Perhaps the future of Kansas University's women's basketball team -- and its coach, Marian Washington -- lies in the hands of an 18-year-old newcomer lacking a single minute of collegiate playing time.
As unfair as it may seem, all eyes will be on incoming freshman Lauren Ervin, a 6-foot-3 forward from Southern California. She was named a McDonald's All-American after averaging 24 points and 18 rebounds per game at Inglewood High last season, and chose Washington's Jayhawks over Final Four-regular Tennessee, Arizona, Louisiana State and Texas, among many others.
"I felt this special bond with coach Washington," Ervin said. "I knew she'd take care of me."
And just maybe, Washington will need Ervin to help take care of her.
Though Washington refuses to discuss her future at KU, three straight losing seasons -- including a 3-29 combined Big 12 Conference record the last two -- certainly has shortened the fuse on Washington's job security. This despite the fact she's entering her 31st season at KU, easily the longest tenure of any Jayhawk coach.
But Ervin's high school career rivals that of past KU standouts like Angela Aycock and Tamecka Dixon, giving Washington hope.
After three straight losing seasons, Washington was quick to call Ervin "the type of impact player we need" after she signed with Kansas in November.
Washington isn't about to back down from her bold claim, either.
"To be able to recruit her and get her over Tennessee is a big plus for us," Washington said. "Then when you bring other young people in who certainly know of Lauren if they don't know her personally ... it keeps that (recruiting) process going."
Ervin is joined by Dallas native Sharita Smith as the only two freshman on a roster still considered young. Smith was rated in the top 50 among 2003 high school prospects, and spent part of the summer in Lawrence training with her new teammates.
"Once she matures and gets some experience, she's going to be a great point guard," junior Blair Waltz said.
Sounds wonderful, but KU already is stocked at that position. Senior Leila MengÃ¼Ã§ is slated to be back, though she continues to recover from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in last season's Big 12 Conference tournament.
And there's sophomore Erica Hallman, recovering from a less serious knee injury, who showed glimpses of greatness last year as a savvy, yet raw, freshman.
Both split time at the point for the Jayhawks, who finished 11-18 overall and 3-13 in the Big 12.
With Smith's arrival, KU has three capable point guards, as well as three talented players inside in sophomores Crystal Kemp and Tamara Ransburg, who had impressive freshman seasons, and Ervin.
Will there be a logjam?
"It might be," Waltz said, "but that's going to make us better. That's how we want it."
Waltz, who averaged 7.5 points per game last season, will team with MengÃ¼Ã§ to provide leadership.
Despite minor, nagging injuries that have bothered Waltz at times the past two years, the junior is considered one of the veterans on the team.
"I'm one of the oldest and most experienced," Waltz said, "so I should be a leader."
Though the Big 12 isn't quite as tough as it has been in recent years -- most notably the 2002 season that saw seven teams in the Top 25 -- it's still the Big 12, and still loaded with several potential Final Four teams, including Texas Tech, Kansas State and Texas.
The Longhorns reached the Final Four last season, going 29-6 with two victories over the Jayhawks.
Washington has a 551-347 career record at Kansas, and had nine straight NCAA Tournament appearances before the streak was broken in 2001.
KU hasn't come close to an invitation to the big dance since, but that hasn't stopped the successful recruiting of impact players, a sign that things might be headed in the right direction for Kansas women's basketball as Washington enters the final season of her three-year contract.
"I'm supposed to make an immediate impact," said Ervin. "I'm going to do exactly what coach tells me to do, and just run with the program. I want to help."