Women's Final Four all No. 1 seeds
Tennessee on the way out
With an eye on the past, but its gaze overwhelmingly focused on the future, women's college basketball set up a historic Final Four earlier this week.
On Monday, the Baylor Bears dispatched the Tennessee Lady Vols and legendary coach Pat Summitt. Prior to that, the Stanford Cardinal did away with No. 2 seed Duke. On Tuesday, the University of Connecticut got the ball rolling again for the 1 seeds, and Notre Dame finished off the excitement against Maryland. Over the course of four games in two nights —hardly in one fell swoop, but still in a pretty decisive manner—all four No. 1 seeds confirmed their reservations for the women's NCAA Final Four in Denver. This marks only the second time in the history of the women's tournament when this has happened—the other occurring back in 1989.
Stanford got the sweep started, carried by its senior Nnemkadi Ogwumike. Ogwumike's been in this position before, as she's made the Final Four in each of her four years with the Cardinal, having been beat by UConn twice and losing to eventual champ Texas A&M last year. Stanford, in fact, made the Final Four before Ogwumike arrived, which makes this its fifth in a row. Coach Tara VanDerveer has done an amazing job getting this school back up to lofty standards, but they've been posited with the unfortunate problem of playing Baylor on Sunday night.
If there's a standout amongst the four top seeds, it's got to be the Baylor Bears. Brittney Griner may be getting the most publicity for her in-game dunks, but there's no doubt that her defense in the true highlight. In the NCAAs, she's flirted with triple doubles, especially against Tennessee. However, the Bears' ascension means that something has to be left behind, and this year, the Tennessee Lady Vols will not be a part of the Final Four for the fourth year in a row. To put this in perspective, to find the last time Pat Summitt's team didn't make the Final Four two years in a row, we have to stretch back to 1993 and 1994. While Summitt's future is up in the air, it appears as though it's no longer a foregone conclusion that Tennessee and UConn will run women's basketball—and the sport is all the better for it.
Despite the Lady Vols being sidelined, the old guard will be well-represented by the University of Connecticut and its Huskies. Coach Geno Auriemma matches Stanford's accomplishment by making his fifth Final Four in a row, but he won't be satisfied with making just that; UConn has won seven previous national titles—and three in a row at one point—so it'll be geared up to play against Notre Dame. Coach Auriemma has even admitted that after losing Maya Moore last year, he wasn't sure what kind of team this was going to be, or how deep of a run they could make. As usual, though, the Huskies have come through with a dominant regular season and a stifling defense. UConn lost only four times in the regular season. Two of those losses, however, came at the hands of Notre Dame.
The relative newcomer of the group finished things up on Tuesday night by unleashing a beating on Maryland. The Irish, who were national runners-up last year, getting edged in the title game by Texas A&M, have only won the national title once and have only been to the Final Four once besides that. To couch these accomplishments in terms such as "only won the national title once before" shows what a decorated group of teams are about to converge on Denver. The great guard play of Notre Dame starts with Skylar Diggins, but extends to the rest of the team, too, comprising one of the deepest teams in the field.
When the games begin on Sunday in this ridiculously talented women's field, anyone who's watching will see some of the finest basketball that will be played that weekend. And when a new champion is crowned on Tuesday, it will have long-lasting ramifications for the game—no matter which No. 1 it is.
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UConn defeated Butler last night to win the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament in probably the worst game I’ve ever seen.
Unlike the men's tournament—where we have, perhaps, the most unlikely Final Four of all time—the women's tournament has all the regal airs of a coronation. Will the University of Connecticut continue their otherworldly dominance? Will they meet up with Stanford—a team that many have claimed is actually the best in the country even as UConn was winning a record amount of games? Or will the (semi-)underdogs have a chance? Notre Dame's Fighting Irish took out the Tennessee Volunteers on Monday night ending Pat Summitt's revenge-quest on Geno and his UConn Huskies. The Fighting Irish are ranked as a No. 2 seed so it's not like people were taking them for granted. But, usually, when the path goes through Tennessee, that's where the path ends. Finally, on Tuesday night the second-seeded Texas A&M Aggies dismantled the Baylor Bears. Brittney Griner is one of the most exciting players in women's basketball—if only for pure spectacle—but she and her team were completely destroyed by A&M.
With all the fuss on Stanford and UConn's potential rematch —you might recall that they've played once this season already—there's a lot missing from the conversation about the contenders that will vie to keep them from that game.
On the one hand, Notre Dame enters their matchup with UConn with some nice momentum. UConn cruised past Duke, where the Fighting Irish had to scrap to get past the specter of Tennessee. (Notre Dame entered the game against the Vols with a lifetime record of 0-20 against Tennessee.) Also, there's a pesky knee injury that might be troubling Maya Moore.
On the other hand, Texas A&M seems ready and willing to take the fight to anyone. As they demonstrated against 6' 8" Brittney Griner, they're not in the NCAA Tournament bowing to any team, and that includes Stanford. Stanford roughed up the highest-scoring team in the nation in their Elite Eight matchup with Gonzaga— holding them to only 60 points in a game where the Lady Zags scored 38 in the first half.
The Final Four games begin on Sunday. Texas A&M will try to play the spoiler for Stanford at 5 p.m. MST on ESPN and then Notre Dame will attempt to deny Geno Auriemma's ladies their chance at the title game. Two teams will be vanquished and it's likely the No. 1 seed titans will play each other on Tuesday night for all the marbles. That game promises to be one of the best seen in a long, long time—as long as neither of those pesky 2 seeds decide they have something to say about it.
Women play the game, too
Talking about the women's NCAA Tournament is impossible without starting in Storrs, Connecticut. First of all, the accomplishments of the University of Connecticut's women's basketball team have been well-documented. And they should continue to be so, rolling through all challengers as the UConn women are. UConn accomplished something this season that will likely never be matched—although people probably said that about the UCLA record they broke. The UConn women continue to maul opponent after opponent on their seemingly inevitable march toward another NCAA Championship.
The women's bracket doesn't get as much attention as the men's for several reasons. The debate over the lack of attention could span several day's worth of arguments so let's summarize it by saying it's unfair and it's unfortunate. It's also an inevitability in this day and age, and at this point in the sport. (Women's basketball, as a profession, has been around significantly less time than men's. This is a fact. Sports take time to catch on no matter how much the teams are pushed by marketers or feminists.) But if we move past the lack of attention and the criticism that some level at the game, we have the chance to see some exciting basketball.
There have been exciting games played at The Pit. There have been first-time records for the sport set by exciting contemporary players. (For what it's worth, look at Gonzaga getting to play in Spokane for a great example of how the NCAA should be rewarding certain teams. Dragging UNC and UK all the way out here to the desert made for some good hoops, but might not have been a great reward for those teams.)
The sport is picking up and the time seems right. For the casual fan, the UConn Huskies are perfect to root for: they are fun, they win all the time and you can talk to practically anyone about them. In these aspects, they're a bit like the Chicago Bulls of the '90s—super easy for the casual sports fan to get into but they'll probably be looked back at as a bit of a bully. Meanwhile, Gonzaga will continue playing the Cinderella role, albeit in the women's game. All of the women's tournament games are broadcast on ESPN or ESPN2. Tune in and give the game a chance as women's basketball reaches its highest peak. It's hard to be disappointed by athletes playing the game at this high a level.