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Girls play a different game in pursuit of basketball scholarships

Part 4: Four college coaches explain what’s important for girls trying to go ‘D-Free’

One of the most heartbreaking basketball moments Lindsay Gottlieb ever witnessed came outside a summer AAU tournament. Gottlieb, head women’s coach at the University of California, Berkeley, was leaving when she overheard a father telling his clearly miserable daughter, “I didn’t pay all this money for you to come here and miss shots and not get a scholarship!”

That’s the raw heart of the summer basketball hustle. Chasing a Division I scholarship costs immense amounts of time and money, but only 2.3 percent of high school girls end up going “D-Free.” So how hard should parents push their daughters? How do they know if their girl is good enough? What’s the difference between recruiting in the men’s and women’s games?

We got answers to these questions and more from four college head coaches: Gottlieb at Cal; Coquese Washington at Penn State; Charlie Buscaglia at Robert Morris University in Moon, Pennsylvania; and Jaida Williams at Coastal Carolina.

Some common themes emerged. While men’s coaches find talent almost exclusively on the AAU summer scene, women’s coaches cast a wider net, including high school games. In the recruiting process, women athletes typically are more focused on the total college experience. That means women’s coaches are looking not just for the best players but for hoopers who will fit the culture of their school and team.

And all the coaches warned against thinking like that dad in the parking lot.

“If parents are investing money and the expectation is that you’re going to get a scholarship out of it, I think that’s a tough position to be in. I think that puts a lot of pressure on the kid,” Gottlieb said. “I would be leery of doing travel ball simply for the goal of the money you put in paying off in the form of a scholarship, because you just don’t know.”

Williams, the Coastal Carolina coach, said parents should ask themselves, “What is your ‘why?’ ”

“Is the why just for a college education?” Williams said. “Because there’s multiple ways to get to college with different types of scholarship opportunities. Athletics is just one.

“If the why is you want your kid to get better and have fun, and if the opportunity for scholarship comes, then great — that makes sense. But, just like in coaching, you can plan a pretty picnic but you can’t predict the weather.”

One of the first questions parents can ask is:


Girls mature physically earlier than boys. Washington, the Penn State coach, said it’s evident what kind of physical tools a girl will bring to college by her freshman or sophomore year in high school. That’s when the best players start to draw attention from colleges in the form of letters, invitations to college camps or scholarship offers.

“We don’t see the 5-8 kid in eighth grade and then she’s 6-3 in 11th grade. That just doesn’t happen,” Washington said. “You can find kids early and you kind of know from a physical standpoint what they’re going to be. Then it’s just a matter of following them throughout their high school and summer basketball careers to see what happens with their skill development.”

What about the next level of players, who are working to improve enough to catch a coach’s attention? Buscaglia, the Robert Morris coach, said many parents should accept that they don’t have the knowledge to impartially evaluate their daughters and should consult with AAU or high school coaches about their potential.

“We don’t see the 5-8 kid in eighth grade and then she’s 6-3 in 11th grade. That just doesn’t happen.”

College camps, where coaches invite potential recruits, are good places for players who want to get recruited to measure themselves against the competition. Gottlieb said players should ask coaches at those camps, “Do you see me being able to play here, or maybe at another level of college?”

“If you’re not the top, top player that everyone’s been talking about since she’s 12, you probably have to be strategic to be seen one way or another,” Gottlieb said. “Do you need to spend all this money to be on the circuit and go and play for this particular team and go to every event or buy the recruiting services? No. I think you have to be strategic. You have to figure out how to play in front of coaches from schools at your level.”

Part of that strategy, Buscaglia said, is choosing an AAU team that fits the girl’s game and personality. “The way the team functions, how often they practice, how much they are developing players, or are they just talent-driven,” he said.

Buscaglia also warned parents about worrying about a scholarship so much that it ruins the experience of summer hoops. “Some parents worry my kid isn’t shooting enough or playing in the last two minutes. When you go to these events in July and April, parents are sitting on one side, coaches on the other. We’re facing each other. You’ll see somebody on the team hit a big shot, and parents with a kid on the bench are not so joyful. It’s not about winning the game, it’s about my kid’s scholarship.”

