Simmons, Fussell live up to expectations
Freshmen from Tennessee and Texas shine in loaded and talented rookie class
Meighan Simmons has a little scar on her forehead, the kind you guess was caused by some childhood mishap. Considering the Tennessee freshman does everything at about 100 mph, you correctly suspect she wasn't much different as a toddler.
"I was 2 years old," Simmons explained. "I ran into the wall, split my head open. I was running from my older sister, and my dad had told me to slow down. Then I turned around to look to see if my sister was still coming and -- bam. The wall was right there."
Simmons grew up in a military family so she doesn't mind doing as she's told. But slow down? That's still tough for Simmons.
But she's working on it: being patient when it's called for and not rushing everything. She idolizes former Tennessee star Candace Parker, and the chance to play for drill sergeant (coach) Pat Summitt easily lured Simmons from her home in the greater San Antonio area to Knoxville.
"Just watching Pat and the way she handled the team, the intensity of how they played every game -- that's what I wanted," Simmons said.
While Simmons left Texas for Tennessee, Chassidy Fussell did the opposite: She went from the state of Tennessee to the University of Texas. Like Simmons, Fussell is now leading her team in scoring. Aside from a rough game Monday at Iowa State, Fussell has been coach Gail Goestenkors' most dependable offensive weapon.
Simmons and Fussell are just two of many freshmen across the country this season carrying large loads of responsibility for their teams. Each season, there are rookies who display talent, but this year seems to stand out because of how many were needed to step right into key roles without much, if any, collegiate seasoning.
Because of graduation or injuries or both, there were holes to fill, and many freshmen have filled them.
Just a brief scan around the nation highlights players such as Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson for No. 1-again Connecticut, Maryland's Alyssa Thomas, Penn State's Maggie Lucas, Louisville's Schoni Schimmel, Baylor's Odyssey Sims, Oklahoma's Aaryn Ellenberg, Nebraska's Jordan Hooper, Utah's Michelle Plouffe and Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike.
To see some of Mechelle Voepel's interviews with freshmen Meighan Simmons or Chassidy Fussell, click here.
"With this group, probably when they were [high school] sophomores, that's when we went, 'OK!'" Goestenkors recalled of this recruiting class' potential. "This 2011 class is good, but the 2012 class is going to have a lot of impact players again. It kind of comes in waves."
Simmons and Fussell, respectively, represent the blue-chipper who was projected to be a standout and has very much lived up to that and the player who was more under the radar coming into college. Both now are the top freshmen scorers in their leagues, the SEC and Big 12.
"They're very similar in that they have no fear," Goestenkors said. "We tried to recruit Meighan; you could tell she was a great player in high school. She's improved her mental game in college. She's always been willing to make big shots. She's a money player.
"Chassidy, we saw her in April of her junior year and wanted her to come to our elite camp. We knew to get her this far away from home she'd need to go to camp to see she could be comfortable here."
Indeed, Fussell was initially skeptical when the Longhorns first contacted her.
"I was like, 'Texas? Oh, that's too far away,'" Fussell said of relocating to Austin. "I thought I'd be too homesick. But ever since I've been here, I felt like the team just took me in."
Actually, Knoxville would have been pretty far away, too. Fussell is from Troy, on the opposite side of Tennessee, in the Northwest corner. It's about a six-hour drive from Thompson-Boling Arena.
She said her family cheered for Tennessee in all sports but she never had any one school in mind to attend. Tennessee didn't have room at her position and didn't look to recruit her, but Summitt praised the progress Fussell has made in college.
"I think she has really worked on her game," Summitt said. "That's what players have to do if they want to impact their team and program. That is what we are consistently encouraging our players to do: Get extra shots."
With Tennessee working through so many post player injuries this season, guard play has been all the more important. Simmons is averaging 13.9 points and 2.8 rebounds. She has a team-best 85 assists with 83 turnovers. She's not a so-called "true" point guard and didn't necessarily expect to play a lot at that spot, but she's happy to do it.
"You have to learn different positions and to make adjustments and be versatile," Simmons said. "I like that. It puts a lot on my shoulders. You have to know where everybody is supposed to be on the floor.
"With Pat, we sometimes watch film and she'll say, 'If I were here, this is what I would do.' We relate to each other. Her talking to me gets me to where her mindset is and helps me understand things."
Simmons is also tied for the team lead in 3-pointers (52) with senior Angie Bjorklund, who had missed six games with injury but returned this week.
"She brings a lot to our team, especially at the point guard position," Bjorklund said of Simmons. "That's new for her, and she's adapting. It's great having her speed; she's able to push the ball so well."
Summitt knew that 5-foot-9 Simmons would have to figure out a few things about using her quickness wisely.
"She just needs to learn when to put the pedal down and when to back off," Summitt said. "And her passing angles -- that is something she really has to think about. She sometimes will just assume the passing lane is going to be open. We want her to assume it's going to be closed."
Overall, though, Simmons has been exactly what Tennessee needed, with her physical skills and her confident emotional makeup.
"Trust me, if we didn't have her, we'd have a lot more issues, and we would have to try and cover up a lot," Summitt said. "She's been a freshman of impact and she's going to continue to improve."
Simmons' squad is a victory away from a perfect SEC record. That can be nailed down Sunday as LSU visits Knoxville. Then, Tennessee will prepare for the SEC tournament in Nashville, followed by a probable NCAA No. 1 seed.
Fussell's team still has work to do to assure an NCAA tournament berth. The Longhorns started Big 12 play 0-4, then improved to 5-4, but have now lost three of their last four.
Monday against the Cyclones, Fussell drew a lot of defensive attention and couldn't get into any rhythm. She finished 1-of-11 from the field, scoring just two points in a 66-57 overtime loss in which she was on the bench for the extra period.
But that kind of game has been the very rare exception this season for the 5-10 Fussell. It was only the second time she hasn't scored in double figures. She is averaging 17.2 points per game, along with 5.0 rebounds and 2.2 assists.
"She has that toughness about her, physically and mentally, that I trust her to take the big shots and free throws," Goestenkors said. "And so does her team. They get the ball to her."
When 6-4 post player Cokie Reed was lost before the season to injury, Texas became even more guard-oriented. Goestenkors said she actually expected that Fussell would need to have this kind of point production this season.
Fussell will get a chance Sunday to show how well she can rally from a rough game, as the Longhorns try for a very crucial win for their NCAA tournament aspirations. Texas will host No. 5 Texas A&M, which has been Goestenkors' chief nemesis since she joined the Big 12 for the 2007-08 season. She's 0-8 against the Aggies.
Texas A&M has won 10 of its last 11 in the series. That includes an 80-65 victory in College Station on Jan. 19 in which Fussell had 26 points.
"We believed she was going to be a great player here," Goestenkors said. "She's one of the hardest workers I've ever had in my career, which is saying a great deal because I've had some fantastic kids.
"Across the nation, I think this [freshman] class is just incredible. But part of it is some of them weren't even ranked highly. They're having a big impact, and that speaks to the future of our game."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.