By Jeffrey Newholm
Dicky V lamented Tuesday that college basketball keeps getting pushed back earlier. It’s too tough going against football, he claims. Well, my argument is tough toenails if you’re a TRUE basketball fan! Especially for the finesse-based, fairly hyped and all-around superior women’s college game. In fact, while some lame writers can only select one ladies game in a list of top 50 I can quickly give ten subjects to watch in a surprisingly competitive field. The top teams are already sprinting and dominating, so there’s no time to waste: read on!
10. Bear Redemption
Nothing’s worse than finally getting to the late playoff rounds, having enough talent to return, and continuingly losing. When Baylor finished 40-0 in their charmed 2012 season, none would have thought six straight regional losses would follow. While it’s granted the Bears love to devour cupcakes, they started in impressive fashion by scoring the first 24 points and Nicholls State. But will it be enough to convince fans? By now they may listen to Einstein, who opined “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”.
9. Sabrina Ionescu, the triple-double machine
Some players who may want a different result is Oregon opponents. Despite losing four players to transfers, the Ducks are preseason #3. They’re led by Junior MVP candidate Sabrina Ionescu, who recorded her tenth triple-double Tuesday. That’s pretty close to the record. Actually, she already set it last year. Disappointment in the Elite Eight finished the previous two years, so claiming a top seed is of a high priority this time.
8. Reaching deeper into the cupboard
South Carolina and Mississippi State are the top teams in the tough SEC (it’s not all football, actually). But USC lost WNBA rookie of the year A’Ja Wilson and the Bulldogs watched their core walk off the stage as well. Fans can’t stand “rebuilding” years, as this Wisconsinite can attest with UW. USC’s Dawn Staley and State’s Vic Schaefer must figure success out quickly or earn the dreaded label of “flash in the pan”.
7. Benefits of Volunteerism
Quick-name the top two all-time women’s programs. Uconn and Tennessee, right? You didn’t need a Ph.D. to figure that one out! Sadly, the Vols haven’t reached the Final Four since 2008 and the huge fanbase is rather cranky. Some angry fans even called for the firing of Holly Warlick, Pat Summitt’s successor! The horror! Thankfully, she signed a contract extension. All the same, it would be great for the game if Tennessee could at least challenge for the Final Four, just in time for their Uconn rivalry to resume next season.
6. Big year for Big Ten?
Teams may actually care about winning a conference, but experienced fans may not. The tournament committee often doesn’t put much emphasis on the feat either. However, the football and men’s basketball-crazed Big Ten has some work to do to establish women’s relevancy, if this is the desired goal. Ohio State lost its top six scorers and dropped the opener 47-71 to merely good South Florida. Maryland cycled down last year after several strong years of contention. With Iowa the second and final top 25 team, new teams must emerge to bring the league respectability.
5. Reclamation of respect for Big East/American
One of the biggest realignments in college basketball came when the Big East abandoned the teams left over in the American. In men’s basketball, the Big East is still a power and the American a mid-major conference. In women’s, DePaul and Marquette are the best of the Big East, with a gaggle of mediocrity lagging behind. But if those two teams succeed in the tournament it would give the group some name recognition. The American has a Uconn team which still hasn’t lost a conference game in five years. While this may seem unfair, ESPNW’s Charlie Creme argued the Huskies have set a higher bar of success that has improved the other teams. Is South Florida or UCF ready to kill the beast, or is the road still made of candy for the dogs?
4. Mid-major mania
There tends to be a huge difference between the haves and have-nots in the women’s game. But finally, there’s a handful of smaller programs who have the ability for a Sweet 16 run or further. The MAC sent Buffalo and Central Michigan to the second weekend. Florida Gulf Coast dominates the Atlantic Sun and is more than capable of beating a tired power. And Green Bay has won their conference a record 20 years in a row, although they have difficulties in March. The women’s game could use some more depth and no better way to create it than a Cinderella run.
3. Lindsay Whalen’s Gopher project
Has nothing to do with Caddyshack, thank you! Rather, former Minnesota and WNBA great immediately steps from the court to the bench. Tickets sold in a blink for the previously middling school, which could use some pizazz. Forget Richard Pitino, Whalen is the true basketball star of the land of 10,000 lakes. (Hopefully, Jimmy Butler doesn’t count).
2. Huskies flying under the radar
OK, dogs can’t actually fly. But of all my years following hoops, this is the least I’ve heard from the beasts of the east. Ionescu and Notre Dame hog all the headline while Geno gripes the team stinks. This may be good as the program can relax a bit and other fans can recover from HFS-husky fatigue syndrome. But three weeks in March could, as before, rebuild the fever.
1. Notre Dame dynasty?
Arike Ogunbowale’s iconic shots (two, even!) in Columbus made her famous and rekindled enthusiasm for the long also-ran school. With four injured players returning there’s no doubt the Irish are the sole championship favorites. Still, the previous anti-UConn hero, Morgan William, prophetically told SI “the future never works out as we plan”. It’s easy to fantasize about another parade, and it’s the most likely scenario. Will the snakebitten Irishwomen reclaim the garden of serenity, or will the reptile of disappointment bite again?
While football cloys yet again with way too many commercial and Sunday eye strain, five months of college ball provide a healthy portion of excitement. Fans can sample great games here and there and devour March amazingness. Need we cry when it’s over? Of course not, because a week after the Final Four, the top players will be proudly presented at the draft. And the more fans put into college’s best sport, the prouder they’ll be of their heroes.