Big East power struggle
While the status of the Big East remains in question with the pending departures of Pitt, Syracuse and West Virginia, the future of the conference's top women's basketball programs appears to be just fine. With Monday's commitment of Kahleah Copper of Philadelphia, Pa., to Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights will have the talent for another run like 2007, when the program took a No. 4 seed after knocking off top-ranked Connecticut in the Big East tournament, to a Final Four birth, which ended with a 59-46 defeat in the national championship game to Tennessee.
Connecticut has secured the top-ranked signing class in 2012, and with top-three classes in each of the last three years, it's no wonder head coach Geno Auriemma's Huskies are expected to be favorites to win a championship or two with this core of talented players.
Without as much hype, Rutgers, UConn's conference rival, has put together back-to-back classes that should be able to rival the juggernaut from Storrs, Conn.
With both programs loading up during the last two recruiting classes, we compare their projected rosters for the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons.
Projected frontcourt players for the Huskies and Scarlet Knights from the recruiting classes of 2010-2012.
|Connecticut Huskies||Rutgers Scarlet Knights|
|Breanna Stewart 6-3 '12||Rachel Hollivay 6-4 '12|
|Stefanie Dolson 6-5 '10||Ariel Butts 6-3 '12|
|Kiah Stokes 6-3 '11||Christa Evans 6-3 '11|
|Michala Johnson 6-3 '10|
The difference in the paint is depth, and it gives the Huskies a slight edge. But Rutgers has to feel good about having the length and athleticism to really challenge what projects as a dynamic duo of 6-foot-5 post Stefanie Dolson and 6-3 forward Breanna Stewart.
Defensively the Scarlet Knights are probably a little better with two players who could challenge for top shot-blocker in the conference. If Christa Evans develops into her potential or if coach C. Vivian Stringer can add another talented inside player in the 2013 class that also fits her style of play, Rutgers can become scary good with depth.
But Connecticut's advantage in the paint offensively comes from the skill and versatility of Stewart, the 2012 class' top-ranked player. The skill and length of Stewart with the strength and hands of Dolson are backed up with Kiah Stokes and Michala Johnson. The Huskies can also swing Morgan Tuck between the three and four positions, giving Auriemma a wealth of options to deploy in his frontcourt.
Projected wing players for the Huskies and Scarlet Knights from the recruiting classes of 2010-2012.
|Connecticut Huskies||Rutgers Scarlet Knights|
|Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis '11||Betnijah Laney 6-0 '11|
|Morgan Tuck 6-2 '12||Kahleah Copper 6-1 '12|
|Brianna Banks 5-9 '11||Syessence Davis 5-7 '11|
|Lauren Engeln 5-11 '10||Precious Person 6-1 '12|
Sure rankings and ratings are fun to look at, but when it comes down to it, a player's fit in the system is as important as pure talent. While Connecticut has one of the best scorers in the country with Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, the versatility and poise of Tuck, and the speed and athleticism of Brianna Banks, Rutgers has a group of interchangeable parts who can excel in Stringer's defense and transition game.
Adding Copper to a group of wing guards that includes Betnijah Laney, Syessence Davis and Precious Person provides more speed and athleticism to play either wing spot. Speed, quickness and toughness are traits all coaches like to have, but what makes this rotation so strong as a collective group is three of the four stand 6-0 or taller.
Copper brings a slashing style on offense. Laney can overpower a defender to get to the rim or knock down the 18-footer. Person can stroke the 3-pointer or be a blur in transition, and Davis, though not big as the others, can also play some minutes at the point and push the tempo.
Both of these programs have fantastic lead guards. Briyona Canty and Shakena Richardson can play as fast as any guards in the country and, with Davis able to play some point and keep track meet-like pace, Rutgers should be able to execute its game plans regardless of who is running the show.
Connecticut has the edge, however, with a pair of point guards with great speed, handle and the ability to create offense for themselves at any time. The competitive fire that both Bria Hartley and Moriah Jefferson play with makes them truly special talents.
The Bottom Line:
The young core of both of these programs is chalk-full of talent. And while Connecticut continues to stockpile five-star prospects, the back-to-back signing classes for Rutgers will make for stiff competition at the top of the Big East. With the balance of frontcourt and backcourt talent, don't be surprised to see both of these teams in the same Final Four in coming years. So while some schools are fleeing the Big East, the state of women's basketball in the conference should still be paving the way to March.
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Chris Hansen is the national director of prospects for ESPN HoopGurlz and covers girls' basketball and women's college basketball prospects nationally for ESPN.com. A graduate of the University of Washington with a communications degree, he has been involved in the women's basketball community since 1998 as a high school and club coach, trainer, evaluator and reporter. He is a member of the McDonald's All-American team selection committee. Hansen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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