TERRE HAUTE, Ind. -- Caitlin Ingle and Lizzy Wendell didn't know each other when they committed their basketball futures to Drake University. Little did anyone else know that the partnership they forged would outperform just about every other recruiting class in the nation.
A trip to the NCAA tournament is all that's missing for two players who, at least as measured by points and assists, have done more than almost all of their peers. And they're working on that tourney appearance.
The class of freshmen who arrived on campuses around the country prior to the 2013-14 season has struggled to make its mark. Six of the top eight recruits in that year's ESPN HoopGurlz top 100 have transferred. Because Connecticut's recruiting class at the time consisted of just one player, Saniya Chong is the lone member of a nationwide class of more than a thousand to win a national championship.
There are success stories, of course. Washington's Kelsey Plum is on the verge of scoring history, and she combined with Chantel Osahor to take the Huskies to a Final Four. Sydney Wiese hastened Oregon State's revival. Brionna Jones and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough has excelled for Maryland. But the two players who constituted the entirety of coach Jennie Baranczyk's first recruiting class at Drake merit more than honorable mention.
Only two active Division I players have scored more career points than Wendell. Only two have registered more career assists than Ingle, now the Missouri Valley Conference's all-time assists leader. It is no coincidence that Drake is ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time in 16 years. Ingle and Wendell grew from strangers into teammates, roommates and friends. The result is a golden era for the program.
"I don't think we would be where we are right now if we didn't have that kind of chemistry," Ingle said of her rapport with Wendell. "I think it would have taken a lot more work. I think we're really shining this year. We've come a long way in that. People say we've always had that, and I think we have, but we're better on and off the floor now. I think that's where we've grown a lot."
Baranczyk doesn't take credit for a carefully planned pairing. The new coach didn't search out two people who perfectly fit a basketball blueprint and possessed complementary personalities. She looked for assets.
"We were trying to get the most impactful players that we could," Baranczyk said.
Wendell was a 6-foot scorer who Baranczyk thought could give a smallish team length, a shooter who has learned to score inside. She fit a familiar mid-major profile, polished enough to be the prep player of the year in the competitive Kansas City area as a senior but not on lists like those compiled by HoopGurlz.
Ingle helped Drake escape what can be a mid-major death knell. The year before Ingle arrived in Des Moines from nearby Runnels, Baranczyk's first team didn't have a player from Iowa. Mid-majors need not stop recruiting at the border, but from the extremes of Elena Delle Donne and Courtney Vandersloot to the rank and file, it is difficult to survive if they can't make use of the talent in their own backyard. Such as a point guard who held her own in high school against the likes of Iowa State's Jadda Buckley, Iowa's Ally Disterhoft and Oklahoma's Maddie Manning.
Get the ingredients. Then figure out what you're cooking.
Wendell started all but two games as a freshman and ranked fifth in the MVC in scoring. Ingle took more time to find her footing. She started nearly half the games that first season but had 96 assists, roughly the same as she accumulated by New Year's Eve this season. On a team with both Wendell and eventual MVC Player of the Year Kyndal Clark, it necessitated a leap of faith for a first-time head coach to put the ball in the hands of a freshman point guard who even now offers up the phrase "high-risk, high-reward" as a self-evaluation of her style.
The more compound adjectives that can be applied -- no-look, one-hand, full-court, behind-the-back -- the more likely Ingle is to try it.
"If she had a point guard for a coach, she probably wouldn't play the way that she does," joked Baranczyk, a former forward who ranks among the University of Iowa's all-time leaders in rebounds and blocks. "A lot of players have that hesitation or that fear of just going for it, not wanting to make a mistake. She doesn't have that. She's never had that. ... She just has a feel for the game. I think she reads the game really well."
Just as Wendell learned to expect a pass at any and all times, the two players who not only spent a lot of time on the court together as freshmen but also roomed together learned how to read each other. Wendell is more outgoing, Ingle quieter. Ingle is immaculately neat. Wendell is, well, not. But each is the product of a big family -- Wendell the middle of nine siblings and Ingle the younger sister of four older brothers - and they found common ground (and housekeeping detente that these days keeps the common area clean enough for peace).
"Caitlin can say something to Lizzy that I couldn't say," Baranczyk said. "Lizzy can say something to Caitlin that I couldn't say. But they have that connection."
A connection that had Drake ranked fifth nationally in field goal percentage and eighth in assist-to-turnover ratio. And one that has carried the team through potentially season-altering adversity without injured junior Maddy Dean, the team's third-leading scorer last season.
The duo knows it must set up the next generation for success while also focusing on the present. Ingle and Wendell need to lead because they need the younger players to follow.
Playing over the summer, incoming freshman Becca Hittner kept deferring to Wendell, passing up shots and passing the ball to her elder. The ball kept coming right back to her, the message loud and clear. If the freshman wasn't willing to shoot when open, she wasn't going to help.
"She's this 2,000-and-whatever-point scorer, and we need her to shoot probably more than she does," Baranczyk said of Wendell, whose 2,398 points trail only Plum and Kelsey Mitchell among active players. "But the reason that we have depth is that Lizzy wants people around her to score, too. She wants the people around her to be really good."
In a recent game at Indiana State, Wendell's streak of 102 consecutive double-figure scoring games ended. Ingle didn't play particularly well, either, the risk outweighing the reward on too many passes. Drake still won by 19 points. It wasn't the kind of performance the team will need in March. But 26 points from three freshmen made it enough for a Friday in February.
Ingle and Wendell lost six of the first seven conference games they played. Counting Sunday's win against Loyola, they are 51-10 since, including 15-0 this season in the Missouri Valley. Any NCAA tournament at-large hopes they harbor might depend on winning Friday's game against second-place Northern Iowa (ESPN3, 8 p.m. ET). But winning the conference tournament remains the safest path to something other than the WNIT, their fate the past two seasons.
"There would be no better way to end it than getting into the NCAA tournament and hopefully making a run," Ingle said. "That's our goal. We set that five years ago when we were getting recruited by Jennie."