East meets West in diverse Trenton
TRENTON, N.J. -- The ease with which it's possible to traverse the length and width of the United States is apparent in Arizona State's itineraries over the past three weeks.
From a trip to the Bay Area during the first weekend of March to play California and Stanford, the Sun Devils went to the conference tournament in Los Angeles, the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament in Georgia and now the regional semifinals in New Jersey, all while shuttling back and forth to their home base in Tempe for those pesky classes.
As much complaining as anyone who ever takes to the air is likely to do when it comes to the sometimes wretched service offered by airlines, it's somewhat remarkable in the abstract that a player could potentially eat pancakes by the Pacific Ocean in the morning and practice in the shadow of the Atlantic Ocean by nightfall (at least the Sun Devils had the luxury of flying charter for their twin transcontinental NCAA tournament commutes).
And yet when it comes to the wide world of women's college basketball, it sometimes feels like the sport gets around with Conestoga wagons and French fur-trapper guides.
Thanks to Arizona State's upset win against Florida State on the East Coast on Monday, Trenton is home to a particularly prolific and relatively rare convergence of the coasts, with two Pac-10 schools and flyover resident Texas A&M joining Connecticut at Sovereign Bank Arena.
California has a Canadian in sophomore Kelsey Adrian, but she's from the proper time zone in British Columbia. And the team's three stars -- Ashley Walker, Devanei Hampton and Alexis Gray-Lawson -- are all essentially locals (Hampton and Gray-Lawson from Oakland, and Walker from slightly farther afield Modesto).
In fact, between them, Arizona State and Cal have as many players from outside North America (Senegal's Rama N'Diaye for Cal and Australia's Gabby Fage for Arizona State) as they do from east of the Mississippi River. And that's still double the number of players from west of the Mississippi River on Connecticut's roster.
There are exceptions, especially at schools with the national name recognition of Tennessee or Connecticut (which had a Californian as recently as last season in Charde Houston and another rather memorable one in Diana Taurasi), but college basketball remains a largely regional game when it comes to recruiting.
"We definitely recruit nationally, but you know, we lock in more to our region, because that's what the kids grow up with and know," Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne said. "And most of them in the West want to stay in the West. I think you've got Stanford and UCLA that are a little bit more national names -- I mean, Arizona State is definitely a national name.
"Recruiting-wise, I always think it's better to have kids in your region. They can just get home easier; their families can see them play more. It's kind of an easier adjustment, if you will. But we've had players from all over the country, and that's part of the experience, too. You've just got to find that kid who is mature enough to go away."
As it stands now, introductions are sometimes still required when geography shrinks.
The showcase game for regional bragging rights is top-seeded Connecticut against fourth-seeded California (ESPN, noon ET Sunday). As long as the odds are against the Bears -- as they will be for all of the unbeaten Huskies' opponents -- they at least present a compelling strategic test for Geno Auriemma's team in the form of posts Ashley Walker and Devanei Hampton.
That's reigning Pac-10 Player of the Year Ashley Walker, but an unknown name and face to Connecticut junior Kaili McLaren, a Washington, D.C., native, when the latter showed up in Berkeley last summer for the well-known Big Man Camp founded by the late Pete Newell. Of course, it didn't take her long to discover why she, Tina Charles and anyone else who plays inside for Connecticut on Sunday won't have an easy afternoon.
"She doesn't look like the kind of player that she plays [like]," McLaren said with a laugh. "It's like you see her and she's just a nice girl, and you talk to her and she's just a nice girl, and then you see her on the court and she just turns into a whole other person. It's like an alter ego, almost. That's what makes her good. She just plays hard."
The two are now good friends -- Sunday's looming showdown didn't stop them from shooting the breeze about non-basketball matters this week -- but McLaren is hardly an outlier (she even briefly had Cal on her recruiting radar before deciding it was too far from home). Aside from AAU showdowns or junior national teams, it's entirely possible that top players can remain almost entirely unfamiliar with many of their peers.
So perhaps it's similarly unsurprising that different regions have developed different styles of play. While regional flavor in the outside world might have gradually faded away behind the glare of big-box stores and chain restaurants, it's still alive and well on the basketball court.
Is there really a difference in the way teams from different leagues and regions play?
"I think so," Arizona State senior Kate Engelbrecht said. "I mean, we haven't had that much experience with the East Coast teams, but I've noticed a difference in the reffing. And they just let you play a little rougher, I would say, out East. Everyone is really tough. Not to say the West Coast isn't tough, but I feel like they let you get away with a little more on the East Coast."
Not that either Arizona State or Texas A&M would mind some misplaced whistles. Aggies coach Gary Blair lobbied Saturday for the referees to leave La Toya Micheaux and Sun Devils post Sybil Dosty to their own devices in the lane when the teams meet. Both teams play defense in a manner not altogether out of character with the grimy, tough area of Trenton that houses Sovereign Bank Arena.
"Our past two games have been quite different than in the Pac-10, and it has helped us," Engelbrecht said of the team's first- and second-round games in notoriously physical SEC country. "We've just been able to play; there's not so many ticky-tack fouls. So we can get up and pressure without having to worry about getting those ticky-tack calls."
Then again, while the rising and setting sun might differentiate the view from the two coasts, the basketball looks the same going through the basket no matter where you're from.
"Basketball is simple," Connecticut's Kalana Greene said. "Everyone has the same objective, trying to score and trying to stop the other team from scoring."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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