During the presentation ceremony for the State Farm All-American team in St. Louis this past weekend, Jill Pizzotti, Nike's manager of women's college basketball, received a text message. It was from Angel McCoughtry, the hyper-vigilant star for Louisville -- the improbable finalists in Tuesday night's NCAA women's basketball championship. The message read something like, "All four of us are here!"
If the observation struck Pizzotti, as it struck us, McCoughtry's text was a reminder of an opportunity squandered. If we'd told you last June, that you could walk into a gym and see a star player from each of the 2009 women's Final Four teams, wouldn't you be heading there no matter what? You're not alone, but the truth is none of us did.
McCoughtry, Rene Montgomery of Connecticut, Jayne Appel of Stanford and Courtney Paris of Oklahoma were the four counselors at the 2008 Nike National Skills Academy for the nation's elite high-school prospects is relegated to little more than footnote status, rather than being a potentially-historic evening.
"How cool is that?" said Mary Thompson, who heads Nike's grassroots girl's basketball efforts. "Honestly, we didn't think we were planning it that way."
The question remains though, could they have planned it that way? Many in women's basketball circles love to cling to the notion that the sport's crown jewel -- the NCAA Final Four -- is the product of providence. With enough work, preparation, cohesion and, of course, luck, any four of the nation's 347 Division I schools can be among the last standing in April.
Of course, in women's college basketball, there is that certain cloud looming overhead. On Monday, New York Times columnist Harvey Araton coined the term, "Tennecticut," to identify what often seems to be the preordained nature of the domination of women's basketball by the two-headed superpowers, Connecticut and Tennessee, and how the phenomenon could be squelching the sport's growth.
Indeed, the possibility of a third unbeaten national championship season during Geno Auriemma's tenure at Connecticut is widely regarded as a fait accompli -- and really has been since the tournament tipped off. The only women's basketball madness that occurs in March is reserved for the occasional Louisville-like breakthrough that many see as a sign that long-awaited parity is just around the bend.
However, we have bad news for those people. Those of us who follow women's college-basketball recruiting could have predicted the Candace Parker-era at Tennessee the instant coach Pat Summitt secured the prized recruit, just as many of us made the same prediction for UConn after the signing of Maya Moore. Of course neither recruitment took place in isolation. Parker's class was six deep and hailed as one of the best in history.
Moore was preceded in Storrs, Conn., by another No. 1 prospect, Tina Charles, and followed by a third straight No. 1, Elena Delle Donne. While the later dropped out of basketball, she was accompanied in her class by Caroline Doty, who started most of the season as a freshman for the Huskies, and Tiffany Hayes, who joined UConn's starting five after Doty suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Of course, it took a season or two for Auriemma's recruits to mature, just as it did for Summitt's two straight No. 1 ranked recruiting classes. As the Lady Vols regress a little, Auriemma's latest haul is making a run at the throne. In case it's escaped notice, Connecticut has been the busiest school in the 2010 class. The Huskies have nailed down one of the top scorers, Samarie Walker (No. 2 in the ESPN HoopGurlz Super Sixty), the top post, Stefanie Dolson (No. 13), and one of the top physical talents in 6-foot-3 Michala Johnson (No. 19).
Then again, evaluation and recruiting isn't quite the exact science. Personality, motivation, work ethic and development in the coaching staff can help a recruit reach their potential. But, if one of these areas is lacking, the recruit can fall short of expectations.
McCoughtry may not have picture-perfect form on her shot or the dynamic build some prefer, but she is a projected No. 1 overall pick in this week's WNBA Draft because she has the heart of a champion. It's the same intangible we saw in Whitney Hand, who played such a key role as a freshman for Oklahoma, and Jeanette Pohlen, who ran the point for Stanford out of necessity, but is destined to shine at shooting guard. We ranked Hand and Pohlen much higher than anyone because we have different priorities. Even now, faced with a choice of cutthroat competitor and thoroughbred athlete, most will still take the athlete.
The most certain way to hang banners in the rafters quickly seems to be by acquiring that once- or twice-every-decade, can't-miss prospect. Parker was the first of the "modern" era of women's basketball. Moore, who is the reigning Naismith and Wade Trophy winner as a sophomore, is next in that lineage. She has other-worldly balance and athleticism. Moore seemed to glide on the floor and played with tremendous competitiveness on the high-school level, that she appeared able to will herself the necessary skills she didn't already possess. One of the best shots I've seen on any level -- Moore's end-to-end, perfectly-timed runner off the bounce to win the 2006 Nike Nationals -- required all of those characteristics.
Most consider Brittney Griner (No. 1 in '09), the dunker and shot-blocker extraordinaire out of Houston, to be the next big thing. Baylor's signing of Griner's, as well as forward Mariah Chandler (No. 17), wings Jordan Madden (No. 58) and Shanay Washington (No. 64) and guard Kimetria Hayden give the Bears the No. 1 recruiting class by ESPN HoopGurlz. So the parity game could be a Bear market.
However, Stanford is almost certain to continue its run of Final Four appearances. Even though the Cardinal lacked overall athleticism, they consistently ran out a potent brew of top-rated prospects. Appel (No. 3), Kayla Pedersen (No. 4) and Nneka Ogwumike (No. 6) will be joined next year by 6-3 recruits Joslyn Tinkle (No. 10) and Mikaela Ruef (No. 16). Plus, in 2010 Chiney Ogwumike (No. 3 in the 2010 class) is expected to join her sister in Palo Alto. If Stanford can conjure up some athletic, perimeter magic -- combined with those athletes on the front line -- the Cardinal can dream bigger dreams.
If you still think that all this recruiting spin is guesswork, you can always simply snap a group photo of the next batch of Nike Skills Academy counselors.
Discuss this on our Message Board
Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A member of the Parade All-American Selection Committee, he formerly coached girl's club basketball, was the editor-in-chief of an online sports network, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.