Washington believes the biggest misconception about AAU is that the kids have to play perfectly to get a scholarship. “Sometimes parents, more so than the kids, have a do-or-die mentality, and I don’t think the stakes are that high,” she said. “It’s the volume of work. It’s a long process. Coaches typically are not going to make a decision based off of one game. And if parents can let their daughters relax and have fun and enjoy their summers, they typically tend to play better.”


There are 30 NBA teams and 26 in the NBA G League. The WNBA has only 12 teams and doesn’t pay multimillion-dollar salaries, and nobody arrives one-and-done from college. As a result, women’s recruiting focuses much more on building relationships that will last over an extended college career.

“Because women still spend four years in college, because the money to be made in professional women’s basketball is not life-changing in the way that men’s basketball is, the main difference is that recruitable girls and their families still value education, first and foremost,” Gottlieb said. “I think they value relationships with the coaches and with the teammates and things like the feel of the campus.”

Buscaglia says that “no matter how great a player is, we don’t offer a scholarship based on basketball ability alone. It’s got to be a relationship. Summer is a big thing for us to evaluate. We can go to one tournament and see them play four or five times. That’s a bunch of times to evaluate them in terms of basketball and in terms of culture. But there’s no relationship built there, so that’s not the most important place for me. We have to bring them to campus.”

This dynamic provides an opportunity for middle-of-the-pack players to pitch themselves to programs based on more than just basketball. Coaches want players who want their school; several mentioned that girls often get caught up in a team’s name or reputation rather than what the school is actually like.

And, yes, coaches are willing to hear from players themselves. This illustrates another difference between recruiting boys and girls:


Women’s Division I teams each have 15 scholarships, compared with 13 for men, so there are 644 more free rides for women. And there are about 120,000 more boys playing high school basketball than girls. In other words, women’s college basketball has more scholarships for fewer players.

On the boys’ side, unless you’re a future NBA lottery pick, summer AAU ball is just about the only way to get seen by college coaches. But all four of the coaches interviewed for this story said they found female players in other ways too, from watching high school games to getting newspaper clips in the mail.

“The one thing I know, if you can play, college coaches will find you,” Washington said. “If you’re capable of being a scholarship athlete and you play for your high school team, and/or you play on a AAU team, you’re not going to get missed.”

“If you can play, college coaches will find you.”

Buscaglia has an incoming freshman he discovered at a high school game. Gottlieb says her staff tries to watch every video they receive, although they dislike the ones sent from “scouting services” to hundreds of coaches. Washington said girls who aspire to play at Penn State should call her staff to get acquainted.

“They can start to build those relationships themselves, and they can ask the questions about the school, the program, the coach, the players, the team, the culture, the diversity,” Washington said. “Building those relationships themselves and not relying on other people to be an intermediary or interpreter. I think that’s very helpful for them.”

A final piece of advice from our coaches:


Despite all the encouraging words, the math says most girls playing AAU will not get a scholarship.

And that’s OK.

“Kids who don’t end up playing at UConn can still learn lessons over the summer,” Gottlieb said. “They can make great relationships, they can get better, they can compete. They can learn about themselves, they can learn to deal with adversity. Maybe they can end up with a college scholarship and all the benefits that come with that. Just don’t have it be what the mom’s dream is or the dad’s dream is or the club coach’s dream is. Have it line up with what is a realistic expectation for that young person.”

Buscaglia likes to remind people that the whole purpose of college basketball is supposed to be education.

“I know I open up a huge floodgate saying that with all the conflict and debate about money and paying players,” he said. “At some point it got out of control with what people think it’s about. But if we continue to understand and make every decision based on development and education, a lot of this stuff would make more sense.

“That goes for parents too.”

Liner Notes

Correction, an earlier version of this story misstated Men’s Division I teams have 12 scholarships, it is 13.

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.