Tough decisions ahead for Lady Vols
Out of deference to the icon and true pioneer Pat Summitt has been for women's basketball, people have been hesitant to discuss the consequences of her early onset Alzheimer's. But many have wondered: How much longer does Summitt have before she must give up coaching? What are the Lady Vols' plans for her succession? And what kind of effect is that having on Tennessee's recruiting?
If ever there was a surefire "franchise player," a future face of women's college basketball, among underclass high school girls today, it is Kaela Davis, a junior at Buford (Ga.) who is ranked No. 2 by ESPN HoopGurlz among prospects in her class. And for 19 months, she has been the coming foundation at a Tennessee program that possibly will no longer be led by Summitt, as unfathomable as that might once have seemed.
That Davis is reconsidering her options, as her mother told my colleague Chris Hansen, speaks volumes about the uncertainty she and so many others feel about the Tennessee program. Not only is the 6-foot-2 Davis a breathtakingly skilled and competitive alpha player, but she is known among her peers, coaches and other observers of the game to be as bright and analytical as they come. And how can she not be? Her mother, Kendra, is a successful businesswoman, and her father, Antonio, once was the president of the NBA players' union.
So if a recruit such as Davis sniffs a little smoke, it's time to dispatch the accelerant detection unit.
That's not to say Rome is burning -- not yet. But there is undeniable evidence of a decline, at least when compared against Tennessee's own lofty standards.
Shocking as it might be to say, the Lady Vols have not been in an NCAA Final Four since they won their last national championship in 2008. Their archrivals, Connecticut, also missed three straight Final Fours after a run of three straight national titles but got right back on the national-championship horse after that. Tennessee not only has missed three straight Final Fours, but this season it has suffered double-digit losses to a couple of programs, Stanford and Notre Dame, that along with Baylor, Oklahoma and Texas A&M have stepped into the Lady Vols' Final Four void.
Not only that, but with participation and talent exploding on the high school level, this is an era of rapidly expanding parity in women's college basketball. Programs such as Duke, Kentucky, Maryland and Rutgers, among others, are staking long-term claims to contender status. Not at all far on the horizon are comers such as Louisville, LSU and Syracuse.
Programs such as Connecticut, and once Tennessee, sustain their hegemony in the sport with an aura of recruiting invincibility, as if they have their pick of the elite of the elite. Any stall, no matter how short-lived, can be tailspin-inducing. That's because of the short-attention-span generation from which everyone is recruiting. "Old school" to today's youth is so 20 seconds ago. Three years ago is not even history; it's plain forgotten.
As difficult as it is to point out, Summitt's courageous disclosure of her health issues could be the biggest crack in the Tennessee armor. The consequences of her Alzheimer's are so unclear even she and her doctors cannot predict the course the disease will take. But it is out there, now as inseparable from Summitt as the Lady Vols' orange from their baby blue. The public of course has no access to Tennessee's inner sanctums, so tracking Summitt's inevitable deterioration is reduced to guesswork. And maybe this is just reading too much into the scant signals, but people think Summitt appears less animated, and therefore less commanding, on the bench this season.
That perception is fueled by Tennessee's run of apparent recruiting futility. Fact is, the Lady Vols haven't had a commitment for nearly a year, dating back to Bashaara Graves, the No. 5 prospect in the 2012 class, on Feb. 23, 2011. In addition to Connecticut's continued success and the rise of programs such as Rutgers and Syracuse, the talk of the early signing period this past November was the fact that Tennessee kept whiffing on additional elite recruits, particularly post prospects such as Rachel Hollivay of Columbus, Miss., the No. 8 prospect in the class.
Of course, Tennessee's 2012 haul (Graves, No. 20 Andraya Carter of Flowery Branch, Ga., and No. 39 Jasmine Jones of Madison, Ala.) was ranked the fifth-best signing class in the country by ESPN HoopGurlz. But the perception has spilled over, and no elite prospect in the 2013 class or beyond so far has revealed herself to be a Tennessee lean.
Stating all this is not piling on by Tennessee haters. It's as plain as the smartphone in every teenager's hand. It's what a lot of recruits and their families already were contemplating; Davis' decision to re-weigh her options simply cast it all in Klieg lights.
It's easy to imagine Tennessee was caught by surprise by developments and that, out of due respect to Summitt, clear-cut contingency plans might not have been fully hashed out. But Apple had a succession plan before Steve Jobs passed. And even Apple's future is subject to healthy skepticism until it rolls out the next game-changing digital device.
It's just as easy to imagine that Summitt would be eager to cement her legacy at Tennessee and welcome a discussion of the program's future while she still is positioned to influence it. Maybe making some of that discussion public, at least disclosed to recruits and their wary families, would have prevented the Lady Vols from loosening their grip on Davis and losing inroads to other prospects to place around her.
Make no mistake, Davis is as dynamic a prospect as has come along, certainly at Tennessee since Candace Parker. By all accounts, this is a fact recognized clearly by Summitt. If the Lady Vols lose a recruit like this, they will lose a little part of their legendary coach. And from there, the future becomes even more difficult to contemplate.
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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.
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