Women’s basketball committee continues review of issues: The Division I Women’s Basketball Committee continued discussions during its October 18-20 meeting in Indianapolis regarding championship bracket size, playing dates, game times and formats for selecting preliminary-round sites. Read more »
1982 Louisiana Tech (35-1) def. Cheyney, 76-62
1983 Southern California (31-2) def. Louisiana Tech, 69-67
1984 Southern California (29-4) def. Tennessee, 72-61
1985 Old Dominion (31-3) def. Georgia, 70-65
1986 Texas (34-0) def. Southern California, 97-81
1987 Tennessee (28-6) def. Louisiana Tech, 67-44
1988 Louisiana Tech (32-2) def. Auburn, 56-54
1989 Tennessee (35-2) def. Auburn, 76-60
1990 Stanford (32-1) def. Auburn, 88-81
1991 Tennessee (30-5) def. Virginia, 70-65 (ot)
1992 Stanford (30-3) def. Western Kentucky, 78-62
1993 Texas Tech (31-3) def. Ohio State, 84-82
1994 North Carolina (33-2) def. Louisiana Tech, 60-59
1995 Connecticut (35-0) def. Tennessee, 70-64
1996 Tennessee (32-4) def. Georgia, 83-65
1997 Tennessee (29-10) def. Old Dominion, 68-59
1998 Tennessee (39-0) def. Louisiana Tech, 93-75
1999 Purdue (34-1) def. Duke, 62-45
2000 Connecticut (36-1) def. Tennessee, 71-52
2001 Notre Dame (36-2) def. Purdue, 68-66
2002 Connecticut (39-0) def. Oklahoma, 82-70
2003 Connecticut (37-1) def. Tennessee, 73-68
2004 Connecticut (31-4) def. Tennessee, 70-61
2005 Baylor (33-3) def. Michigan State, 84-62
2006 Maryland (34-4) def. Duke, 78-75 (ot)
2007 Tennessee (34-3) def. Rutgers, 59-46
2008 Tennessee (36-2) def. Stanford, 64-48
2009 Connecticut (39-0) def. Louisville, 76-54
2010 Connecticut (39-0) def. Stanford, 53-47
NCAA Division I women’s basketball turns 29 this year, and while there’s nothing particularly special about the anniversary, the number of issues converging on the game make 2010-11 a potentially notable year for the sport that has grown exponentially in the level of play, its popularity and exposure, and the competition from more schools pouring resources into the game. With all of that comes the pressure to win while maintaining the very integrity on which the sport is grounded. What makes women’s basketball great? How does it grow? What are the threats?
With practice already underway and real games less than a month away, we’ll examine the players, the coaches, the tournament and the next steps in the evolution of The Women’s Game. First in a three-part series. Read Part 2 here.
Site selection and tournament timing a balancing act for DI women’s basketball. Read Part 3 here
By Gary Brown
Ask a dozen Division I women’s basketball coaches what they think about championship bracket expansion or the preliminary-round site format, and you’ll get a dozen different answers.
Tennessee coach Pat Summitt
But ask 100 coaches what they think makes the women’s game so great and the responses don’t vary as much. It’s almost always about the student-athletes.
“The personalities of our players,” says Tennessee’s Pat Summitt.
“The enthusiasm of the young women playing,” says Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer.
“The relationships you build as a player,” says UCLA’s Nikki Caldwell.
“The teamwork and the selflessness that permeates our game,” says Hartford’s Jennifer Rizzotti.
“The fact that the players stay for four years,” says Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma.
In the almost three decades since Louisiana Tech and Cheyney tipped off against each other in the first Division I Women’s Final Four championship game in 1982, the personalities, the enthusiasm, and the bonding and teamwork among the players is perhaps the one thing that hasn’t changed.
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer
But the look of the game back then pales in comparison with today’s version. Now, the game’s athleticism, its popularity and its standing in the intercollegiate athletics hierarchy are worthy of celebration – and at the same time cause for concern. As with anything that has had to be nurtured from the ground up, women’s basketball is approaching a crossroads in its growth.
Among the issues that must be addressed are whether parity is national enough to expand the bracket; whether the fan base is strong enough to support predetermined preliminary-round sites; whether stagnant Academic Progress Rates warrant concern; and whether the “brand” of the game as pure, accessible and family friendly can be sustained in the face of the ever-increasing pressure to win.
However daunting all of that may seem, the good news is that the quality of the student-athletes is not in question.
“They are a great group of young women who care about how they play, how they act and how they do in school,” said Rizzotti, who starred at Connecticut in the 1990s before taking her influence to the sidelines at Hartford in 1999. “The student-athletes themselves make this game special.”
