- Glenn Nelson, ESPNHS HoopGurlz
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During a break in the action at Nike Nationals this past summer, three USA Basketball teammates were spotted hanging out in the lobby of the athletic complex in North Augusta, S.C.
"Scheming?" they were asked.
"That's what everyone says," one of the trio, Elizabeth Williams, replied.
And the scheme most envision is a group of elite-level prospects committing to the same program. That, however, has become part of a truism in recruiting, at least in the women's game: The more high-school girls' basketball players talk about going to the same school, the less chance of it happening. Inevitably they do what's in their best interest, split up, but stay friendly competitors.
Maybe this is the year that finally changes. On the surface, when Williams chooses between Duke and Tennessee next Tuesday, it appears to be an ages-old choice between academics and winning. But, in addition to being one of the more monumental moves during the few days leading up to the early signing period, it also is, in a way, a referendum on the importance of friendship in choosing colleges.
The alteration in the landscape comes courtesy of USA Basketball. In the past, the friendships among elite prospects have been forged via spring and summer competition in club basketball. The past couple years, virtually the same group of recruit-age athletes has been kept together, sometimes a couple months at a time, as USA Basketball has fielded teams in new FIBA international events at the U16 and U17 levels.
Now, instead of merely texting and phone calling about their dreams of playing together, several highly recruited players actually have taken those dreams out for a test drive. If Williams, for example, chooses Tennessee, she will be joining BFF and club teammate Cierra Burdick and close friend Ariel Massengale, both of whom she will have won two gold medals with on Team USA. If Williams, the No. 2 player in the ESPNU 100 for the 2011 class, opts for Duke, she "merely" would be joining two Boo Williams club teammates, Whitney Knight and Ka'Lia Johnson, she barely played with because of her USA Basketball obligations.
Four five-star recruits -- Williams of Virginia Beach, Va.; No. 5 Briyona Canty of Trenton, N.J.; No. 9 Morgan Jones of Altamonte Springs, Fla., and No. 11 Betnijah Laney of Wilmington, Del. -- will announce their college choices next week and all five have at least attended USA Basketball trials. Some of the scenarios that could unfold are not as interwoven as Williams' Tennessee option may be, but they still have a USA Basketball thread at least loosely running through them.
Cal, for example, could end up with Jones and No. 22 Reshanda Gray, a member of the USA U18 team who is choosing between the Golden Bears and USC. Cal not only could shoot up considerably in team recruiting rankings which this year are crowded by Pac-10 competitors, Jones and Gray already have a level of familiarity developed during USA trials. Likewise, if Gray tabs the Trojans, she could solidify a top-five finish for USC while joining club teammate No. 16 Ariya Crook-Williams of Long Beach, Calif., and No. 14 Alexyz Vaioletama of Fountain Valley, Calif., both of whom she's also shared floor time with at USA tryouts.
Two other ranked recruits -- No. 44 Khadijah Ellison of Roxbury Crossing, Mass., and No. 84 Emily Cady of Seward, Neb. -- are expected to announce decisions in time to sign early. Another, No. 87 Taylor Ford of New York, plans on enrolling at The Hun School, a prep school in Princeton, N.J.
Either way Williams goes could result in a USA Basketball-facilitated dream scenario for her collegiate benefactor. She and Laney could opt for Duke, allowing the Blue Devils to join Tennessee as the only schools to sign two five-star recruits. The fifth Duke recruit in such a scenario -- No. 20 Amber Henson of Tampa, Fla. -- played for the U.S. at the World University Games, giving the Blue Devils the possibility of a Star-Spangled quintet on which to build.
The real opportunity, of course, lies with Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols. Adding Williams would give them the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 recruits in the class. Joining them would be No. 29 Isabelle Harrison of Nashville, Tenn., a club teammate of Massengale's. The fact that Nos. 2-4 also are close friends and two-time FIBA gold medalists would give Tennessee a strong foundation of familiarity and proven winning on which to build.
Such a development also would, for Williams, signal the conclusion of a significant makeover. A couple years ago, pre-Burdick, pre-USA, Williams was a thoughtful yet introverted type who seemed destined to be drawn to the academic prowess and proximity of Virginia. But fitting in with, and being cherished by, a group of winners in the USA Basketball pipeline has drawn her out and prompted her to dream bigger, basketball-wise.
One slightly sour note could be sounded as Tennessee claims its second national recruiting championship in four years, but certainly the Lady Vols and their legions can overlook it. Massengale, with two FIBA golds and a Nike Nationals title with the Tennessee Flight, is only the second-winningest girls' basketball player ever to emerge from the prep ranks. She would be trumped by Flight teammate Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis who, in addition to the golds and Nike championship, adds a national high-school crown at Mater Dei.
Mosqueda-Lewis, it must be noted, is hauling all that hardware to Tennessee's arch-rival, Connecticut.
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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 girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.