When you read the words “recruiting” in the newspaper, it invariably means football recruiting. If you read the words “recruiting” and “basketball” in the same sentence, it usually means men’s basketball recruiting. Women’s basketball recruiting is, at best, a media afterthought.
Yet it shouldn’t be.
Every year, thousands of young high school juniors playing girls basketball and both the AAU are watched, contacted, visited, and offered scholarships at every single level of college basketball. Before the internet era, the comings and goings of these players were limited to a few dozen talent scouts who ran scouting companies and sold reports to college coaches – how on earth could a person keep track of all that talent? – and to knowledgeable alumni who might make a recommendation to a coach about some hot player in some state. Occasionally a Nancy Lieberman, or a Cheryl Miller or a Chamique Holdsclaw might break into national prominence but for the most part the world of women’s recruiting was an unknown.
Not anymore. With the internet one can keep track of recruiting at almost every level. School-specific message boards such as the ones at Scout.com will keep track of recruits their coaches might have a chance at. Before ESPN dropped the ball, their Hoopgurlz feature was a must read. (And the prospective loss/diminishment of Hoopgurlz is unforgivable, ESPN.) And the scouting services still sell their wares, and now the basketball shoe companies have started to move in – hey, lady ballers wear shoes too and so do their schools.
The Changing Environment
Women’s basketball coaches need to keep tabs on this changing environment, where it is very, very easy to fall behind. As Heidi Klum says, “One day you’re in and the next day…you’re out.”
Part of the problem is that the rules change all the time. Coaches try to exploit loopholes and the NCAA tries to close them just as quickly, with the NCAA rules manual ballooning in size as a result. There are new rules to deal with the internet and text messages, rules the NCAA didn’t even have to consider several years ago. Direct mail isn’t as important as it used to be.
But some things haven’t changed. A good coach can still tell which players have the correct level of skill to play in Division I. They can tell which players love the game, which players are gym rats, and which have that ever-undefined heart. Even so, the quest for that edge in recruiting that can turn a good program into a great program continues.
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#11: Rutgers: It looks like things have settled down in New Jersey. With the program usually making the news when a player transfers out of it, there were no net losses due to transfers and one net gain, Alexis Burke from Illinois – is the transfer curse finally broken? The big losses were the ones due to graduation – Khadijah Rushdan and April Sykes were both drafted to WNBA teams (Sykes played in thirty regular season games for the Sparks this year).
But of course, Rutgers’s hallmark is its ability to recruit. C. Vivian Stringer picks up a pair of top twenty players in F Rachel Hollivay and 6-1 G Kahleah Cooper. It’s another great class at Rutgers, who will be looking for a better season than one where Gonzaga knocked them out of the first round of the NCAA tournament. If attendance were better, they could be a Top 10 program.
#12: Kentucky: The Wildcat growl could be heard all across the nation last year and Kentucky seems to have developed something missing in previous seasons – swagger. Kentucky went to its third straight NCAA tournament ever and after two trips to the Elite Eight in three years anyone considering Kentucky a sleeping giant better wake up themselves.
All three of Kentucky’s major starters are back this year, and many major magazines have this as a Top 10 squad, and A’dia Mathies has an outside shot of being a Top Five WNBA Draft Pick depending on how this season goes (Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins are the consensus top three.) But even odder, they were #13 in attendance nationwide last year (hard for me to believe as a native Kentuckian). Will they cross 7000 in average home attendance this year? As they say in fashion, blue might be the new orange in the SEC.
#13: North Carolina: North Carolina’s season ended in a strange place last year – the ACC Tournament, where they were beaten by Georgia Tech and despite 20 wins, the NCAA did not invite the Tarheels to the tournament. There would be no WNIT acceptance; North Carolina’s season would just be over. Is North Carolina’s pre-season schedule to blame?
Recruiting wise, however, this program is loaded for bear: F Xylina McDaniel (Xavier McDaniel’s daughter), G N’Dea Bryant, G Antoinette Bannister and F Hillary Fuller all join the team and with those players the Tar Heels will be a power for years to come. The player everyone’s waiting for is Diamond DeShields in the 2013-14 season.
