One of the most highly sought – and talented – players to hit the transfer portal finally has a new team. Ex-Mississippi State star Rickea Jackson has announced her commitment to Tennessee over Texas and LSU.
Jackson joins the Lady Vols after playing at Mississippi State, where she led her team in scoring her first two seasons. In 15 games this season with the Lady Bulldogs, Jackson averaged 20.3 points to lead the SEC and 6.8 rebounds per game. She took an official visit to Tennessee last month.
This is a seismic commitment for the Lady Vols to land such a transcendent talent when everyone in the country wanted Jackson. Also, do not overlook how she instantly makes a team a major national championship contender, and in this case, Tennessee.
— Brooke (@BrookeWeisbrod) March 24, 2022
While usually, we would keep this column straightforward, her commitment is such that this warrants a deep dive into how massive her commitment is for the Lady Vols. Head Coach Kellie Harper has done a magnificent job of resurrecting Tennessee to the elite status that it once enjoyed. However, there was a subtle narrative, albeit unfair, that was starting to permeate:
Can Harper recruit on an elite level? Can she land a true gamechanger?
Everyone in the sport of women’s basketball understands what Tennessee represents – especially when they are elite. Don’t kid yourselves; the Lady Vols brand is the greatest in the sport’s history. It’s not conjecture or hyperbole, just a matter of fact. However, over the past decade, many coaches, fans, and aficionados sensed that Tennessee was slipping and would never be able to regain its foothold as one of the elites.
Fast forward to the recent tenure of Harper, who this year got the Lady Vols up to No. 4 in the country. On top of that, only two SEC teams are left in the Sweet 16, and the Lady Vols are one of them, minus their best player, Jordan Horston.
This shows that when it comes to coaching and maximizing a roster, Harper has a gift; however, to stay in the upper echelon of women’s college basketball, you have to be able to recruit on an elite level. And with Tennessee not getting a 5-star commitment since 2020 (Justine Pissott), the proverbial jury was still out on Harper.
Now, let’s go back in time to a date that led to this point.
April 16, 2021.
Why does this date hold such significance? It’s the day Harper showed the industry that she was going to another level in recruiting. That was when she hired Samantha Williams as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator. But what made this move so exceptional was that Harper was able to hire Williams, who was the head coach at Eastern Kentucky at the time.
Williams, aka Coach Sam, has a pristine reputation as one of the most elite recruiters in the country. Coupled with her innate ability to connect with top-tier talent, this was not just a home run hire by Harper; it was a grand slam. Coach Sam is not only respected, but she also makes other elite recruiters nervous. For example, a prominent coach from a Power 5 school in the NCAA Tournament told us Williams is feared as a recruiter.
Unbeknownst to Harper, Williams, and even Jackson, their worlds would one day connect. After displaying tremendous loyalty to Mississippi State, Jackson entered the transfer portal after essentially three years and three different head coaches. And as one would imagine, every school in the country wanted the 6-foot-2 transcendent talent.
Enter Coach Sam.
Williams had recruited Jackson while at Louisville, and what’s the one thing that’s most important in recruiting? Relationships.
2019 5-Star W Rickea Jackson took an official visit to Louisville this week (Top 7: Louisville, Mississippi State, Texas, Tennessee, South Carolina, Ohio State, and Rutgers).
— Hoops Central (@HoopsCentral7) September 23, 2018
So, Williams being at Tennessee was ideal for the Lady Vols. Imagine if Harper does not pursue Williams? This commitment might now have happened. However, for Harper to recognize Williams’ on-court and recruiting acumen and convince her to leave a head coaching position is nothing short of brilliant.
What does this commitment mean? That Tennessee is not only back on the court, but the Lady Vols also are back when it comes to landing the game-changing talent needed to win a national championship. Do not devalue the fact that the Lady Vols beat out Texas (Vic Schaefer) and LSU (Kim Mulkey) for Jackson’s signature. Those two coaches are in the upper echelon of recruiting. That’s a HUGE deal because Jackson’s talent is that special, that rare!
There were a lot of questions regarding Tennessee. Can they reach elite status again? Can they recruit on an elite level like in years past?
Harper answered the call like the three-time national champion that she is: Yes!
Tennessee fans, start dancing because Jackson is headed to Rocky Top.