- Glenn Nelson, ESPNHS HoopGurlz
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Recruiting is not an exact science, but exceptional talent is hard to miss.
Of the four women's basketball finalists -- Baylor, Connecticut, Oklahoma and Stanford -- 31 players were ranked by ESPN HoopGurlz among the top 100 prospects in their respective classes. Moreover, three of ESPN HoopGurlz's past four No. 1 overall prospects (Tina Charles and Maya Moore of Connecticut and Brittney Griner of Baylor) are playing on Sunday in San Antonio. The fourth, Elena DelleDonne, originally pledged to UConn, but just finished her freshman season at Delaware, for whom she was a third-team, Associated Press All-American.
It should not be a surprise that Connecticut, with eight ranked players, including the two No. 1s, and Stanford, with 12, are considered the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the country and favored to advance to a championship clash on Tuesday.
Not to sway the picture too far the other way, however, and dismiss the importance of coaching. First of all, the coaches identify the players best suited to her or his program. Second, the coach must recruit and sign the players. Third, the coach must motivate and develop the players.
Check, check and check with these final four. Theirs isn't just the culmination of a three- to four-year recruiting effort, either. Rather, the Final Four is just a point on a continuum of excellence for four programs that should be among the sport's forefront for years beyond this one.
That said, sports media often fixates on coaches, who are the constants, over players, who are the ever-youthful variables. With three Hall of Famers (one, Baylor's Kim Mulkey, as a player) and the fourth at least on the path, such a focus in the 2010 NCAA women's basketball Final Four would not be completely misplaced. Yet even they -- or, more likely, especially they -- would emphasize the imperative of talented players in a winning program.
Here's how the Final Four teams stack up with an eye to their recruiting classes -- then and now.
Current ranked: Mariah Chandler, No. 18 in 2009; Brittney Griner, No. 1 in 2009; Melissa Jones, No. 13 in 2007; Jordan Madden, No. 58 in 2009; Brooklyn Pope, No. 8 in 2008; Shanay Washington, No. 64 in 2009; Destiny Williams (transfer) No. 8 in 2009
On the Way: Odyssey Sims, No. 3 in 2010
While it may now to a sporting nation seem a no-brainer, the designation of Brittney Griner as the No. 1 prospect in the 2009 class, as well as a surefire game-changer, was and continues to be hotly debated. Her detractors want to dismiss Griner as a "freak" who offers little outside of height at 6-8 and a dunking sideshow. It is, in fact, the whole YouTube phenomenon that distracts from the case of Griner as once-in-a-generation prospect. What basketball neophytes miss is that the qualities that make Griner an unprecedented dunker in the women's game -- her unique combination of size, athletic fluidity, winspan and balance -- are the qualities that make her a prospect on the level that may never before has graced the game.
As did others, we projected Griner's main influence on the game to be at the defensive end of the floor. I once watched her block at least 30 shots, the summer after her sophomore year in high school, during a game against the team that eventually claimed the club-basketball equivalent of a national championship. Again, her explosiveness off the floor, her 7-foot-4 wingspan and her fluidity make scoring inside 8-10 feet of the basket a monumental challenge. Those attributes also help Griner overcome some lack of experience and polish at the offensive end.
Mulkey and her staff wisely cashed in on the 2009 class, which included Griner and was noteworthy for its abundance of athletic bigs. Bringing in a great class with Griner, of course, means the group has four years to develop together. Mariah Chandler and a transfer from Illinois, Destiny Williams, should develop nicely into frontline body guards for Griner, as should another transfer, Brooklyn Pope, from the 2008 class. The Bears also brought in speed from Jordan Madden and Kimetria Hayden, a kid we liked early in her high-school career but who suffered a major injury along the way, as well as overall athleticism and shot-making from Shanay Washington.
Baylor really seemed primed to begin contending next year, which makes this year's Final Four appearance a frightening development for the rest of the country's top programs. Next year will be the last for Melissa Jones, a kid we were crazy about because of her "it" factor, as well as the first for Odyssey Sims, a scintillating point guard who will bring long-distance shooting and was the most fearsome on-ball defender we've seen on the high-school level. Arriving with Sims will be Makenzie Robertson, who although not a ranked prospect is noteworthy for two important reasons -- she is the daughter of the head coach and her strength is long-range shooting, an essential piece to place around a singular talent like Griner.
