Recruits still volunteer for Tennessee – but why?
By Clay Kallam
The University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers had five McDonald’s All-American’s on the floor at the same time against Virginia Tech – and lost.
Though college basketball is primarily about recruiting, there is obviously more to the story. What’s surprising is that players and parents don’t often don’t do much more than look at the title page.
1) The Tennessee legacy. Pat Summitt was one of the great college coaches of all time, and she understood the landscape that she worked in – which was considerably different than the landscape now. Summitt’s plan was simple: recruit as many elite players as possible and promise them an annual shot at a national title. With the WNBA not in existence, or in its infancy, a national championship was pretty much all that mattered to women’s college basketball players so Summitt’s pitch was extremely effective.
Given superior athletes, Summitt’s plan was simple. She motivated those athletes to defend and rebound, and relied on their athleticism to score enough at the other end to win games. That worked very well in a less offensive-oriented time, but that time is not now.
But Summitt’s legacy and the Lady Vols’ reputation lives on, despite performances on the court that have not matched expectations…
2) The Tennessee present. Holly Warlick, a Summitt disciple, has kept the blueprint in place. With its rabid fan base, quality facilities and rich history, Warlick has continued to recruit elite talent. And she’s done reasonably well, if Tennessee’s performance is measured by the standards that would be set for schools that don’t recruit multiple McDonald’s All-American’s.
But Warlick is simply too committed to the Summit style. The game has changed, and getting great athletes to defend and rebound is simply not enough anymore. The received wisdom is that recruiting is the heart blood of success, and for the most part, that seems to be true. In general, the teams that dominate both men’s and women’s college basketball are the teams that are most successful in attracting elite talent. Tennessee however, is a glaring exception.
Presumably, any team that can play five McDonald’s All-American’s at one time should be dominating its opposition, but that is simply not the case at Tennessee. The reasons? Lady Vols’ fans offer many excuses for Warlick, but the truth is pretty hard to ignore. What worked for Pat Summitt for all those years will not work in the 2010s. There is more to the game now, and it has passed Warlick and Tennessee by.
3) Ignorance is not bliss. Despite the inescapable struggles in Knoxville relative to the talent at hand, Warlick continues to attract elite recruits, and this year’s class is no exception. And it’s also true that there’s more to the college basketball experience then simply winning a bunch of games, so in that way these recruits may have a positive experience during their four years, even if the team does not live up to the expectations engendered by its talent level.
But this also shows another significant weakness in the way girls’ basketball has developed. In general, high school girls do not pay any attention to college basketball, nor to the WNBA. They know the big names, but they seldom watch games, and are not fans of the college game in the way that male players are. At some levels, this doesn’t matter – but in others, it’s critical. Tennessee’s continued recruiting success flies in the face of Tennessee’s on court performance and it’s hard to explain why unless parents and players aren’t really looking beneath the surface.
Yes, Tennessee was once great. Yes, Pat Summitt was a Hall of Fame coach. Yes, there are lot of McDonald’s All-American’s on the Tennessee roster. But if a young player is looking to develop her offensive of game for the professional level, and if she’s looking to play on a team that either meets or exceeds expectations, recent history pretty clearly shows Tennessee is not that place.
But Warlick continues to recruit at a high level, and it may be that this batch of elite talent will come together in ways that recent batches have not. If so, Tennessee could conceivably return to the top three status it once enjoyed, rather than being 3-2 in late November and just an afterthought when it comes to talking about the teams that have a shot at winning the national championship. But legacy or no legacy, it seems much more likely that the best predictor of Tennessee future is recent Tennessee past.