April 8 - Don't Forget About the Women
Another year of March Madness has passed us by, and as we are all left silently weeping over the
damaged wreck that is our brackets, a champion is still dancing for the first time.
I am, of course, not referring to North Carolina, as they added to their basketball program's storied
tradition by defeating what was thought to be the best team in the tournament, and essentially became
Big 10 champions in the process (beating Wisconsin, Michigan State and Illinois in succession).
The team to which I refer is the Baylor Bears, who earned the title this past Tuesday in Indianapolis.
I learned a lot while watching this tourney, and now that the last strand of net has been cut down, these
things I know:
Baylor deserved the title. After the sordid mess involving Dave Bliss, Carlton Dotson, and Patrick
Dennehy, the entire athletic community in Waco took a hit from which many lesser programs may never
have recovered -- a recovery made all the more difficult by the fact that Baylor has never been perceived
to be a national power in any sport. The run made by this team brought forth a lot of healing to the
Baylor campus, and while their play on the court was truly deserving of the crown, the strength and
professionalism with which this team handled its business made it a true champion, irrespective of
outcome. Coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson became the first coach to win a women's title as both a player
and a coach, and the entire university again has a reason to smile. Conversely...
Michigan State was outclassed. I became really worried about Michigan State on Sunday night. I
honestly figured them to be beaten at that point. It was not because of their play, as they had just
completed a remarkable victory over Tennessee, but because of their reaction to that victory. Shortly
after the win, ESPN cut to their locker room, and they were all dancing around, doing what looked to be
choreographed routines, and even the coach was dancing. Guys, you beat Tennessee, which is nice,
and you defeated unquestionably the top coach in the history of the women's game, which is equally as
nice, but all that earned you was another peg up the bracket. Michigan State was taken out of the game
early, and the inside game on which they so heavily relied with Kelli Roehrig and Liz Shimek was
rendered impotent as Baylor went on to an 84-62 hammering of the Spartans en route to the title.
Women's college basketball needs a "star". Gone are the days of Diana Taurasi, Jackie Stiles, Alana
Beard, and Chamique Holdsclaw. What is left are a myriad of good names -- even some great ones --
but no real linchpin. You probably noticed during ESPN's ad campaign for the tourney that they showed
a lot of shots of teams (LSU, Tennessee, et al), but they never focused on a particular player. In order for
women's basketball to truly earn the place they so desire, they need a player with strong shoulders and
stronger skills, like the ones mentioned above.
While we're speaking of ESPN...
ESPN could stand some work on their telecasts. While there were some impressive moments (Ron
Franklin and Nancy Lieberman, particularly, made a strong impression), there were a number of faults.
As with the men's game, the number of "fluff" pieces was far too high. I saw the piece on Kristen
Haynie's intestinal ailments at least twice during the tournament. While the distance she has come is
impressive, and her struggle daunting, there is no need to re-run the piece. Reairing "soft" pieces
smacks of a lack of original content and game analysis, and it makes ESPN look bad. Of course, with
the team of Rece Davis (serving more as a facilitator than anything else), Lisa Leslie (who is highly
overmatched as an analyst), and Stacey Dales-Schuman (probably the best of the three, which doesn't
say a whole lot), making ESPN look bad was not as much of a chore as one would hope. Also, ESPN
should really look at reairing the 2004 US Poker Championship for the 2732nd time, or maybe another
bowling tournament if their podium team can't come any stronger than that before the biggest game in
the women's season.
The gap between the perceived "haves" and "have-nots" is narrowing. Perhaps this is the direct
result of the lack of a "star" as previously mentioned, but, as in the male game, the difference between a
5 seed and a 12 seed is thinner than attendance at a Detroit Tigers game. We saw this year with the
Katie Feenstra-led Liberty team (who made it to the Sweet 16 as a 13 seed before being whipped by
LSU) and Stephany Smith's Middle Tennessee team, who last year defeated #4 North Carolina in South
Bend and this year defeated #5 NC State in Dallas behind the play of Patrice Holmes and others, that
the so-called "second-tier" conferences are as capable as ever of playing with -- and beating -- anyone
from the "power" conferences. Perhaps the much-ballyhooed parity on the men's side has drifted to the
women's side, as well.
The women's game has made dramatic strides in years past, but many figurative miles are left to travel
before they can sleep. Good things are on the horizon for the women's game, and let's hope those
things are realized sooner than later.