Current ranked: Heather Buck, No. 31 in 2008; Tina Charles, No. 1 in 2006; Lorin Dixon, No. 19 in 2007; Caroline Doty, No. 10 in 2008; Kelly Faris, No. 39 in 2009; Tiffany Hayes, No. 11 in 2008; Kaili McLaren, No. 46 in 2006; Maya Moore, No. 1 in 2007
The two most competitive high-school girls' basketball games I've ever seen both involved Maya Moore, when she played for Collins Hill High School of Suwanee, Ga. One included Tina Charles and Christ the King of Middle Village, N.Y., and the other focused on Tiffany Hayes and Winter Haven (Fla.). Moore takes both of those former foils into battle with her as Connecticut teammates in the NCAA semifinals against Baylor on Sunday.
Is it any wonder that the Huskies are on a historic run? Coach Geno Auriemma doesn't just accumulate talent, he lands it with a competitive edge. Certainly, Moore has great balance, athletic fluidity and wingspan. But she is such a cutthroat competitor, we saw her make threes before she really had her shooting mechanics. We also saw her routinely win games with plays at the buzzer at an age when girls self-question their every motive and rarely dare to put themselves on the line like that.
Moore lost in overtime to Charles at the prestigious Nike Tournament of Champions, long considered a national-championship maker, then the next year not only righted that one wrong, but did it in one dizzying, six-games-in-11-days, cross-country stretch. She won contests during that stretch in every way imaginable, including a last-second block to seal an overtime victory over Hayes and Winter Haven at the T-Mobile Invitational. The next night, she scored 38 points in the first half against St. Elizabeth of Wilmington, Del., and ended with 48 after passing up numerous opportunities to post 50.
To the aforementioned win-or-die-trying recruits, Auriemma added the likes of Caroline Doty, who collected more floor burns than others had buckets in showcases like the Nike Skills Academy and USA Basketball trials; Lorin Dixon, who scored the winning bucket as a freshman to team with Charles for the first of back-to-back TOC titles; and Kelly Faris, who as a prospect did a lot of things pretty well and got under her opponents' skin very well.
Charles moves on after fulfilling the promise of HoopGurlz's first-ever No. 1 ranking, but will leave the Huskies' pursuit of John Wooden and UCLA in tremendous capable hands. For her senior season, Moore receives the gift of a scintillating, five-member freshman class. Then to salve the departure of one of the game's all-time winners in 2011, Auriemma already knows he will welcome in another stab-you-in-the-heart competitor in Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.
Current ranked: Whitney Hand, No. 39 in 2008; Joanna McFarland, No. 38 in 2009; Danielle Robinson, No. 21 in 2007; Amanda Thompson, No. 5 in 2006
The Sooners have the fewest Top 100 players of the Final Four quartet, but their success is a testimony to the way they've recruited and developed under coach Sherri Coale. Amanda Thompson is this team's headline recruit, having been ranked fifth in the country by HoopGurlz in 2006. As a prospect, she was a multi-dimensional wing candidate with great size who carried the West in the McDonald's All-American Game and was a leading MVP candidate until Jayne Appel stepped up at the end. That Thompson led the Big 12 in rebounding, while continuing to show an ability to put the ball on the deck, pass and shoot the jumper, is a reflection of that versatility we saw in her as a high-school junior and senior.
On this team, Thompson is a bit of an outlier as a recruit, as Oklahoma has had its success snatching up players who are just under the "elite" status radar. Its marvelous lead guard, Danielle Robinson, is a great example. As a high-school player, she already demonstrated her great change-of-direction ability, allowing her to tack at full speed like a sailboat up the court, so tying defenders in knots that she could virtually walk into wide-open foul lanes for layups. However, hailing from Northern Californian, Robinson did not have the national exposure in what turned out to be a fine class headed by Maya Moore, now the Connecticut superstar.
