Notre Dame takes seat among elite
Back-to-back stellar recruiting classes should keep Irish in the running
Not long ago, the school list of nearly every elite women's college-basketball prospect began with Connecticut or Tennessee, or both. You'd probably sprinkle in Stanford out West and for the nation's hoopin' literati.
But because those programs could not take every recruit who wanted to attend, and because the girls' talent pool experienced such recent, spasmodic growth, the sport began to see the kind of parity that is beginning -- emphasis on beginning -- to emerge today.
That emerging parity has introduced trends of "hot" programs, fueled mostly by NCAA championship-game appearances. Baylor's 2005 national championship arguably begat the 40-0 champions of 2012, for example, because it inspired Brittney Griner and a mother lode of talent to commit to playing in Waco. Texas A&M has parleyed its 2011 national title into the No. 2 signing class in 2012.
These championship-hangover signing classes will, in turn, ensure some longevity in the expanding pool of contenders in women's college basketball. Joining the top of that growing list appears to be the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, fresh off two straight title-game berths and awash in buzz about its star, Skylar Diggins.
Coach Muffet McGraw had a strong recruiting encore to Notre Dame's 2011 championship-game appearance, loading up on elite guards in a 2012 signing class ranked No. 4 nationally by ESPN HoopGurlz. McGraw and the Irish already have plucked major complementary pieces from the 2013 class. Last week, during a five-day period heard around the recruiting world, Notre Dame got pledges from point guard Lindsay Allen of Mitchellville, Md., the No. 23 prospect in the ESPN HoopGurlz Super 60; post Kristina Nelson of Buford, Ga., ranked No. 30, and forward Taya Reimer of Indianapolis, Ind., No. 4 in the class.
Notre Dame already had a commitment from a four-star post prospect, Diamond Thompson of Lombard, Ill., who is watchlisted by ESPN HoopGurlz in the 2013 class.
It's easy to imagine Notre Dame producing a near carbon copy of its last two Final Four teams from the aforementioned four recruits, plus 2012 signees Jewell Loyd of Skokie, Ill., ranked No. 4 in the class; Michaela Mabrey of Holmdel, N.J., ranked No. 32 and Hannah Huffman of Concord, Calif., ranked No. 52.
Loyd is a dynamic, uber-athletic guard who seems stamped for stardom the way Diggins was coming out of high school. Allen is smooth and can be interchangeable with Loyd. Mabrey is crafty and one of the best long-distance shooters in the country, as is Huffman, who adds some interior toughness to the backcourt. The 6-foot-3 Nelson and 6-4 Thompson will supply rebounds and defense deterrence in bunches, and Reimer is the wild card of the bunch, a versatile, offensively polished inside and mid-range threat that the past two Irish teams, talented as they were, lacked from their front line.
None of the incoming Irish recruits have the obvious, off-the-charts mental toughness of Diggins, but they do have Loyd's swagger and both-ends-of-the-floor dexterity, and the physical and mental toughness of Mabrey and Huffman that could hearken what they received from Brittany Mallory and Natalie Novosel. This two-class group also could match the level of unselfishness and passing acuity of the past two Notre Dame squads. It certainly will exceed those teams with the overall size and lane-clogging presence from Nelson and possibly in time from Thompson as well.
Such two-stage building processes are, for now, the best path taken to national-title contention in the women's game. Concurrent classes that are well-planned and aptly pieced give the resulting group three years together, time to develop cohesiveness and provide multiple knocks on the championship door. By this measure, the 2011-12 classes signed by Duke and Rutgers and LSU's 2010-11 double dip would raise expectations for those programs to join the national fray as well. Lingering, of course, are the usual suspects, such as Connecticut and Stanford, as well as new standards like Texas A&M.
The result still isn't the wide-openness of the men's NCAA tournament. The talent pool still isn't deep enough to stock, say, 20 title contenders and a half-dozen Cinderella candidates. Nor have girls demonstrated the willingness that guys have for years to push off on their own and help a middle-of-the-pack program start winning big. It's doubtful that one women's prospect could have that sway, the way a men's prospect might. Even a once-in-a-generation prospect like Griner had a top-flight accompanying signing class, a couple key transfers, and the addition the next year of Odyssey Sims, one of the best point guard prospects in recent years.
The Notre Dame example comes close, however. Diggins, in 2008, was a program-altering recruit, though the Irish certainly then were not back in the pack. She and her teams provided a breakthrough for the Irish staff -- success on the court breeding success on the recruiting trail. And this is the primary way, maybe the only way now, to join the ranks of perennial national championship contenders in the women's game.
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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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