“People come to see the excitement and young women putting everything out there,” said Stanford’s VanDerveer, who has won almost 800 games in her 31-year career and has taken the Cardinal to eight Final Fours. “They are not afraid to show their emotions – they are not afraid to get after it and work really hard. You see excitement, joy, good camaraderie – all of the things we look for not only in sports but also in our lives.”
That’s not to say that the players themselves have not changed. Every generation is different. However, the game’s primary attributes – the pure style of play, the teamwork, the selflessness that Rizzotti pointed out and the accessibility of the players – have remained steady with every passing class.
UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell
All of that despite there being more pressure on the student-athletes. Basketball is more year-round for women than ever before. UCLA coach Caldwell called it “a different work ethic.” When she played at Tennessee in the early 1990s, she said the routine was to “go to the gym and find a pick-up game with some guys.”
Now, elite-level prospects come with personal trainers and travel all summer long with teams designed to get them as much playing time and exposure as possible. That kind of environment may be old hat in the men’s game, but it’s a relatively new accessory for the women.
“There are a lot more external factors that pull on today’s prospects,” Caldwell said. “The biggest difference is summer ball.”
There’s also a big difference in professional opportunities after college. When Caldwell played, the only chance to go pro was outside the United States.
“Now with the WNBA (which began in 1997), that gives high school and college players something tangible and visible to see they can play professionally in the States and also overseas if they want,” she said. “And now that the WNBA draft is televised, they can see that happening, too, and they can see championships being won.
“That allows them to aspire to something they can actually see being done. When it was only overseas, the scholastic and collegiate players never saw any women playing professionally, so they weren’t as inclined to pursue it themselves.”
Incoming Women’s Basketball Coaches Association President Charli Turner Thorne, the head coach at Arizona State, said that adds a layer of complexity for coaches.
Arizona State coach
Charli Turner Thorne
“More women athletes now consider professional basketball a top career choice,” she said. “So even though there is not as much of an enticement for women as it for men, just the fact that the opportunity is out there might make players less concerned about preparing for life after basketball. Ten or 15 years ago, virtually none of my players said going pro was a career goal. Now, 50 percent or more look at that as their top priority after college.”
Caldwell said that can be a motivating factor for upperclassmen who have the skills to warrant professional consideration. “As long as you’re sure it doesn’t add more pressure,” she said.
The “going pro” phenomenon for the women is still nothing like the men. Rutgers junior Epiphanny Prince raised eyebrows two years ago when she skipped her senior season to play professionally overseas. She couldn’t go the WNBA since that league requires players to either have graduated, be 22 years old or be four years removed from high school graduation before being eligible to be drafted. Prince played a year in Europe and then was a third-round pick in the 2010 WNBA draft.
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma
Tennessee junior Candace Parker “left early” to become the first overall WNBA pick in 2008, but Parker had redshirted as a freshman and was on track to graduate that spring. Because she had one season of eligibility remaining, though, Parker made headlines for going pro “early.”
Connecticut coach Auriemma, who pointed out that one of the best aspects of the game is the fact that players stay for four years, also believes the increased opportunities to play professionally have benefited the game.
“Players have aspirations now that maybe didn’t exist before,” said the man whose teams have accounted for 24 WNBA players. “There is a great incentive to have to work even harder than before because you have a goal in mind and know how difficult it is to play at the next level. The fact that it’s there, and kids know and want to be a part of it, makes them compete a little bit harder and improve individually. That’s all good.”
The players’ performance in the classroom is mostly good, too, though some people are concerned that overall academic performance in women’s basketball isn’t what it could be.
Academic Progress Rates for women’s basketball are relatively high (the sport’s most recent four-year rate was 966, well above penalty range), but some administrators, including the Division I Women’s Basketball Issues Committee, are bothered by a flattening of the rate over the last several years. Where other sports are improving (including most men’s sports), women’s basketball APRs are steady and among the lowest for all women’s sports. Last year’s APR in fact was the second lowest among women’s sports (above bowling).
Colorado associate athletics director Ceal Barry
The sport’s stakeholders don’t want to get to the point where a task force has to be formed to figure out how to arrest the problem (as has been the case with men’s basketball, football and baseball).
“It’s a matter of educating people that despite women’s basketball scoring well above the minimum APR benchmarks, the overall score for the sport remains among the lowest in all women’s sports,” said issues committee chair Ceal Barry, an associate athletics director at Colorado and former coach there. “The notion that women’s basketball is still well over the APR benchmarks seems to be the prevailing thought and thus mitigates a concern or need to focus on improvement.”
Barry’s committee is developing a proposed model that would require all incoming freshmen and transfer student-athletes in women’s basketball who are assessed by the institution to be academically at risk to attend summer school and pass three credit hours. In turn, those student-athletes would be allowed a total of 10 hours of athletically related activities with coaches during their summer term. The concept also would require institutions to offer summer financial aid to such student-athletes.
