The race for NCAA Division I national championships rages in women's basketball not amid squeaking sneakers, suicide drills and skill work in the fall, but in dimly lit gymnasiums, home visits and dueling fax machines in November.
In other words, the prescription for a national title: 1.) recruiting, 2.) coaching (in role as recruiter), and 3. recruiting.
To wit, three of the four No. 1 seeds -- the major favorites to comprise the Final Four in Indianapolis -- include on its roster a No. 1 overall prospect, as determined by ESPN HoopGurlz. The fourth, Tennessee, overcomes the absence of a No. 1 recruit with the most ranked recruits (12, including a No. 2 and No. 3) of any team in the tournament.
The battles for top recruits can be so spirited they leave lasting consequences -- and scars. It was, after all, the recruitment of Maya Moore, so far a two-time national player of the year, that widely is considered the straw that broke the sport's marquee rivalry between Connecticut and Tennessee.
The superstar impact is greater in women's college basketball than in men's because of a smaller talent pool that is dominated by a handful of programs. Although talent and participation is exploding in girls' basketball, the sport still is playing catch up and there are some who believe the number of deserving prospects still has not caught up to the number of available Division I scholarships. Certainly, the number of elites remains comparatively small and, since they tend to be gobbled up by the same programs year after year, the women's tournament is not nearly as wide open as the men's.
So a women's superstar has more sway because she is so far above the level of a lesser team's best player, plus she tends to be surrounded by superior players. One of the major outliers of women's superstardom is the what-if story of Elena Delle Donne, the No. 1 player in the 2008 class. If she had stuck with her original commitment to Connecticut, she would have been a classic No. 1 surrounded by a mess of talent (including Moore, once paired with another former No. 1, Tina Charles). Instead, Delle Donne is in a class of her own at Delaware, which only was enough for a WNIT berth.
Teams can flourish with elite, but not top-ranked recruits. But they just have to be "alpha" players -- players with swagger who can get you points, either from the boxes, by creating their own shots, or creating shots for others.
Gonzaga just made its second straight Sweet 16 and may still be considered a surprise team by many. However, the Zags have a ranked point guard in Courtney Vandersloot (No. 64 in 2007) who can get her own shot or a shot for a teammate and a ranked forward in Kayla Standish (No. 73 in 2008) who can convert Vandersloot's dimes. Another great example would be the tandem of post Jantel Lavender (No. 3 in 2007) and point guard Samantha Prahalis (No. 30 in 2008) at Ohio State.
Recruiting overwhelming numbers of elite players can be a prosperous route, as the Lady Vols are demonstrating this season. Another example is the team considered by many as the strongest No. 2 seed, Duke, which has as many ranked recruits (10) as Connecticut. The Blue Devils may be a stronger bet next year because they add a post, Elizabeth Williams, ranked second in the 2011 class, to the player, Chelsea Gray, a point guard who is the highest-ranked recruit (No. 4 in 2010) on their roster.
Based on the 2011 recruiting class, very little may change next season and beyond. Connecticut has another No. 1, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and her score-from-anywhere ability (plus the No. 1 from 2012, Breanna Stewart); Pat Summitt has the top-ranked signing class coming in at Tennessee, and Stanford will add a dynamic, speedy point guard, Amber Orrange (No. 15), to its front-line riches.
A look at this year's No. 1 seeds, with ranked recruits, their ranking and recruiting class:
Ranked Recruits: 8
Brittney Griner (No. 1, 2009)
Odyssey Sims (No. 3, 2010)
Destiny Williams (No. 8, 2009)
Brooklyn Pope (No. 9, 2008)
Melissa Jones (No. 13, 2007)
Mariah Chandler (No. 18, 2009)
Jordan Madden (No. 58, 2009)
Shanay Washington (No. 64, 2009)
This team is a story of length, length and more length, surrounding the queen of wingspan in Griner. So two complementary parts were crucial. Though pretty highly ranked, Jones was somewhat overlooked on the recruiting trail and her arrival as a do-everything type of player set the stage, with critical leadership, for this young group to have a chance at cashing in a little before its time. Maybe an even more critical addition was that of Sims, who more than any player in her class, oozed with 'tude at both ends of the floor. Not only is she the best on-ball defender we've seen, she is the ballhandling wiz necessary to make Griner click offensively.
Ranked Recruits: 10
Maya Moore (No. 1, 2007)
Caroline Doty (No. 10, 2008)
Tiffany Hayes (No. 11, 2008)
Bria Hartley (No. 14, 2010)
Lorin Dixon (No. 19, 2007)
Heather Buck (No. 31, 2008)
Kelly Faris (No. 34, 2009)
Stefanie Dolson (No. 39, 2010)
Michala Johnson (No. 46, 2010)
Lauren Engeln (No. 95, 2010)
No coach, women's or men's, has gotten more out of the superstar system than Geno Auriemma. Three of the all-time greatest college players, Rebecca Lobo, Diana Taurasi and now Moore, have been part of six of his seven NCAA titles. We were not around for the first two players as prospects, but Moore for us has set an elusive standard for evaluation. Never mind her ungodly balance and athleticism, she's simply unmatched as a competitor. At an age when most kids flee pressure, we'd never seen, and have yet to see even close to her equal, a player who thrived so much during what Magic Johnson used to call "winnin' time" and deliver in such a variety of ways.
Ranked Recruits: 11
Chiney Ogwumike (No. 1, 2010)
Kayla Pedersen (No. 4, 2007)
Nneka Ogwumike (No. 6, 2008)
Joslyn Tinkle (No. 10, 2009)
Mikaela Ruef (No. 16, 2009)
Sara James (No. 18, 2010)
Jeanette Pohlen (No. 22, 2007)
Sarah Boothe (No. 37, 2008)
Hannah Donaghe (No. 45, 2007)
Toni Kokenis (No. 60, 2010)
Ashley Cimino (No. 74, 2007)
The beauty of the Ogwumike sisters, though both are long and ultra-athletic, is that they're not the same player and thus offer more dimensions than a pair of Doublemint twins. Nneka, the regal one, is a super polished, nearly unflappable scorer. Chiney, the outgoing one, is more apt to ride emotions and beat you by outworking you. The Cardinal also have two key ranked performers from 2007, the class that just keeps on giving. Pedersen, a 6-foot-4 worker bee, willingly submerged her game for Jayne Appel and now the Ogwumikes. And few thought too highly of Pohlen as a prospect and all she did was become the Pac-10 player of the year as a senior.
Ranked Recruits: 12
Angie Bjorklund (No. 2, 2007)
Glory Johnson (No. 3, 2008)
Vicki Baugh (No. 5, 2007)
Shekinna Stricklen (No. 8, 2008)
Kelley Cain (No. 12, 2007)
Taber Spani (No. 13, 2009)
Alicia Manning (No. 15, 2008)
Alyssia Brewer (No. 20, 2008)
Meighan Simmons (No. 24, 2010)
Lauren Avant (No. 28, 2010)
Sidney Smallbone (No. 38, 2007)
Kamiko Williams (No. 75, 2009)
Imagine a situation in which the subs in your intra-squad games are more talented than the best players of most of your opponents. That kind of atmosphere allows Summitt to keep the competition cranked up, as well as ferret out players who can carry out a decisive style of play. In this season's case, it's burners Johnson, Simmons, Sticklen and even Manning who set the tone. The highest-ranked recruit at No. 2, Bjorklund has been a metronomic performer from the perimeter. She and the No. 1 from her class, Moore, used to have combustible duels on the club circuit, but have not renewed that rivalry in college. If not this year, then the WNBA?
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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Seattle University and Columbia University, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.