#14: Iowa State: If attendance were the equivalent of ability, the Cyclones would be a perennial Final Four team. However, with the departure of Kelsey Bolte Iowa State sank to an uncharacteristic 18-13 record and a .500 record in the Big Twelve after an 0-5 conference start.
Hope in Ames rests on forward Chelsea Poppens, who averaged a double-double in Big Twelve conference games despite her 6-2 height. Billy Fennelly, head coach Bill Fennelly’s son, was promoted to assistant coaching spot (he has prior experience elsewhere) – some fans might cry “nepotism” but if Cyclones keep winning everyone will be smiling.
#15: Michigan State: Despite losing seniors last year, Suzy Merchant got the Spartans back to the NCAA tournament but as a #10 seed they were booted in the first round. Now they have to figure out how to get back without Lykendra Johnson and Porsche Poole, as well as losing starter Taylor Alton to graduation.
Someone will have to shoot the 3 for the Spartans. The obvious choice would be Big Ten All-Freshman Team selection Kiana Johnson, named as a co-captain just as a sophomore. However, Merchant will have to do without Johnson for nine games, as Johnson fell afoul of violating NCAA guidelines for receiving extra benefits. Last year, MSU was 9-7 out of conference but 11-5 in the Big Ten, so hopefully Johnson will be ready when conference play starts.
#16: Vanderbilt: Vanderbilt is still strong but is often overlooked: it’s one of those programs which has been so good (but not superlative) for so long that you almost forget them. This is a team that has been to the NCAA tournament 25 times in the last 26 years and has won 20 games or more 13 straight times but barely seems part of the conversation. If you want to play in the NCAA tournament, go to Vanderbilt. It’s that simple.
A lot of preseason polls have the Commodores somewhere in the teens. Even though it’s a good recruiting class, the big questions are with the veterans. If junior guard Christina Foggie has another big year like last year, and if 5-4 junior point guard Jasmine Lister can keep her turnovers down (176 assists, 115 turnovers), then watch out! Coach Melanie Balcomb is extended to 2017.
#17: West Virginia: With the Mountaineers ready to step into the turbulent waters of the Big Twelve, don’t be surprised if West Virginia swims to the top. Despite losing key players to graduation the previous season, West Virginia finished 11-5 in the Big East with only losses to Notre Dame (tournament) and Stanford (second round, NCAA) slowing them down. Given the recruiting outlook, West Virginia might prove a thorn in the side to the traditional Big Twelve powers, ready to upset someone along the way.
Seniors Asya Bussie and Ayana Dunning were expected to lead the way this season but Bussie recently suffered a knee injury, creating doubts about West Virginia’s chances this season. The question is who will be the breakout star among the freshmen. Will it be G Darius Faulk or W Bria Holmes? Or both?
#18: Georgia Tech: Head coach MaChelle Joseph’s goal had always been to be the best Division I women’s team in Georgia, and now she has a legitimate right to claim the title. She’s might turn Atlanta into a basketball powerhouse. Last year the Yellow Jackets went to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time.
The Yellow Jackets were forced to vacate arena last season, hurting their attendance – but for 2012-13 a new arena opens, the McCamish Pavilion. Home opener against Tennessee will be an inauguration in more ways than one, a baptism of fire for a very talented freshman class.
#19: Purdue: Every time I think of Purdue basketball, I think of Churchill’s quote about a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Will F Drew Mingo – now in her sixth year with the Boilermakers – have an MVP-type season or will the injury bug bite again? Is the bench any good? Will the team be better than last year’s Big Ten tournament champs and advance past the second round, or will they take two steps back? With this team, it’s very hard to tell.
F/C Taylor Manuel and F Joslyn Massey – prime freshmen – are also enigmas. If Mingo gets hurt – Purdue is being very ginger with her practice time – will the freshmen be forced to carry the load or will they have the opportunity to learn from the very veteran vets? Rebuilding year or push-through year? Your guess is as good as mine.
