
Given that she is still early into her college career, her second-year head coach Holly Warlick believes there is much more room for improvement.
"We have to remember that she is a freshman," Warlick said. "Everyone looks at her height and thinks her game is where it needs to be, but there is room for improvement. She works on her game everyday and was coached very well in high school."
All in all, great things are expected of Russell in her career playing for a storied program that is in search of its ninth championship this season.
In fact, she even shows a resemblance on the court similar to a Lady Vol great.
"She has a little bit of Candace Parker to her because she can handle the ball away from the basket really well," Warlick said. "We haven't had someone around the paint as big as her in a long time."