Prince, five freshmen ready to lead Rutgers
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Only time will tell if the 4,700-square feet available on a standard basketball court can contain the five members of the class of 2012 at Rutgers.
But if their exploits in the significantly smaller square footage of assistant sports information director Stacey Brann's office two stories above the court at the Lewis Brown Athletic Center is any indication, opponents will have their hands full with this bunch for the next four years.
Even without April Sykes on hand, the four remaining members of the nation's third-ranked recruiting class (behind No. 1 Tennessee and No. 2 Connecticut) -- Jasmine Dixon, Chelsey Lee, Brooklyn Pope and Nikki Speed -- teamed up one recent afternoon to infuse the small room with unmistakable energy. They rummaged for snacks, scrutinized photos of themselves in civilian clothes for the media guide and lobbed good-natured taunts like passes into the post. A picture frame quickly fell victim to their massed energy, sent tumbling to the floor by Dixon's backpack.
Not surprisingly, efforts at analysis quickly became improvisational comedy.
"Chelsea is loud and crazy," Pope explained in a matter-of-fact monotone.
"I am not loud and crazy," Lee protested -- vociferously -- from across the room.
"There you go," Pope said, before moving on to Dixon's notoriously extensive slumber.
Rutgers has excelled on the court in recent seasons, reaching the championship game two years ago and a regional final last season. That success and its resulting exposure was part of what Sykes -- the nation's top-rated recruit in the wake of Elena Delle Donne's decision to give up the sport -- credited with bringing the program to the attention of a Mississippi girl who had long had eyes only for LSU. But an occasional protagonist in drama it didn't seek (see: Imus, Don), Rutgers has also guarded its personality with almost the same zeal with which it hounds opponents in coach C. Vivian Stringer's "55" press.
Disciplined and determined, the Scarlet Knights were easy to respect but difficult to embrace because they were difficult to know.
Even after losing mainstays Essence Carson and Matee Ajavon to graduation and the WNBA, an impressive core remains with All-America candidates Kia Vaughn and Epiphanny Prince, as well as Heather Zurich, Rashidat Junaid and healthy returns for Myia McCurdy, Brittany Ray and Khadijah Rushdan after injury-shortened or injury-plagued seasons. And with the addition of the five freshmen, all of whom were ranked among the nation's top 40 recruits by HoopGurlz, there is every reason to believe this team could actually be better than either of its immediate predecessors.
There might also be enough personality to bring the Scarlet Knights out of their shell. Assuming the newcomers do not drive their coach out of her mind first.
"I'm requiring that the freshmen quickly grow up," Stringer said. "I really love their personalities. They've got great personalities, and they're sweethearts. But in order for us to be able to play and not cry at the end, then I have to kind of confuse them a little bit in this respect -- they've got to understand the difference. That I love April, or Brooklyn or whoever -- you can't get that confused with that I'm going to go off. And you're going to feel real bad with what I have to say."
Prince has been there. One of the nation's top recruits two years ago, and the headliner of another banner class for Stringer, she arrived on campus with all sorts of plaudits. None of which bought her any extra leniency from Stringer. Prince's freshman season ended with a starring role in the NCAA tournament, including a memorable performance in an upset win against Duke, but it began with a struggle to pass the coach's infamous fitness test.
Now a veteran hand who looks to be in tremendous shape, Prince knows exactly what thoughts the current freshmen are processing when they're getting an earful.
"I think just not being good at anything," Prince recalled. "Because when you first come in, you're like an All-American, everybody tells you how good you are. Then you come here and upperclassmen's taking the ball from you all the time or you always doing something wrong and coach always has a problem with every single thing you do. So I think it's just not knowing anything. It's hard for your confidence, because we're coming in, we're thinking we all that, and coach is bringing us back down to nothing."
Of course, at least to some extent, the recruits also had an inclination as to what they were signing up for -- even if Sykes, playing with Prince and Vaughn in a New York City summer league, couldn't get over how many people kept telling her how tough Stringer would be. Dixon talked about wanting the criticism, knowing it will make her a better player. Speed talked about wanting to become the best point guard in the country and knowing Stringer's demands can get her there. And Sykes, even in the moments after a practice in which she heard about her shortcomings, sounded like anything but the product of a generation more comfortable with a pat on the back than a kick in the backside.
"I wanted to become great and a better defensive player, and everybody knows coach Stringer is the person to come to for learning defensive moves and how to play defense," Sykes said. "Through my whole life, I was always the best player and it was like, 'OK, you can do what you want.' [Coaches] always pushed me offensively, but I never had to really play defense.
"People knew I wasn't good on defense, but they didn't notice that I was real, real bad -- like I didn't know the principles or nothing of it. I was always working on my offensive game."
The good news for both Stringer and the players seeking to escape her withering looks (or blown kisses, which Lee suggests are the ultimate indication a player is in for it), is this team has depth. A roster depleted in recent seasons by injuries, transfers and other personnel maneuvering meant Stringer had to teach on the fly. With 13 players healthy and practicing this season, there are enough bodies to keep practice rolling while players who make a misstep go to the sideline and get a chance to see the forest from the trees.
As Speed explained, "If you don't get it and coach Stringer gets tired of you and sends you to the side, you know one of the other vets will come and talk to you, 'This is how she wants it; this is what you're going to see.' And they'll put game situations or examples in there and you'll see it the way coach Stringer wants you to see it."
Lee perhaps jokingly suggests the freshmen want to provide Stringer with enough material in the next four years to fill a sequel to the coach's previous book. And it's clear, from their interaction off the court to the pride they take in recounting how well they held up against the veterans while playing as a unit in practice, that this is a quintet. They didn't sign on as a package deal -- Sykes and Lee played together in AAU ball but didn't know California AAU teammates Speed and Dixon well, and all of them thought Pope was headed for Baylor until the last minute. But they are a package deal now.
"We're like sisters," Lee said. "I'm not going to lie; we argue. But we make up, because that's what families do."
There are, of course, no guarantees that any of this works out. No guarantees that the individual parts of a recruiting class that seem to offer one player at each position really fit together quite that well. No guarantees that the new and the old blend together without incident. Perhaps the only guarantee is that it will succeed or fail on Stringer's terms.
"The unknown always is what's in a person's heart and head," Stringer said. "That is, are they really competitors, or are they people who have great titles but don't compete? Are they really thick-skinned, or can you say something and all of a sudden I've taken their hearts? All of a sudden, Connecticut comes in there and jumps on us by 20; what players do I have? Who are these people that are playing? Do they just get an attitude and come back and fight the way Scarlet Knights always do? Or are they looking to blame someone else and tuck their tails between their legs and make an excuse about what they couldn't do?"
It's going to be entertaining watching the answers unfold.
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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