KNOXVILLE – Surrounded by family, friends and well-wishers during a homecoming celebration in her home town last week, Kellie Harper likely felt safe in taking some questions.
Wasn’t long before someone sitting in the bleachers at White County High School in Sparta, Tn., asked Tennessee’s new women’s basketball coach who would be her point guard next season.
“We have options,” Harper said, before quickly adding: “I’m not one of them.”
Rather than be surprised, the former Lady Vols point guard appreciated what inspired the question
“Oh yes, our people here are very well educated,” she said.
“They love basketball. They understand it. They probably wanted to know if we’re working on our post moves. They probably wanted to know if we’re working on rebounding. I think that’s just the fans we’re dealing with.”
The Q&A moment reflected the challenge Harper has undertaken in replacing Holly Warlick, who was fired after last season. During last week’s ceremony, Harper told everyone something they already knew: “It’s a big deal to be coaching this program.”
In the fourth of five-part series reviewing UT’s five high-profile programs, here’s a look at women’s basketball.
A Common Link: In filling out her staff, Harper has brought a lot of Missouri State to join her and her husband, Jon.
Jessica Jackson, the new director of recruiting operations, was an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator under Harper at Missouri State. New strength and conditioning coach Tyler Watson worked in that role there with Harper.
Assistant coach Jennifer Sullivan was on Harper’s staff at State before serving one season at Ohio State.
The familiarity should help with the transition involving both the team and recruiting. The staff is playing catch-up on both fronts. Harper said as much last week regarding recruiting.
“We’ve been received positively,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean everyone has had intent to follow through with us.”
In the meantime: This spring, UT has added Knoxville native Jaiden McCoy, a 6-foot-3 junior college center and followed through on signing Jessie Rennie, a 5-6 guard from Australia who was recruited by Warlick’s staff.
The Lady Vols will be visited this weekend by guard Akira Levy, a 5-8 guard who has entered the transfer portal after being an All-SEC freshman team honoree at Missouri. Levy, who is from Baxter, Tn., is recovering from an ACL knee injury.
McCoy averaged 10.9 points and 6.1 rebounds per game last season for Northwest Florida College, which advanced to the Elite Eight of the NJCAA national tournament. Rennie, meanwhile, previews as a 3-point shooter.
The additions at least keep attrition from a being a glaring issue. Despite losing point guard Evina Westbrook and forward Mimi Collins, two starters at season’s end, to transfer this spring, UT’s ranks stand at 12 players.
While Harper knows who she has, she’s still learning what the team is all about.
“I think they’ve been very willing,” she said. “I keep saying that about our team. We have some good athleticism, good size.”
What to expect: After last week’s ceremony, Harper foreshadowed an interesting objective.
“I want people to know that we’re going to do things the right way,” Harper said. “We’re going to work really hard. But we’re going to enjoy it. We’re going to do it with smiles on our faces. I want our players to be having the absolute time of their life out there. And I want our staff to be doing the same thing. I love what I do, and I want it to show.”
What she didn’t say and what wasn’t so apparent was another quality that her former high school coach, Steve Holland, vouched for regarding Harper.
“She’s a lot tougher than her outward appearance,” he said.
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri who covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1988-2019. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org