UConn's winning ways begin on recruiting trail
The numbers, however, tell a different story.
Current senior Saniya Chong was ranked 75th by ESPN coming out of Ossining High School, Gabby Williams and Kia Nurse came in 14th and 33rd the following year (Williams' ranking certainly was hurt by the fact that she missed most of her final two seasons of high school ball and Nurse most likely would have been rated higher had she played in the United States instead of Canada). Katie Lou Samuelson was the top player in her class followed by Napheesa Collier at No. 6 while Crystal Dangerfield was the No. 3 ranked recruit last year. Good luck finding rankings for Natalie Butler, Molly Bent and Kyla Irwin.
Using ESPN's rankings the Huskies are tied for fourth when it comes to the number of top 10 rated players to head to their school in the last four recruiting classes. Duke leads the way with six followed by Texas and Notre Dame with four each while UConn and Tennessee are next at three. Yet the Huskies have rolled along, beating eight ranked teams and are on the verge of history during a season when many of the power programs thought they could take down the mighty Huskies. Perhaps that will still happen but people who were predicting a major decline by the Huskies simply haven't been paying attention.
UConn does rather well in the recruiting department but there is a method to their madness. Some teams seem to recruit like they are building a fantasy football roster, taking players simply based on their talent even if they end up with too many players with the same skill set. UConn has been about getting the pieces to building a great team.
Saying that the Huskies get their share of the best players and that might be an understatement as eight of the last 19 winners of the Naismith Girls High School Player of the Year award played at UConn (Maya Moore won the award twice). That doesn't even include UConn signee Elena Delle Donne who never played a game for the Huskies. But it is not about simply getting the best players but the right ones. Every year there are incredibly talented prospects who barely get a look from the Huskies and that is not by accident.
When Geno Auriemma, Chris Dailey, Shea Ralph and Marisa Moseley are on the recruiting trail, they are looking at not only the shooting, rebounding and passing ability but how the players react when things aren't going well, how they interact with their teammates. If you get to watch Auriemma during a practice, he does not pull his punches. During about a 90-second span at a practice I went to he challenged Samuelson, Nurse, Dangerfield and Collier with caustic barbs. I've seen incredible, Hall of Fame players leave the practice court as emotional wrecks earlier in their careers. I still chuckle at Rebecca Lobo's line to a TV reporter when asked what is next for her after UConn's program-changing regular-season win over Tennessee in the 1994-95 when she deadpanned "I'll go back to being the worst post player in America."
Players know that there is tremendous pressure that comes with playing at UConn, their every move is under a microscope. I'll use Tiffany Hayes as an example, she had an outstanding career with the Huskies but her ability to deliver in the big games was questioned. I have a hunch that is why she slipped out of the first round in the 2012 WNBA Draft. Had she put up similar numbers at Florida State or Georgia Tech, she'd be celebrated as one of those program's all-time greats. Instead, people spoke about what she didn't do at UConn and not what she did. Hayes was taken 14th overall and the only player taken ahead of her with more points in the regular season than Hayes' 1,843 is No. 1 overall pick Nneka Ogwumike. The players taken 6th-13th have combined to score 1,302 points.
What does all of this mean? Well, while what UConn is doing this season might be surprising it is not shocking. The UConn brain trust value competitive spirit in the recruiting process. That toughness as been on display during a string of games against ranked teams featuring experienced and talented rosters. It's a subject I raised with Dailey at a recent media availability.
"Sometimes you think they have and when you get them, they don't have it," Dailey said. "Sometimes you can have it in you and it is a matter of putting them into situations to see how they are going to respond in tough situations. I am not sure if any of them could have done it by themselves but as a core group they have been able to lean on each other the times that they have needed to and any game that we have had, somebody has always done what we needed them to do, they had stepped up. Sometimes it is Gabby, sometimes it is Lou, sometimes it is Phee. It is at different times in the game or it practice it is different times of stepping up. That is part of growing as a player or a person.
"They understand that there is a certain way because that is the expectation that we have, we are holding them to a standard every day. Every second we are in the gym, you are being held to a certain standard and I think they understand that. I think what they have shown is that they too have embraced the challenge, they have embraced the schedule that we have this year, how tough it is when you are Connecticut and you are ranked No. 1, they have embraced all of that and have taken everybody's best shot including the coaches every day and have always gotten back up and performed. I think that is a credit to our players, a credit to the types of kids that we get."
Seeing how Samuelson, Collier, Williams and Nurse have raised their level of play is a testament to them but also to the way UConn goes about its business. The coaches haven't lowered their standards and have been rewarded by their players making the move from role players to All-American candidates right before their eyes. The scary part is Azura' Stevens and Batouly Camara will be eligible next season and the Huskies bring in a top-notch recruiting class headlined by Megan Walker so if teams aren't able to take down UConn this season, what are their chances next season?