- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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A'ja Wilson's decision to go to South Carolina is great for the Gamecocks, but for the general women's basketball fan, perhaps the best part of her announcement Wednesday was less about where she is going and more about where she isn't going.
Wilson is not headed to nine-time national champion Connecticut. If the top-ranked girls' basketball recruit of the 2014 senior class had picked the Huskies, those currently suffering from a severe case of UConn fatigue might have needed ambulance service to the nearest emergency room.
If she had chosen Tennessee, many fans would have said, "Oh, that's almost as bad as if she went to UConn." That's because the eight-time champ Lady Vols are long-established royalty in this sport, regardless of having missed the Women's Final Four for six straight years. Tennessee has still made it that far a record 18 times.
And if Wilson had chosen North Carolina, many fans would have rolled their eyes and said, "Oh, for crying out loud. Didn't they get enough blue-chip, super-duper, all-galaxy recruits last year?"
But South Carolina? Hey, for now, the Gamecocks are still likeable underdogs to most women's hoops fans despite winning the SEC regular-season title outright and getting an NCAA No. 1 seed this season. Those were both firsts in program history. So in terms of being considered a real "player" at the national level, South Carolina is a fresh face.
Thus, even though South Carolina was regarded as the favorite to land Wilson -- a 6-foot-5 forward from the Gamecocks' own backyard in Columbia, S.C. -- the fact that she really did stay put is a big victory for coach Dawn Staley's program.
It matters from a national perspective, as does the fact that UCLA has signed what's considered the top-ranked recruiting class for 2014. The Bruins are also underdogs in women's hoops that fans of the sport in general will root for to provide more diversity at the elite level of Division I.
I keep using terms like "fans of women's basketball in general," which might sound nebulous. But after so many years of following the sport, I think I have a pretty good handle on who they are.
They're people who typically have their favorite team or teams but follow the sport as a whole and root for challengers to the "old guard." They want to see more teams rise to the top and therefore hope highly rated recruits are more spread out around the nation.
UConn was one of those challengers 23 years ago when the Huskies made their first Women's Final Four. Now, they have the most NCAA titles, have had several phenomenal individual stars (including current standout Breanna Stewart) and have turned into the Darth Vader of women's college hoops.
This is major compliment, of course. As UConn coach Geno Auriemma would say, people don't loathe teams that stink ... or even ones that are just "good." The Huskies have a "dynasty" program that brings luster to the sport, keeps raising the bar and has a big impact on professional/international women's hoops.
And even though many non-Huskies fans seem to despair that UConn's success -- including five perfect seasons, a 9-0 record in NCAA title games and 15 Final Four appearances -- throws a wet blanket over the sport, television ratings say otherwise.
The Huskies draw eyes, and, as with any Goliath, part of the appeal is to see if they can be toppled.
Which brings us back to South Carolina. It's a program that wasn't really very competitive for many years, even in its own conference. There was some national success in the late 1970s-early '80s, but that was doused by the Pam Parsons mess. Then, there were five NCAA tournament trips under coach Nancy Wilson from 1986-91. Susan Walvius got the Gamecocks into the NCAA field twice, including a 2002 Elite Eight appearance.
But it wasn't until Staley took over as coach six years ago that South Carolina really had much legitimate hope of being a consistently good team. It still took time, but, comparatively speaking, the Gamecocks' ascent has been rapid.
It helps that Staley is a well-liked figure in the sport. She has the bona fides, if you will: All-American legend for Virginia, three-time Olympic gold medalist, ABL and WNBA player, successful college coach, Naismith Hall of Famer.
She is also a good relationship-builder, which is crucial to what she and her staff have done at South Carolina. They've established strong recruiting ties in the Carolinas and the surrounding states. The genuine friendship she has with South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier is notable, too.
Saturday, during the Gamecocks' spring football game, Spurrier picked Staley as the recipient of the "off-the-bench" pass, an annual tradition for Spurrier teams. Staley caught a 30-yard touchdown toss, was carried off the field by the football team and was honored at halftime with her own team.
How many football coaches are happy to give that kind of spotlight to their school's women's hoops program? It says a lot about the mutual respect between Spurrier and Staley.
Everything that has went well for Staley and her program couldn't have gone unnoticed by Wilson, a student at Heathwood Hall in Columbia. Without that, it seems unlikely a recruit of her stature would have elected to go to South Carolina, no matter how much she might have wanted to be near home.
Now that she has announced her decision, everyone can finalize their way-too-early projections for next women's hoops season. It's certain that each of the schools in Wilson's "final four" will be very high in the 2014-15 preseason rankings; she really couldn't have made a bad choice.
Is UConn -- which will be going for a three-peat -- very worried about not getting Wilson? Probably not; or, at least, they won't dwell on it. The Huskies still have a good incoming class, and of course they bring back the best women's college player in Stewart -- who, by the way, committed to the Huskies in the most low-key way possible when she was a junior in high school. UConn, Tennessee, North Carolina and every other school that wasn't a finalist in the Wilson sweepstakes all move forward.
Wednesday was a very big day, though, for South Carolina, publicity-wise. Now what matters is how Wilson actually plays as a collegian, same as with every other recruit. Obviously, bringing in talent is the lifeblood of any program, but Final Four appearances and national championships are still earned on the court, not on paper. Staley knows that.
And she'll be very happy if one day, South Carolina is no longer a "likeable underdog" but instead becomes a program about which people say, "Oh, dang it. Did they get another top recruit?"