Behind The Success Of Utah Women’s Basketball Is Recruiting Overseas

Feb 11, 2021, 3:50 PM

Lynne Roberts - Utah Utes Women's Basketball...

Utah women's basketball head coach Lynne Roberts. (Photo courtesy of Kory Mortensen, Utah Athletics)

(Photo courtesy of Kory Mortensen, Utah Athletics)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Utah women’s basketball has seen success in recruiting that will benefit their program due to seeking recruits internationally.

The Utah women’s basketball program branched out their recruiting map beyond the United States and Canada. Now they are going to Europe and Australia, among other places, around the world. The Utes have nine international players on their 2020-21 roster, which is tied for the most in the conference in women’s basketball.

Head coach Lynne Roberts and her program has four Canadians, two Australians, two Polish players and one from Spain.

“Well, it certainly adds diversity,” Lynne Roberts told KSL Sports. “I think that’s what college is all about, or it should be all about is learning about other places, other cultures, other people. When we say diversity, sometimes we have in our mind what that means, but this is a different kind of diversity. We’ve got kids from all over the globe. You’re learning about different places. It’s fun for me and I know it is for them too.”

When it’s all said and done, Roberts wants to recruit players that will represent her program the best way possible.

“Whether they’re from Poland, or Australia, or Sandy, Utah, their values are the same. Which is they care about school, they care about basketball, and they care about their family,” Roberts added. “Those are the kind of kids we recruit. So we recruit good kids and it doesn’t matter what your nationality is, those are your values, or you’re not going to fit in here. They all come from different places, different backgrounds. Even our American kids all have different backgrounds, but we all share the same values and that’s what our culture is all about.”

The Canadian Pipeline Elaine Elliott Started At Utah Women’s Basketball

The Utes have had a strong pipeline to Canada dating all the way back to when longtime legendary head coach Elaine Elliott was at the helm for 27 seasons. From 2004-10 under Elliott, Utah women’s basketball had six Canadians on their roster. One of those players from up North went on to be an All-American and has her No. 4 jersey retired into the rafters at the Huntsman Center in Kim Smith.

When Anthony Levrets took over from 2010-15, four Canadians joined the program. Under Lynne Roberts, six recruits from Canada have played for the Utes.

“Elaine Elliott, she started that before anyone else was really doing it,” Roberts said. “Now international recruiting is really competitive, but we have a foothold in Canada for sure.”

One of the Canadians on Utah’s current roster, junior forward Andrea Torres came in contact with the Utes’ coaching staff when they were in Montreal recruiting Maurane Corbin.

“It was actually really funny because Maurane (Corbin), she was on my team back where I’m from in Montreal,” Torres told KSL Sports. “So, we were practicing and then the coaches came in and they saw me and they contacted me that year. Then I stayed in contact a lot with Gavin (Peterson) and Coach (Lynne) Roberts. It was like a dream come true to be honest and I was just really happy.”

When, Why Utah’s Coaching Staff Decided To Branch Out Recruiting Overseas

It was about four years ago that Roberts decided to branch out Utah’s recruiting pipeline and head overseas. She received data that showed Division I caliber high school athletes were playing volleyball at the next level, especially in the state of Utah.

“What really triggered me to kind of say, ‘Okay, I think we need to throw a worldwide net out,'” Roberts mentioned. “This is probably four years ago, but in the 50 states for high school girls that go on to play Division I, Utah was 47th in basketball and for volleyball, Utah was fourth per capita. So what does that mean? It means the high level athletes are playing volleyball. You can see with our volleyball team, there’s a lot more local kids. So that’s when I started realizing we’re gonna have to extend our recruiting map beyond Utah, not to say we’re not recruiting Utah, because we do.”

Make no mistake, Lynne Roberts and her staff will continue to recruit the state of Utah.

“We have Utah kids here, we’ve got Idaho and if there’s a Pac-12 player in the state, we’re going to sell out to try to get her. We want her here,” Roberts stated.

Then you take in the experience factor that international players get that prospects from the United States don’t receive. At the youth level internationally, players grow up and develop with a club team and their system, which involves more games that lead to game reps and better experience.

“The one thing that’s different about international kids that I really like, is they’ve played a lot of basketball,” said Roberts. “So, in most countries, they come up in a club system, based on the club they want to be at and you can kind of graduate up, but you’re playing all the time. You’re being coached by different people. It’s not a lot of the individual trainer, around the cones type of stuff. They know the game, the understanding of time and score. They’ve played more games and so that’s a positive for international kids.”

Language Barrier Involved With Recruiting International Players

When coaches are recruiting international players, they often run into the language barrier where the recruit doesn’t speak English and the coach doesn’t speak the prospects’ language. That’s where the coaches put in the hard work to adapt and be able to find different ways to communicate their message to that player.

A great example of that is when assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Danyelle Grant had a long conversation with forward Lola Pendande, who is in her second season at Utah from Almeria, Spain. When Grant was recruiting her, she had to translate their conversation for an hour and a half while sitting in the airport.

“I was getting on a flight, I can’t remember where I was going exactly,” Grant said. “I friend requested Lola on Facebook. She friend requested me back. Then I literally spent an hour and a half in the airport translating our first conversation from freetranslation.com to the Facebook messaging just to get her comfortable. Because it’s intimidating. You’re actually speaking to somebody you don’t know in a language that you’re not confident in speaking. So I spent a whole hour and a half translating our conversation to make sure that she was comfortable.”

