By JOHN ZENOR
AP Sports Writer
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Auburn and Alabama women’s basketball teams are now led by energetic recruiters with winning track records hoping to lead a return to the halcyon days when both were NCAA tournament regulars.
The Crimson Tide hired Kristy Curry from Texas Tech in May to revive a program that hasn’t cracked the NCAA field since 1999. She embraces the rebuilding challenge.
“We’ve got to get better in every aspect of the program,” Curry said. “I always say you either accept it or you correct it. We’re here to correct it and not accept where we’re at, but to get better. We’re looking forward to that challenge.
“We’re going to correct it and do all that we can and move forward. That starts with the kids in place and secondly with recruiting at the highest level.”
Equally ambitious is Auburn’s Terri Williams-Flournoy, who has a year’s head start on her Alabama counterpart.
The former Georgetown coach led the Tigers to a 19-15 record, including three victories in the Women’s NIT, in her first season. Now, Williams-Flournoy will have eight newcomers in her first full year of recruiting to join three returning starters led by second-team All-Southeastern Conference pick Hasina Muhammad at guard. She signed 6-foot forward Khady Dieng on Wednesday.
The last year hasn’t dampened her belief the program that made three straight national title games under Hall of Fame coach Joe Ciampi can once again become a regular in the NCAA tournament.
“I don’t know if it gives you more confidence,” Williams-Flournoy said. “I’m a very confident person either way. I think that the depth gives us the chance to ability to do a little bit more and press a little bit more.”
Auburn hasn’t been back to the NCAA tournament since Nell Fortner’s team won the Southeastern Conference title in 2009.
Both coaches’ optimism about the near future is enhanced with a bounty of rising high school talent in the state, and that’s where they hope to keep those players. Curry also hopes to use her Texas connections to mine that state for talent while Williams-Flournoy said she’s still familiar with the high school coaches in Georgia from her days as an assistant with the Georgia Bulldogs.
“When you look at the state of Alabama just the talent in (2015) and ‘16 is phenomenal,” Curry said. “And you look at your border states, you shouldn’t have to go any further. But when you look at the enrollment here at the University of Alabama, besides in-state, Texas is the second-largest enrollment group from a state of the normal student population.
“The recruiting ground here and the opportunity to recruit talent to Alabama, obviously No. 1 is Alabama and the border states but obviously we’re going to hit the state of Texas some.”
Curry has already made an impact in recruiting. She signed junior college All-American post player Khadijah Carter and point guard Karyla Middlebrook to join the five newcomers already on their way.
She and Williams-Flournoy both rave about their program’s potential despite what appear to be varying stages of rebuilding.
The programs were once among the nation’s best. Ciampi led the Tigers to three straight national title games from 1988-90 and 16 NCAA appearances in 25 years before stepping down in 2004.
Rick Moody took the Tide to the NCAA tournament in half of his 16 seasons, including the 1994 Final Four and five consecutive trips to the regional semifinals. He left a year after Ciampi.
The programs haven’t been the same since. There’s plenty of optimism now, though.
“The reception we’ve had this year from our fans has been incredible,” Williams-Flournoy said. “They’re very excited and have come to our games. They’re right now telling us they can’t wait for the season to start. I’m like, ‘Oh my god, really?’ They’re really excited and they’re so happy about the direction of the program and they love our style of play.
“The fan support here is unbelievable.”
Curry takes over one of the few struggling programs in Alabama athletics, which has collected two national titles in football in the last two academic years, along with championships in men’s and women’s golf, softball and gymnastics.
“Obviously the brand at this university is as good as anybody in the country,” Curry said. “It’s exciting for me to have this kind of brand to recruit to.”