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Lady Vols Basketball 2010-2011: Dominating The Recruiting Wars

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RTT's Weeklong 2010-11 Basketball Preview:

Monday:  Vols - The New Core & The New Questions

Tuesday:  Lady Vols - The Future is Here Today (w/ Part II)

Wednesday:  Vols - Rotation, Rotation, Rotation

Recruiting is at least as valuable in women's basketball as men's, and perhaps even more so.  With fewer pro ball dollars and less national attention paid to the women's game, there aren't quite as many women's players out there looking to make a career of the game.  While the depth of talent is steadily improving, those teams that recruit the top several still have a tremendous advantage over those who are even on the second tier of recruiting.  And this year, Tennessee is putting a class together that could be absolutely legendary in both quality and depth.  It already rates among the best ever assembled and is not yet even finished.  Not only is the quality there, but the players who are coming to Tennessee have largely played together before and are well familiar with each other's talents.  We could see them on an accelerated learning curve that makes for some very exciting prospects ahead.

In this portion of our Lady Vols preview, we look first at the gals who have committed to Tennessee, then take a peek at those who are on the short list for the final scholarship.  As you'll soon see, these players all share an intensity and energy that should endear them to Summitt as well as Lady Vols fans.

Cierra Burdick is a 6'-2" forward from North Carolina.  Rated by ESPN as the top forward in the nation, Cierra is noted primarily for her aggressive defensive play and her very vocal presence on the floor.  She was a part of the US U17 team that won the World Championships this last summer, and her presence there is a part of the reason that Tennessee is in such strong contention for Elizabeth Williams (discussed below). 

Burdick does present an interesting problem when on offense: while most players of her height are used on the wing, she has shown enough talent to play a true forward position and work the interior.  Unlike taller forwards, she can rely on quickness and simply outrun the interior defenders, either tiring them out throughout the game or simply removing their desire to constantly chase after her.  With sufficient energy and stamina, she could brek down interior defenses with constant motion, which will either open her up or demand a change in defense that opens up other players on the floor.

Ariel Massengale is a 5'-6" point guard who, like Cierra, is rated by ESPN at the top player at her position.  The Illinois native should close the point guard gap that Tennessee has suffered over the last few years, as she and Lauren Avant (or the previous class) look to spell each other in what projects to be a very promising rotation as floor leader.

Massengale isn't defined by speed or height (as is usually the case with top-ranked prospects) but by her command of the floor.  She's a smart player who was very effective at distributing the ball at the U17 championships and trusting the talent around her.  She can go one-on-one if necessary, but her eye for the open player should help her rack up more assists than points.

Isabelle Harrison, the most recent commit, is 'merely' ESPN's #3 post in the nation.  The 6'-3" Nashville native chose Tennessee over Georgia and Kentucky and is known primarily as a high-speed, high-energy player who lives off of the transition.

The one knock on Isabelle is that she has been somewhat inconsistent during her high school career, sometimes having notably subpar games.  Whether this is an issue of mentality (which isn't uncommoon for emotionally-driven players) or of motivation, her only real lmiitation has been herself.  When she's on her game, she's as good as anybody and has even developed a pretty hook shot that will be invaluable against taller defenders.

There are two other players that are being seriously considered by Tennessee at the moment, and either one of them would be a terrific closing act to what may be the strongest recruiting class ever posted in women's basketball, according to ESPN's metrics.

Elizabeth Williams is the proverbial elephant in the room in terms of recruiting this year.  Rated by ESPN as the #1 overall prospect for much of the year (aside: ESPN Maya-Moore'd her and slid her to #2 when Mosqueda-Lewis committed to UConn, but you expected that), Williams made close friendships with the other Tennessee recruits in the class.  Like the rest of this class, her game is characterized by high intensity.  She runs like a gazelle during transition and is very aggressive on defense, willing to take charges and contact in order to disrupt the opposing offense.  Her ability to play through contact is so good that her only apparent weak point seems a bit tame: free throw shooting (which is still over 70 percent on most nights).  "E" is the one to watch on November 10th when the early commitment period opens up: will her friends Cierra and Ariel convince her to come to Tennessee, or is she Duke-bound?

If Tennessee does land Williams, Summitt will have acquired a class that includes the #2, #3, and #4 overall players in the nation according to ESPN.  Additionally, several of the players have already spent significant time playing with each other on U17 teams, helping speed their transition into college play.

Kiah Stokes is the other option at post to close out the class, and the 6'-3" Iowa native isn't exactly small consolation if Tennessee doesn't get Williams.  The 5th-rated post could be ranked among the top three except for a tendency to be inconsistent.  The talent potential alone is as high as anybody in the country, but she has a tendency to go on dry spells - something that would be incredibly frustrating for Summitt.

Stokes is a finesse player more than a physical player and would need to work on her ability to play through contact and bruises.  (Perhaps an improvement in her physical game owuld also bring about more consistent performances as well.)  Much of her development has also been limited by competition: Iowa isn't exactly a women's basketball hotbed, and Stokes hasn't been challenged on the floor as much as other top prospects.  If she fills out Tennessee's class, expect a longer learning curve as she grows into her potential, but know that the ceiling is as high as she lets it be.

The final player that Tennessee appears to be looking at is Briyona Canty, a 5'-9" shooting guard from New Jersey.  she's the top-ranked player at her position, primarily for her one-on-one skills and her very quick lateral acceleration.  Given the guard recruiting that Tennessee has managed this year and last, Canty may perhaps be an option if neither williams nor Stokes commit, but she has enough talent to be taken even if the Lady Vols are already deep at the guard position.

Like so many talented players, her big limitation is in team-oriented play.  she has made a career out of out-talenting opponents, which limited her growth as an integrated member of set offenses.  Once placed within the frame of an entire team, however, her talent will be very difficult for opponents to contain without double-teams, again opening up space for other players.