#20: LSU: The new look Lady Tigers under head coach Nikki Caldwell in her first season looked better than the previous year, making it to the second round of the NCAA tourney. Her team wasn’t known for its offensive firepower – Caldwell wasted no time in the off-season, acting as an assistant coach for the USA under-18 team team as they won the FIBA gold medal. She might have spent that time figuring out what she was going to do about the loss of F LaSondra Barrett, who scored 20.5 percent of the team’s total points.
I doubt that Caldwell is worried – she cooked up a recruiting class ranked #20 by ESPN Hoopgurlz which includes guards Danielle Ballard and Kuaneshia Baker. It might take a while to become a power in the SEC, however, given that Tennessee, Texas A&M;and Kentucky might have their own opinions. The question of whether or not Caldwell could be tempted to take the job at Tennessee if it was offered…well, who knows?
#21: Texas: The Gail Goestenkors experiment is now over in Texas. People claimed that the Longhorns were ranked too high last year as the #15 best women’s basketball program and they might have been justified. Attendance has dropped every year since 2009, a fall from the mid eighties when they led the country in home attendance. After an 18-13 finish and going 8-10 in the conference, something had to change.
Will the Longhorn Network help the Texas’s women’s basketball program? It couldn’t hurt. But Texas goes back to the Conradt Era with the hire of Karen Aston, a former Conradt assistant. Goestenkors’s final gift to the Longhorns was 6-7 post player Imani Stafford, the great Pam McGee’s daughter. But the triumphs that Stafford and G Empress Davenport bring – both signed under Goestenkors – are destined to be claimed by others.
#22: Ohio State: Ohio State is the example of a program that has never really been able to cash in. Despite having the Big Ten Player of the Year and WNBA Draft pick Samanatha Prahalis and a 25-7 record they best they could do last year was a #8 seed in the NCAAs despite being in the Top 20 nationally after going 1-1 in the Big Ten Tournament. (The NCAA Selection Committee knew what they were doing, it seems, after Florida administered the coup de grace.)
Jim Foster will go to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, but at Ohio State his teams have never gotten past the Sweet Sixteen despite his win percentages. All his players earn plaudits in the classroom at least. He’ll probably be at Ohio State until he retires but fans are waiting for the Buckeyes to stop being on the outside looking in. G Tayler Hill will be another top WNBA Draft Pick, but what comes after that?
#23: Georgia: Georgia, a #4 seed in the Raleigh Region last year, bumped into giant killer Marist and lost by six points in the first round. But this is a squad that really only loses one starter from the previous season, and will contend even in the tough SEC.
They’ll pick up PG Marjorie Butler and W Shacobia Barbee as freshmen this year. Both of these players are from Tennessee, so in addition to five Georgia players on the roster head coach Andy Landers has three from Tennessee. The Lady Bulldogs have a web presence – coachandylanders.com has been around since at least last year – and for a state that has traditionally only given a damn about football Georgia has averaged about 4000 per home game over the last four years.
#24: Virginia: Last season, the quarterfinals of WNIT were a nice warmup for the Joanne Boyle era – but the base will want more than that. They’ll want to see an NCAA appearance and a return back to the glory years that will be difficult in a stacked ACC.
The Cavaliers lose lead scorer Arianna Moorer and lead rebounder Chelsea Shine to graduation, and senior guard Lexie Gerson is out for the season with a hip injury. PG China Crosby went out with an ACL last year, so freshmen such as Faith Randolph will have to shine right away.
#25: Georgetown: When Terry Williams-Flournoy coached for Georgetown, she said that she had to sell the Georgetown degree and the success of the program because there wasn’t much left to sell. Can’t sell the bandbox of a gym or their poor attendance.
Now assistant Keith Brown takes over at the program. He can probably pick up the selling duties because he was head of recruiting for the Hoyas, but he doesn’t have Boo Williams as a brother. He does, however, have a great honeymoon as senior G Sugar Rodgers remains on the squad (and will probably go in the first round in the 2013 WNBA Draft). Georgetown will be hoping for a fifth straight 20+ win season, and guard Katie McCormick and wing Logan Battle – top 100 players both – join the squad this season.