Consistency, but no drama, in the women's tournament

Posted: March 30, 2011

This is what women's college basketball should be all about: Connecticut's sublime senior forward, Maya Moore, rising up to take the jump shot that gave her 3,000 career points. With the Final Four on the line, no less.

Unfortunately, the game is also about the scoreboard, which showed Moore's jumper gave Connecticut a 69-35 lead over helplessly overmatched second-seeded Duke on Tuesday night. A handful of Connecticut fans in the half-full Liacouras Center realized what had happened and reacted accordingly.

Connecticut very likely will go on to win its third national championship in a row next week in Indianapolis. The Huskies have lost exactly one game in the last three seasons, a 71-59 decision at Stanford on Dec. 30. Stanford will be in Indy, too, but a UConn three-peat seems inevitable.

The only suspense in this regional final was whether Moore would reach 3,000 points and whether the Huskies would score twice as many points as Duke. She did. They didn't, settling for a 75-40 pounding that was as painful to watch as it must have been for Duke to play.

The women's tournament serves as a kind of control group for those who think the men's bracket has become too upset-heavy to be a true championship tournament. If you don't like seeing Butler and Virginia Commonwealth in the men's Final Four, then the reliable Goliaths of the women's game are the alternative.

All four No. 1 seeds and three No. 2 seeds reached the women's Elite Eight. Only 11th-seeded Gonzaga, which had 31 wins, crashed the party - and was punished by top seed Stanford, 80-63. The average margin of victory in the first three quarterfinals was 24 points.

It was considered a major upset when No. 2 seed Notre Dame beat top seed Tennessee on Monday.

That's what Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie was talking about when she got bristly with the media Monday afternoon (apparently the P is for Pugnacious).

"We have the whole Connecticut-Tennessee thing," McCallie said. "Everyone knows that everyone wants Tennessee and Connecticut in the semifinals and they're just crossing their fingers for that to happen. Is that what it is?"

Well, no. Speaking as someone who enjoys the drama and unpredictability of the men's tournament - and who naturally roots for the team in visitors' uniforms in every game - it would be a better story all around if Connecticut, Tennessee, and a handful of other programs weren't so dominant.

For the short term, maybe it's better for TV ratings if those steady draws are in the Final Four. But for the women's game to grow the way everyone from McCallie to Geno Auriemma to Pat Summitt to Doris Burke would prefer, some parity and dramatics would be much better. It is better for everyone not wearing Volunteers orange that Notre Dame will take Tennessee's place in the Final Four next week.

McCallie's point seemed to be that VCU is a "natural" story rather than the contrived Auriemma-Summitt rivalry (which is tired and maybe dated, but hardly contrived). Her argument would be better if her team hadn't fallen apart.

"Frankly," McCallie said, "offensively, we were just horrible."

It's simple. If McCallie wants to change the way the women's game is perceived and covered, beat Goliath. The gentleman who coaches the men at her school seems to do OK with the resources at his disposal.

But there is no men's coach who could dominate the way Auriemma does in the women's game, just as no men's coach will ever dominate the way John Wooden once did at UCLA. The sport has evolved too much. There is too much money being spread around to too many conferences.

Auriemma is a great coach with the advantage of a huge head start on all but one or two of his peers. He has built a women's program that is as self-perpetuating now as the best men's programs - Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, and, yes, UConn among them. Kerry Bascom to Rebecca Lobo to Kara Walters to Shea Ralph to Sue Bird to Diana Taurasi to Moore makes for a pretty strong lineage.

When Auriemma coaches the U.S. women next year in the London Olympics, the team easily could win a gold medal with only UConn alums.

"They all had it," Auriemma said. "Maya hides it. Diana showed it every day. They believe they're the best player on the court."

Because they all were. That lineage allowed Auriemma to top Summitt in recent years. Stunningly, the current UConn seniors have never played Tennessee.

"I can't say I missed it," Moore said, "because I was never part of that basketball history."

So it was almost inevitable UConn would cruise past a 32-win Duke team and return to the Final Four. If it is surprising Tennessee won't be there for the reunion, well, that's a different story. It's also a better story.


Follow columnist Phil Sheridan on Twitter at twitter.com/SheridanScribe.

Read his blog at http:// go.philly.com/philabuster or his recent columns at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.

 

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