Tennessee's the Choice, but It's Not Automatic
The 2004-05 women's college basketball season has a tough act to follow.
A very deep senior class, lifted the sport to new heights in skill and athleticism last season, which culminated in a widely watched NCAA tournament.
The three games of the women's Final Four were the most watched and highest-rated of their kind in ESPN history. The championship game was the most viewed college basketball game — men or women — broadcast by the cable network. (ESPN is in an estimated 89 million homes. The championship game averaged 3.8 million viewers, with a 4.3 rating.)
And now … what?
To keep its profile high, the women's game needs to continue pushing toward parity, which is possible because the talent pool has deepened with a generation of players getting some of the advantages their male counterparts enjoy, from competitive traveling teams to improved coaching and physical training.
"The one thing that stands out to me after seven years is how many good payers are out there," said Auburn Coach Nell Fortner, who is back in college basketball this season after working as a WNBA coach with Indiana, and as a television analyst.
"When I left in 1997, I'd see 30 coaches at a game watching two players. Now we're watching every player on the floor. I'm shocked at the amount of talent in the country, coast to coast. There is plenty to go around. There will be players with no accolades who are very good. From my perspective, parity is going to hit hard in next four years."
And despite the 2004 championship game being yet another installment of the Connecticut-Tennessee feud — Connecticut won again, joining Tennessee as the only teams to win three consecutive titles — Minnesota and Louisiana State brought new faces to the Final Four and performed well in semifinal losses.
"That is also indicative of an approaching parity," Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt said. "You look at [the tournament] and saw all these close games. Our last three games we played before the championship game we won by a total of six points.
"I think it speaks to a competitive environment in the women's game that the men's game has enjoyed for years."
There were also a couple of mid-major breakthroughs in the tournament. Santa Barbara, seeded 11th, upset Colorado and Houston to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time.
Santa Barbara Coach Mark French expects other mid-major breakthroughs this season, even if his team isn't among them. He's also not counting out his Gauchos.
"We learned a lot last year on how to handle expectations," French said. "I think that was as valuable as anything else for us. We always talk about what it takes to get to the Sweet 16. Well, we didn't know what it took.
"Now we know some things about ourselves. And I think there is a real excitement to replicate that feeling. When we walked off the court after giving UConn a battle, we felt, 'We can do this.' … That's good for the game."
Don't think the top programs haven't taken notice. Summitt and her staff went out and signed their best freshmen class in several years — one that has been rated best in the nation. Others making recruiting coups included Connecticut, Stanford, Purdue and Oklahoma.
Although there are no magic names such as Diana Taurasi and Alana Beard, there are some key returning players. LSU junior guard Seimone Augustus is expected to be on many national-player-of-the-year ballots by March. Minnesota senior center Janel McCarville is the odds-on favorite to be the top pick in next year's WNBA draft.
DePaul's Khara Smith, Notre Dame's Jacqueline Batteast, Kansas State's Kendra Wecker, Utah's Kim Smith, Duke's Monique Currie and Texas' Tiffany Jackson are some of the other top players.
That may keep the status quo intact.
Tennessee starts the season ranked No. 1, even though two prized freshmen are injured and may not play. The Lady Vols, who last won a national championship in 1998, expected to be pressed by Connecticut, Texas and LSU.
Other potential Final Four party crashers include Georgia, Stanford, Duke, North Carolina, Ohio State and Notre Dame. Also poised to make national noise are Baylor, Purdue, Michigan State, Boston College, Arizona and DePaul.
Summit said she's not surprised her team is starting at the head of the pack based on the number of players Tennessee has back, its freshman class and the return of senior guard Loree Moore from an injury.
But Summitt adds: "Right now, No. 1 is just a number."