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Upsets, lack of 2016 signees cause of alarm for Tennessee

Crystal Dangerfield is a do-it-all point guard who has won back-to-back Gatorade Player of the Year awards in her state. She has won two international gold medals with USA Basketball and two state titles with her high school team. She's the top-ranked point guard in the senior class, and is considered the No. 3 prospect nationally, No. 1 in her state.

And she's symbolic of a cause for anxiety among Lady Vols fans. Her home state is Tennessee, but she doesn't plan on wearing orange in college.

Dangerfield, from Blackman High in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, will go to UConn. Dangerfield made it official in November, becoming the first Tennessee native to sign to play for coach Geno Auriemma.

That isn't the only recruiting disappointment for Tennessee, though. As of now, the Lady Vols have no commitments from the senior class of 2016.

Not from Chassity Carter, the second-best high school prospect in Tennessee, who stayed in state but signed with Vanderbilt. Not from Rodrea Echols, the third-highest-rated prospect in Tennessee, who is headed to Oklahoma State. And not from Jazz Bond, Dangerfield's high-scoring teammate at Blackman, who signed with South Florida.

Several of the nation's top prospects -- including No. 1 Lauren Cox (Baylor), No. 2 Joyner Holmes (Texas) and No. 5 Erin Boley (Notre Dame) -- listed Tennessee among their finalists, but chose to sign elsewhere. The last best hope for Tennessee coach Holly Warlick, perhaps, during the early signing period was No. 10 Tori McCoy. But she picked Ohio State over Tennessee and South Carolina, among others.

So what's happening with Tennessee? This is a program that has won eight NCAA titles, been to the Final Four 18 times and led the nation in attendance for 11 of the past 12 seasons. So how can the Lady Vols find themselves in December without any signees?

Well, a big part of it simply is they have a lot of competition for the top players.

"Getting one of the two elite prospects in the nation from East Texas is easier said than done," said Dan Olson, who ranks the prep players and classes for espnW HoopGurlz. "Cox and Holmes are simply two of the best of the very best. Texas and Baylor were pulling out all the stops in keeping both prospects close to home."

But there's also the fact that for all of Tennessee's vast success, the Lady Vols haven't been to a Final Four since 2008 -- when today's prep seniors were around 10 years old. It's certainly not to suggest the Tennessee tradition is unknown by today's upcoming players. But the buzz from a Final Four appearance is one of the many factors in recruiting.

Of course, it would also be a mistake for Warlick to "panic" and take a player who can't realistically help her team. "So instead of just signing a player," Olson said of the current class of seniors, "Tennessee waits."

For the vast Lady Vols fan base, this is alarming. And the anxiety is not helped by the current struggles of the team, which is now down to seven healthy players.

For the second Sunday in a row, Tennessee lost at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, this time to Virginia Tech, 57-43. The previous week, the Lady Vols fell to Texas 64-53. The Longhorns, at least, were ranked in the top 10; the Hokies, by contrast, were picked to finish 13th in the 15-team ACC.

The Lady Vols' 6-2 record also includes two-point squeakers over both Syracuse and Chattanooga; the latter lost to UConn by 48. And all eight of Tennessee's games have been at home. Their next three are on the road: at Wichita State, which nearly upset the Lady Vols in Thompson-Boling last season before falling 54-51, and then against two ranked Pac-12 teams, No. 16 Stanford and No. 7 Oregon State.

As mentioned, Tennessee has been bit hard by the injury bug so far this season, and also has players still adapting after sitting out last year. But all qualifiers aside, some of the Lady Vols' faithful are starting to sweat.

And part of what's perplexing is that Tennessee has -- on paper, at least -- done pretty well with its previous four recruiting classes. But that has yet to pay off as well as hoped. There's still time, especially for the younger players. But injuries and inconsistency have been factors with these classes.

  • A year ago, the Lady Vols landed the top-ranked in-state prospect in guard/forward Meme Jackson, who won two Tennessee state titles alongside Dangerfield at Blackman High, as well as guard Te'a Cooper, a McDonald's All- American from neighboring Georgia. The two-player class was ranked 13th in the country.

    Cooper has averaged 11.1 points thus far and leads Tennessee with 23 assists. But she also leads in two negative categories: turnovers (27) and personal fouls (25). Foul trouble has made it tough for the freshman to get into a flow in some games, although she's averaging 23.8 minutes. Jackson, meanwhile, has played in just six games and scored only eight points.

  • The 2014 class featured guard/forward Jaime Nared, the No. 6 overall prospect out of Oregon; guard Alexa Middleton, the top-ranked in-state recruit and the No. 28 prospect in the nation; and forward Kortney Dunbar, the No. 78 national prospect out of Illinois. The class was ranked sixth in the country, but hasn't yet clicked. In fact, right now, they're all sidelined by injury.

    Nared, who averaged 5.2 points and 3.5 rebounds a year ago, suffered a broken hand in a preseason practice and has yet to play this season. Dunbar (ankle) played in the first five games this season (6.0 PPG, 3.0 RPG), but has been out since. Middleton averaged 3.6 points and 2.1 rebounds over the first seven games, but was in a walking boot with an apparent foot injury on Sunday.

  • The 2013 signees were Warlick's first official recruiting class as head coach after Pat Summitt moved to an emeritus role. The Lady Vols landed center Mercedes Russell, the No. 1 prospect in the country and the Gatorade national player of the year. She was the first top-ranked prospect to choose Tennessee since Candace Parker in 2004. In addition, the Lady Vols got No. 8 national prospect Jannah Tucker, and Jordan Reynolds, ranked No. 42. That class was third in the country.

    Russell, who missed last season after foot surgeries, is averaging 13.1 points and 9.4 rebounds. She's the only Lady Vol who has started all eight games this season. Reynolds is averaging 3.6 points and 3.6 rebounds per game. Tucker transferred to Villanova.

    That 2013 prep senior class, by the way, included guard/forward Diamond DeShields, who is now playing with Tennessee after transferring from North Carolina. DeShields, who was ranked third nationally, currently leads Tennessee in scoring at 14.3 PPG.

    But games like Sunday's -- in which DeShields had 15 points, but none in the second half as Tennessee scored just 18 in the last 20 minutes -- are worrisome for the Lady Vols.

  • The 2012 class featured forward Bashaara Graves, who was the No. 5 prospect overall; guard Andraya Carter, ranked 21st; forward Jasmine Jones, No. 39; and center Nia Moore, a three-star prospect. The class was ranked fifth.

    Now a senior, Graves is averaging 11.1 points and 9.0 rebounds this year, while redshirt junior Carter is at 4.0 PPG. Jones, also a redshirt junior, averaged 6.0 PPG in the first five games, but suffered a head injury in the Texas game and is sidelined. Moore played sparingly in her first three seasons, and has appeared in just three games this year.

    Tennessee now has to hope there are no more injuries and that at least some of those will heal quickly. And prioritize who's still left to recruit, including in the junior-college and international ranks. The regular signing period opens April 13.

    This isn't the kind of "uncertain" territory Tennessee is really used to. But, right now, it's what the Lady Vols are dealing with.