Pressure at the (Rocky) top
Former UNC star will transfer to Tennessee, must sit out 2014-15 season
DeShields To Join Vols
With Diamond DeShields' announcement last week that she would transfer to Tennessee, some high-brow comparisons began. To wit, the speculation that DeShields -- when eligible in 2015-16 -- will be the most talented player to don the orange since Candace Parker.
And who better to ask about all it entails to be atop the Lady Vols' totem pole than Candace Parker?
After a recent WNBA game, the Los Angeles Sparks star talked about what it was like to carry such a big weight at a college program that has so much history and fan expectations. DeShields led North Carolina in scoring this past season, and was the consensus top freshman in the nation. But there's no two ways about it: The magnifying glass is bigger in Rocky Top.
"She was a savior-type player at North Carolina, and I think that's what you thrive off of. That was fun for me," Parker said. "I was excited to bring that back to Tennessee and hopefully win championships there."
That she did, in 2007 and 2008. That '07 title ended a nine-year title "drought" for Tennessee, which won three championships in a row from 1996-98. As good as the Lady Vols were from 1999-2006 -- they made five Final Four appearances in that stretch -- they weren't quite able to win it all in that stretch.
Unless Tennessee wins the 2015 NCAA title, by the time of DeShields' next NCAA tournament -- 2016 -- eight years will have passed since Tennessee won a national championship. In fact, Tennessee hasn't been back to the Final Four since Parker left in 2008.
"It's crazy how things happen in waves," Parker said, "and I'm hoping this (DeShields' transfer) will swing toward our favor and get more championships."
Yes, Parker still refers to Tennessee as "our" and "we," which is not uncommon for alums who have a strong bond to their alma mater. Parker certainly has that, and vice versa.
"I'm at WNBA games now, and there are Tennessee fans sitting in the front row," Parker said. "It's a way of life, and people bleed orange down there. I loved walking into the arena and seeing 20,000 people. Going out to dinner in Knoxville, and people know who you are and say hello."
If Tennessee is to succeed on its "Grind for Nine" -- the program has eight NCAA championships -- DeShields won't have to do it alone, of course. The Lady Vols graduated only Meighan Simmons from last season's Sweet 16 team.
This coming year, there are three seniors -- Ariel Massengale, Isabelle Harrison and Cierra Burdick -- who almost certainly feel they have unfinished business they want to resolve before they leave. The junior class of Bashaara Graves, Jasmine Jones and Nia Moore will look to be more consistent and productive. Sophomores Andraya Carter, Mercedes Russell and Jordan Reynolds could take big steps forward in their second season in college.
I'm happy [Diamond DeShields] decided to come to Tennessee. It's something that fans can get excited about.” -- Candace Parker
Guard Alexa Middleton and wings Jaime Nared and Kortney Dunbar will join the Lady Vols as freshmen, and guard Jannah Tucker will be a redshirt freshman.
For the following season, when DeShields can play, her good friend Te'a Cooper, a point guard, and wing Jamesha Jackson have verbally committed.
There should be plenty of talent around DeShields, but it seems very unlikely anyone on the Tennessee roster will be more talented than her. DeShields averaged 18.0 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists last season on a very young Tar Heels team that didn't have coach Sylvia Hatchell on the sidelines while she battled leukemia.
DeShields had to be an emotional leader for North Carolina, because there wasn't an established veteran who could do that. Not many freshmen could take on that role on top of being the leading scorer, and DeShields of course had her tough times with that.
But considering North Carolina made it to the Elite Eight -- and then lost to Stanford on the Cardinal's home court in the regional final -- it's unlikely that DeShields and the Tar Heels could have fared much better than they did. It was a very productive season under trying circumstances.
Now we know that DeShields was rather conflicted all along by the tug toward Tennessee, and that desire won out. She has a need to be at Tennessee. And Tennessee needs her. Things aren't going to get any easier in the SEC where, among other things, South Carolina looks to be growing into a serious NCAA title contender -- or on the national scene.
DeShields is a spotlight-type of player -- she loves the big televised games -- but she's also wise enough to know consistency is a key part of greatness. And DeShields definitely wants to be great.
She has the physical ability to do that, but she's aware it takes more than that. There will be a new system to learn, new teammates to adjust to, and the more public expectations at Tennessee.
But as she sits out her transfer season, DeShields has a year away from playing in games to get used to all that. By the time she is eligible again, she should come in with the mentality of being a pretty experienced leader.
Parker sat out the 2004-05 season, which would have been her freshman year at Tennessee, while rehabbing a knee injury. And she tried to make the most of that bad break.
"You're kind of on the outside looking in," Parker said, "but you know what you can do and what your value is. So you can see what it takes."
"I watched Diamond during the NCAA tournament. I'm happy she decided to come to Tennessee. It's something that fans can get excited about. Obviously, we have to wait a year, but it's going to be fun."
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