Having multiple international players has helped bring in recruits from overseas for Utah. Freshman forward Kelsey Rees is from Glenelg North, South Australia. She became comfortable with the Utah environment quicker because of the other international players.

“Being in the Pac-12 was definitely big,” Rees said. “Then coming over to visit and just how nice all the girls were and how much of a family it was. I think it might have helped that we had so many other internationals. So, as someone from a country a long way away from here, I didn’t feel like the odd one out. I didn’t feel like I was surrounded by Americans. We had a lot of international experience that really helped me.”

Recruiting Challenges During A Pandemic For Utah Women’s Basketball

Just like every college sports program in the country, recruiting has been drastically different during the COVID-19 pandemic. Recruits are not allowed to visit campus and coaches are not allowed to travel to watch prospects play in tournaments or do any at-home visits. The Utah coaching staff has had to be creative during this unprecedented time.

“You got to get creative, you have to use what you have, so Zoom, definitely. What’s hard is that you say ‘Okay, we’re going to Zoom, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that.”’ Grant said. “Ultimately, everybody’s doing that. Everybody’s zooming, everybody’s sending video and everybody’s texting and emailing and calling, because that’s all there is to do. So, you just have to stay diligent and create a plan too. Lynne (Roberts) is big on continuing to build that relationship. She never wants a conversation just to be fluff. Nobody does. That’s a waste of their time. It’s a waste of our time. The pandemic has created this kind of cycle of zooms, texts, phone calls, graphics, mail, all that kind of stuff, even more so than normal.”

The big question is, will there be any negative lasting effects on recruiting after the pandemic is over? Grant thinks it will just get really busy on the trail when restrictions are lifted.

“I think what’s gonna happen is eventually there will be a time where prospects will be allowed back on campuses and things will get a little bit more lenient,” Grant mentioned. “That’s when a mad dash is going to happen, where tournaments are going to try and be held where people can come in and be in the gym, watching these kids. People are going to be flooding campuses, trying to get to schools that they want to see. Coaches are going to encourage kids to come so that they can have their opportunity to talk about their school and things like that. Because prior to COVID, that was the plan. The plan was to get you on campus, have you meet the team, meet all the coaches, meet the staff, see what we have here. That’s always been the plan. So, once the opportunity comes, I think it’s going to be a mad dash. I don’t think it’s going to hurt us. I think it’s just going to keep us really, really busy.”

Utah Women’s Basketball Bringing In Top-Level Recruits Under Roberts

Since Roberts took over as the head coach of the Utes in 2015, her coaching staff has delivered some big-time recruits. The 2019 class featured two five-star prospects that are already contributing in Gig Harbor, Washington star Brynna Maxwell and the No. 1 player in the state of Utah, Kemery Martin from Corner Canyon.

Utah’s 2020 signing class was the highest in program history with two ESPN Top 100 recruits Kennady McQueen (No. 60) and Peyton McFarland (No. 80). McQueen is a Utah native who played at North Summit HS. As a four-star prospect, McQueen was a member of former Utah All-American Keith Van Horn’s AAU program.

McFarland came to Utah as a four-star prospect from Boise, Idaho. Donna Ntambue is a part of that Canadian pipeline that has been so good to Utah. She was the No. 13 recruit in her class by Crown Scout Girls Rankings.

Grant mentioned that a lot of Utah’s recent success in recruiting comes down to focusing on the players that fit their culture within the program and not going after every four or five star prospect.

“What makes us so unique is how we strategize,” Grant stated. “We can’t go after 100 kids, we can’t have a list of 50 to 100 kids and expect our story, our program, who we are to really sink into people. For us, we find a small list of prospects that fit everything there is about Utah basketball, from how they compete, who they are as people, we take into consideration all of that stuff. We boil it down to, ‘Okay, these are our prospects,’ and we pour into them. It’s really benefited us in a great way. I mean, we do a great job of building relationships, not a sales pitch, but building relationships. I think that’s really got us to this point right now.”

Utah Women's Basketball Coaching Staff

Utah Women’s Basketball Coaching Staff. (Photo courtesy of Utah Athletics)

One of the benefits of being a college basketball coach is the ability to travel across the world to recruit (when we aren’t in a worldwide pandemic). Roberts, Grant and the rest of the coaching staff at Utah have traveled the globe to find the next great Utes players.

Out of all of the places they have traveled, which trip was their favorite?

“I got to go to Thailand to support two of our players,” Grant said. “I was recruiting, it was great. Ultimately, I was there to support them. That was the best feeling ever. Because they didn’t have family that traveled over there. They’re playing on two different teams, which was awesome. So. I was constantly trying to make sure that they were good, but also watching their games and to be able to support them no matter what happened in the game. Whether they won or lost, it didn’t matter. What mattered is that they had somebody over there that was family. That was awesome to be able to go to Thailand.”

Lynne Roberts remembers going to a little island in Australia.

“I remember going to Tasmania, Australia, which is a little island off the southern coast and it’s like a time warp,” Roberts mentioned. “That was pretty cool. Just because I probably will never go there again. I went to Gdynia, Poland, which is on the coast. It’s a really cool town, it’s a really cool like trendy European and I had never even heard of it.”

This all boils down to finding the best prospects that fit the mold of Utah’s program. Seeing big time prospects both nationally and internationally will pay off in the near future.

Trevor Allen is a Utah Utes Insider for KSLSports.com and host of the Crimson Corner podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @TrevorASportsYou can download and listen to the podcast, here.

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Behind The Success Of Utah Women’s Basketball Is Recruiting Overseas