While that might help jump-start incoming players’ academic pursuits, some coaches think it’s the increasing likelihood of transfer in mid-stream that causes the academic dip.
Hartford coach Jennifer Rizzotti
“I don’t see the commitment to academics as being any less,” Hartford’s Rizzotti said. “The programs in the top 25 in APR don’t change much, so there certainly are coaches who are focused not only on recruiting the right type of student-athletes but also making academics a priority. But the APR phenomenon may have more to do with transfers than anything else. Kids are making decisions a little bit earlier in their careers.”
Indeed, the composition of the women’s basketball population in 2008-09 included almost 16 percent as transfers from either two-year or four-year institutions, higher than in any other women’s sport. Only tennis and golf had a higher percentage of four-year transfers, and none was even close to women’s basketball’s 8.6 percent from two-year schools.
UCLA’s Caldwell said that – coupled with increased coaching changes that are more frequent because of the pressure to win – may lead to a reduced emphasis on academics.
“When you have turnover in coaching staffs, academics can be a component that is sometimes left out,” she said. “In my case, coming from a program like Tennessee, you knew when you went there that there was a 100 percent graduation rate and that academics was first. But when there is turnover, there is turnover in philosophy, too, and that can mean a change in philosophy when it comes to academics.”
Turner Thorne at Arizona State said, though, that the APR hasn’t changed the way she recruits – or the way she emphasizes academic excellence.
“Our standard remains: Do you want to be the best at everything you want to do? If not, don’t come here,” she said. “Most coaches are very invested in their student-athletes making the most out of their college experience because for most of the players, that’s their future.”
As for the game’s future, it’s in good hands.
“For players, what they take away most is the journey,” Caldwell said. “The journey of when you leave home and start a new chapter in your life – the relationships that you build, the time that you spend on the bus, in the hotel or in the airport during a long layover. That’s the journey that you will remember. Obviously, winning it all and being able to cut down the nets is something to aspire to, but not everyone is able to do that – and that doesn’t lessen what the game has meant to all of our players.
“It has allowed so many young women to have the benefits of playing – not just the benefits of becoming a coach or playing professionally or going into athletics administration – but an internal awareness of what it really means to be an athlete. That’s something – in any sport – to say, ‘I was an athlete in college.’ You know the grind you went through, you know the 5:30 a.m. workouts. There’s an empowerment you feel after that to where you can accomplish just about anything, because physically, mentally and emotionally, you put yourself through the ringer and you came out of that situation, that year or that season with your head held high.”
Coming in Part 2: Tournament bracket expansion: Is bigger better?
Nikki Caldwell, UCLA: “The game is played at a faster pace now because of the versatility of the players. When I played (in the early 1990s), the bigs stayed on the block and in the paint, and now those players are 6-3, 6-4, and they play all over the place. Another difference is the offensive strategies coaches implement. You used to focus on a power game where you had a low-block presence every possession. While that is still a concept we use today, the way you pound the ball inside now is off of dribble drive or isolations. The ‘five-out’ look has changed our game, with the bigs now being able to shoot the three.”
Pat Summitt, Tennessee: “It’s a game that’s not played above the rim by many players by any means, but it’s pure basketball. You can watch the women’s game and appreciate the skill, watching the defense and the offense – while it is slower than the men’s game, it’s still a pretty fast-paced game at the women’s level. But fans feel like they can see things develop on the court. And they see personalities of our players.”
Jennifer Rizzotti, Hartford: “When you watch two good teams play, there is a simplicity and purity to the game – a sense of teamwork and selflessness that on average permeates most of the women’s game right now. We have proven time and again that good teams and teamwork can overcome individual performance, and that’s not always the case in men’s sports where the athleticism is so great and can do so much. In the women’s game there are more X factors, and that makes it special.”
Geno Auriemma, Connecticut (talking about how the college game compares with the international game): “There are a lot of things they do that we could benefit from. They play with a wider lane, which would greatly benefit us. It would certainly benefit the mid-majors because it would move big post players away from the basket. Not everyone gets big post players, just the high-level teams. They have moved their three-point line back, which gives you more spacing on the floor and creates a more free-flowing game. They’ve taken their shot clock to 24 seconds and eight seconds to get the ball across half court. That is a huge thing for the flow of the game in regards to the entertainment aspect. They play four 10-minute quarters, and you can manage the game a little better with quarters. They shoot one-and-ones after five fouls each quarter, which keeps you from turning it into a slugfest and keeps the game more wide open and free. We can learn a lot from the international game. I like to use the analogy of cars. We invented the automobile and went over and taught everyone how to make them and now Germany and Japan make them better. Then we had to catch up again.”