To an even greater extent, Whitney Hand, sidelined most of this season with an ACL tear, was undervalued because of her lack of eye-popping athleticism, but was considered by us a desirable prospect because she did things that prompted her teams to win. Joanna McFarland was similar in her athletic profile, but was as polished a post prospect as we've seen on the high-school level.
Abi Olajuwon is an example of a prospect about whom there were divided opinions. We graded her just outside the top 100 in 2006 because her conditioning was not top notch and sometimes lack of such is an indication of low work ethic or indifference. We're always happy to be proved wrong on that. Olajuwon obviously turned that around, particularly between her junior and senior seasons at Oklahoma, and benefitted greatly from development by the Sooner staff, as well as mentorship from the Paris twins, Courtney and Ashley.
It's starting to look like Coale might like the slightly under-radar recruits because that status creates a hunger upon which she and her staff can act. That trend continues with her 2010 signing class, which includes Jacqueline Jeffcoat, an inside prospect from post-rich Texas; Aaryn Ellenberg, who will fill the speed and shooting void left by the graduating of Nyeishia Stevenson, and Nicole Griffin, a 6-6 post project who can pay huge dividends with wise, applied development.
Current ranked: Jayne Appel, No. 3 in 2006; Sarah Boothe, No. 37 in 2008; Ashley Cimino, No. 74 in 2007; Hannah Donaghe, No. 45 in 2007; Michelle Harrison, No. 40 in 2006; JJ Hones, No. 32 in 2006; Melanie Murphy, No. 49 in 2006; Nneka Ogwumike, No. 6 in 2008; Kayla Pedersen, No. 4 in 2007; Jeanette Pohlen, No. 22 in 2007; Mikaela Ruef, No. 16 in 2009; Joslyn Tinkle, No. 10 in 2009
We talk frequently among the ESPN HoopGurlz staff about heeding the "it" factor we spy in certain players. After all, we will say to each other, such-and-such player "might be another Jeanette Pohlen." The junior from Brea, Calif., still doesn't blow anyone away with her speed or athleticism. Yet, out of sheer will and persistence, she always covered more ground defensively than almost any prospect we saw and is likely to pull off something completely unexpected like, well, going coast to coast in four-plus seconds and delivering a buzzer-beating, Final Four-sealing layup, as she did Monday against Xavier.
Still, Pohlen is more of an x-factor for the Cardinal and not what we'd consider a signature recruit for coach Tara VanDerveer. That would be any of bigs she literally can parade onto the floor, all so similar in their combination of size, versatility and court sense that a more paranoid competitor might suspect Stanford's inside hegemony was the product of one of the university's ballyhooed science schools. Ergo Jayne Appel, who has a Kevin McHale-like sense of using elbows, knees and the laws of physics to ultimate advantage.
So thoroughly has VanDerveer locked down the recruitment of posts and forwards that when the past four years' centerpiece, Jayne Appel, graduates this spring, the Cardinal might actually field a deeper front line next fall. That's when the nation's No. 1 recruit, Chiney Ogwumike, brings her energy and athleticism to team with her stolidly solid sister, Nneka, who already has surpassed Appel in offensive production. They will continue to be graced by the perfect wingperson, Kayla Pedersen, a big who plays with abandon rare for a 6-4 player and uses her mobility, varied skills and shooting touch to great complementary value on a big front line.
Those three will be ably supplemented by Joslyn Tinkle, whose father, Wayne, guided Montana to an NCAA tournament berth on the men's side. She is already is pushing for minutes. Sarah Boothe, big and ultra-skilled, and Mikaela Ruef, the most Pedersen-like player in the 2009 class, also prepare to step up to bigger minutes.
Stanford's best shot at challenging history-bound Connecticut in this year's Final Four might have vanished when the Cardinal lost a heated recruiting battle for Skylar Diggins to Notre Dame in 2009. Diggins would have replaced the backcourt athleticism and shot-creating ability lost when Candice Wiggins graduated to WNBA stardom. The good news on the horizon is that, coming in next season with the younger Ogwumike, are the offensively explosive and competitive Sara James and a wily penetrator and shot-maker in Toni Kokenis.
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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A member of the Parade All-American Selection Committee, he formerly coached girl's club basketball, was the editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.