Women’s basketball shines on recruiting trail

Photo courtesy of Danny Karnik

Ask a Tech fan about the team’s performance in nearly any sport and they will detail the latest gruesome news — perhaps a heartbreaking loss or an injury to the key player, maybe even both — and then break off, with a favorite justification.

“You know, it’s really hard to recruit here.”

Yes, for whatever reason — academic rigor, dearth of majors, a student body that by and large does not care about athletics, the litany of schools nearby — Tech does not have it easy on the recruiting trail. The football team, in particular, has had a difficult time; an open letter from Todd Stansbury to Tech season ticket holders after the team’s poor showing against Clemson (a team with which Tech could compete closely with until recently) in essence says that if fans want a better program, they had better pay for it.

Yet there is a team at Tech that does not face such an uphill battle attracting talent and it plays its home games at McCamish Pavilion. It is not the men’s basketball team, which just lost its brightest star in years, Josh Okogie, to the NBA after an injury-shortened sophomore season. Rather, it is MaChelle Joseph’s women’s basketball team that, despite facing similar constraints to Tech’s other programs, has been quietly impressive on the recruiting trail over the past few years. 

It is difficult to determine exactly what allows the women’s basketball team to succeed where football, men’s basketball and others fall short. An intuitive first guess is that the team is just that much more successful; after all, UConn attracts many of the best prospects across the country despite the school’s unexciting locale and general mediocrity in the “money” sport: football. That, in a nutshell, is the effect that a coach like Geno Auriemma can have on a program. But a quick look through Tech’s recent season results suggest that the team is not winning talent thanks to the Auriemma effect. A typical Tech season involves a near-.500 record in conference, a slight winning record overall and a bid to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, considered the consolation prize for teams unqualified for the NCAA Tournament. Yes, the Jackets went to the NIT Championship Game a few years ago and lost in a heartbreaker to Michigan, but surely that moderate success is not enough to give the team an edge; the men’s basketball team accomplished the same thing that year and still struggles to pitch top recruits.

The next logical though would be that perhaps Tech’s academic prestige matters more for women’s basketball than it does for other major sports. After all, the professional prospects for the women’s game are not particularly bright; WNBA players are paid a small fraction of their male counterparts; per Forbes, the average WNBA salary last season was $71,635. (For comparison, NBA player Tristan Thompson was fined $25,000 for being ejected during a Finals game and Vladimir Radmanovic was docked $500,000 for injuring himself while snowboarding.) Perhaps, cognizant of that reality, women’s basketball recruits prize a top-notch degree?

The evidence seems to confirm that. Of the teams ranked in the year-end USA Today Coaches’ Top 25, only four – No. 1 Notre Dame, No. 7 UCLA, No. 12 Duke and No. 13 Stanford – are ranked above Tech in the latest US News and World Report academic list. It also helps to explain why Notre Dame and Stanford have excellent women’s teams despite unspectacular men’s teams; their academic advantages matter more. 

The other advantage Tech’s women’s basketball team seems to utilize to great effect is its ability to recruit players from abroad. All of Georgia’s players hail from American high schools, as do all of Notre Dame’s, all of Baylor’s and all but two of Stanford’s. Tech’s team is a patchwork quilt of nationalities; Anne Francoise Diouf is Senegalese, Elizabeth Balogun moved to the United States from Nigeria for ninth grade, Lorela Cubaj and Francesca Pan come from Italy and Lotta-Maj Lahtinen hails from Finland. Tech’s advantage may come less from a unique recruiting pitch than a willingness to look for talent where other teams do not.

Whether thanks to its academic profile, its strong connections abroad or something else all together, Tech women’s basketball’s recruiting prowess is impressive. The 2018 class ranks No. 9 in ESPNW HoopGurlz’s annual list, thanks in large part to the two Elizabeths: Balogun and Dixon, both of whom were five-star recruits. Added to an excellent team featuring the likes of Kierra Fletcher and Francesca Pan, they could vault the women’s basketball team sharply upwards in 2019 and certainly beyond.