Have other pro­grams caught up to UConn in re­cruit­ing?

High school star Jones’ choice of Stan­ford re­minds women’s team of new re­al­ity

Hartford Courant (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Alex Put­ter­man aput­ter­[email protected]

On Wed­nes­day morn­ing, in a gym­na­sium across the coun­try from Storrs, a high school se­nior named Ha­ley Jones dealt UConn bas­ket­ball a painful blow.

In reach­ing for a red Stan­ford hat in­stead of a white UConn one, Jones (the na­tion’s No. 1 re­cruit, ac­cord­ing to ESPN) left Geno Auriemma’s Huskies with only one Class of 2019 com­mit and sparked a new round of doubt about the fu­ture of UConn’s decades­long dy­nasty.

Jones’ com­mit­ment to Stan­ford came seven days af­ter No. 3 over­all re­cruit Aliyah Bos­ton chose South Carolina over UConn and eight weeks af­ter No. 2 over­all re­cruit Jor­dan Horston spurned the Huskies and pledged to Ten­nessee. With 99 of ESPN’s top 100 re­cruits now com­mit­ted, UConn has es­sen­tially run out of op­tions to fill out its 2019 re­cruit­ing class, which cur­rently in­cludes only one player: wing Aubrey Grif­fin, who ranks No. 33. Next fall will mark the first time since 2013 that Geno Auriemma doesn’t wel­come a top-15 re­cruit to campus.

The ques­tion now be­comes: Is this a blip, or might the rest of the coun­try have caught up to UConn in re­cruit­ing?

“We’re used to get­ting re­ally good play­ers,” Auriemma said Wed­nes­day. “The trick is you’ve got to get more than one good player. You have to get a cou­ple of them a year. For a while there that’s what we were do­ing. We were do­ing that ev­ery year. But how long can you keep do­ing that?”

UConn’s dom­i­nance over women’s col­lege bas­ket­ball this decade has owed to nu­mer­ous fac­tors, from player de­vel­op­ment to game-plan­ning to team chem­istry. But re­cruit­ing has clearly played a key, maybe es­sen­tial role. From 2011-17, the Huskies signed ESPN’s top re­cruit in four out of seven sea­sons, land­ing fu ture All-Amer­i­cans in­clud­ing Bre­anna Ste­wart, Mo­riah Jef­fer­son, Katie Lou Sa­muel­son and Gabby Wil­liams.

It’s dif­fi­cult to pin­point ex­actly why this year was dif­fer­ent. Ul­ti­mately, in­di­vid­ual play­ers make in­di­vid­ual de­ci­sions for in­di­vid­ual rea­sons. Jones, for ex­am­ple, said she chose Stan­ford in part be­cause she wanted to stay close to her Santa Cruz, Calif. home so her par­ents and grand­par­ents could watch her play.

What’s clear, how­ever, is that more schools than ever are growing their women’s bas­ket­ball pro­grams. A sport once dom­i­nated by UConn and Ten­nessee now fea­tures an ecosys­tem of con­tenders across all re­gions and most con­fer­ences.

This dy­namic be­comes clear when look­ing at the yearly re­cruit­ing rank­ings. Over the past five cy­cles, 13 schools have landed a top-5 re­cruit. This year’s top 15 prospects di­vided them­selves among 12 schools, with only one pro­gram (South Carolina) at­tract­ing more than one of those play­ers. Even the Game­cocks, who have eas­ily the na­tion’s best 2019 class, are hardly a dy­nas­tic power: They missed the NCAA Tour­na­ment as re­cently as 2011 and had never reached a Fi­nal Four be­fore 2015.

The re­cent rise of pro- grams such as South Carolina, Mis­sis­sippi State, Ore­gon and oth­ers, both on the re­cruit­ing trail and on the court, has nat­u­rally threat­ened UConn’s dom­i­nance, even as it has ben­e­fited women’s col­lege hoops as a whole. Be­tween those schools and tra­di­tional ti­tans such as Notre Dame, Ten­nessee, Bay­lor, Texas and Mary­land, the sport’s tal­ent is now spread across more teams than ever be­fore.

“When you have other pro­grams that grab some spot­light, that res­onates with play­ers,” ESPN women’s bas­ket­ball re­porter Mechelle Voe­pel said. “In this case, hav­ing South Carolina and Notre Dame win­ning the last two na­tional cham­pi­onships, those are re­ally big pos­i­tives for those pro­grams.”

Add in the fact that South Carolina’s Dawn Sta­ley coaches the United States Olympic team, Voe­pel said, and it’s no won­der the Game­cocks have such a stacked class.

UConn has sur­vived re­cruit­ing lulls be­fore. In 2013, the Huskies failed to lure a top-ranked re­cruit (sign­ing only No. 75 Saniya Chong) but pro­ceeded to win the next three na­tional cham­pi­onships any­way.

But whereas those UConn teams had Ste­wart, Jef­fer­son, Wil­liams and other top play­ers, the Huskies’ next few teams could be short on star­power in com­par­i­son. Next year, the Huskies will lose two play­ers who lead them in both points and re­bounds, in Katie Lou Sa­muel­son and Napheesa Col­lier. And al­though point guard Crys­tal Danger­field will be back, along with Christyn Wil­liams and Me­gan Walker, those re­turn­ing starters haven’t av­er­aged any­where near Sa­muel­son and Col­lier’s num­bers, and depth could re­main an is- sue. Grif­fin and any other new­com­ers might face heavy pres­sure right away.

Auriemma, how­ever, re­sists any in­stinct to sound alarms. He re­mem­bers read­ing, dur­ing a down stretch in the mid-2000s, about how his pro­gram’s run of ex­cel­lence had come to an end. And he re­mem­bers re­spond­ing to that rel­a­tively dry spell with a streak of 11 straight Fi­nal Fours that con­tin­ues through to­day.

“Just be­cause you get the best play­ers doesn’t mean you win, and just be­cause you don’t get the best play­ers ev­ery year doesn’t mean you don’t win,” Auriemma said. “We lose two re­ally good play­ers this year for next year — two re­ally great play­ers. Th­ese two guys are first team All-Amer­i­cans. They should be co-play­ers of the year the way they’re play­ing right now. But I don’t think next year we’re go­ing to be picked not to make the NCAA Tour­na­ment.”

Chris Han­son, man­ag­ing ed­i­tor of women’s bas­ket­ball re­cruit­ing site Prospect­sNa­tion.com, said UConn won’t have to wait long to bounce from this down year of re­cruit­ing. The 2020 class is strong at the top, he said, with four or five po­ten­tial pro­gram-chang­ing play­ers, and the Huskies will have plenty of play­ing time to of­fer.

With tal­ent dis­persed more widely than ever, UConn might not win four straight na­tional ti­tles again any­time soon, Han­son said. But that doesn’t mean they can’t re­main col­lege bas­ket­ball’s big­gest power for years to come.

“If they get who they want in 2020,” Han­son said, “they’ll be right back be­ing the an­noy­ing team that keeps win­ning at a stan­dard that’s higher than every­body else’s.”

Auriemma

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