Remnants of Fab Five ready to prove worth with highest ranked class since ’08 set to build legacy
Ask seniors April Sykes, Nikki Speed or Chelsey Lee about their first three seasons with the Rutgers women’s basketball team, and they will all likely sum it up with one word: disappointment.
All three were part of a five-member recruiting class — ranked No. 3 nationally in 2008 by ESPN HoopGurlz —destined to make the Scarlet Knights a perennial national contender.
All three were McDonald’s All-Americans who committed to Hall of Fame head coach C. Vivian Stringer instead of other big-name programs like Connecticut or Tennessee.
And now, with no Big East or national titles to show for it, all three are doing their best to ensure this year’s third-ranked recruiting class — the most heralded since their own — does not follow in their footsteps.
“We felt like coming in as a highly-touted class, we kind of let everybody down, as well as ourselves,” Speed said. “Just talking to the freshmen and making sure they don’t go that direction and that they create their own path and create their own legacy. I definitely think they will.”
If the freshman class’s talent is any indication, its future is bright.
The Knights nabbed No. 1 overall guard Briyona Canty and No. 2 overall wing Betnijah Laney to close the recruiting season on a high note.
Stringer also welcomed No. 4 overall point guard Shakena Richardson and No. 14 combo guard Syessence Davis, both Neptune, N.J., natives, after they elected to attend Rutgers together.
To complement her guard-heavy class, Stringer added 6-foot-3 post player Christa Evans, who figures to see plenty of playing time this year following Lee’s season-ending shoulder surgery.
Starting Sunday at the Louis Brown Athletic Center, the 2011 class showcases the future of the Rutgers program.
For the five freshmen, who figure to see plenty of playing time, there is little time for growing pains, Stringer said.
“They’re going to have to be game ready,” she said. “Like I told them, we don’t have time for them to grow through that stage. They can’t be babies we have to put the on the floor now. I think that each and every one of them comes with that mentality anyway.”
The mentality turned to excitement two weeks ago, when the Knights learned of their preseason national ranking.
The Associated Press dubbed the Knights No. 16 overall in its preseason poll, making the expectations in Piscataway the highest in four years.
“I think we can really make some noise at the RAC this year,” Canty said. “We all play hard. We all give so much effort in practice and things like that. I think we can actually go far this year [than] they have been going the previous years. We still have a lot to learn, but every day we learn something new.”
Stringer knows all too well how quickly expectations can turn to empty hopes.
The Knights finished atop the Big East during the 2007-08 season after upsetting No. 2 UConn in the conference tournament — the program’s first Big East Championship.
The victory gave the Knights, ranked 19th at the time, all the momentum they needed entering the NCAA Tournament, where Rutgers advanced to the championship game against Tennessee.
The Knights lost, 59-46, to the Volunteers. But their improbable run vaulted them into the national spotlight, especially with Stringer’s 2008 class arriving in Piscataway.
Not long after the Knights rose to the top, they gradually fell from grace.
They advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in the 2008-09 season, only to follow with a first-round exit in 2010 and a second-round loss last season against eventual national champion Texas A&M.
To the Knights’ credit, they consistently qualified for the NCAA Tournament since 2008, but anyone familiar with Stringer knows being the best is paramount in the coach’s eyes.
For Sykes, the class did not perform up to par.
“I don’t feel as though our freshman class embraced as much from our upperclassmen at our time,” said Sykes, who led the team last year with 14.1 points per game. “I just let them know that they’re not going to get everything right — we didn’t get everything right at that age. They’re a lot better than us as freshman.”
But those days are long in the past. Though the senior class did not initially live up to standards, it still has one final year to prove its worth.
Its opportunity comes with the highest ranked class since 2008, which is ready to establish its own Rutgers legacy.
If Sykes’ and Speed’s cynicism is not enough to steer the freshmen along the right path, there is always the benefit of a Hall of Fame head coach.
And she sees no signs of disappointment in the forecast.
“I really am truly excited about this group, just the blend,” Stringer said. “It’s the right one.”