DENVER — One of the most refreshing storylines about this Women’s Final Four is the fact that for the first time since 1989, all No. 1 seeds have advanced.
In a sport where the handwringing over the lack of parity is an abiding concern, should “chalk” be applauded?
Absolutely, because of the star power that Baylor, UConn, Notre Dame and Stanford bring: The talent on the court, coaching wizardry and personality on the sidelines and the brand names of their programs.
Yet novelty abounds despite the dominance and familiarity. In the first game tonight, there’s the fourth Big East meeting of the year between Notre Dame and UConn. The Irish are 2-1 in head-to-head meetings but los the Big East Tournament final to a Huskies team that for the first time in years doesn’t feature an All-American.
In the finale, there’s the dunking, game-changing player who is Brittney Griner of Baylor, which would become the first NCAA basketball champion to go 40-0. The Lady Bears will be opposed by Stanford’s sensational sister duo of Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, and coach Tara VanDerveer’s bid for a first NCAA title in 20 years.
While VanDerveer and Muffett McGraw of Notre Dame and VanDerveer are models of coaching probity on the sidelines, contrast that with the sideline operatics and wisecracking of Baylor’s Kim Mulkey and Geno Auriemma of UConn.
Mulkey, diagnosed just this week with Bell’s palsy, has a partially paralyzed face and admits to being blinded by the bright lights and bothered by loud pep band sounds. But as she said during Saturday’s press conference:
“As far as the distortion or whatever you want to call it of the face, hell, I’m just another ugly coach. It is what it is. And I’m not vain, it doesn’t matter.”
A year ago, the sport was basking in the novelty of a new name — Texas A & M — winning the national championship. During this season, great stories coming out of Delaware, St. Bonaventure, Gonzaga and Wisconsin-Green Bay had us wondering if one among them might become the first mid-major to reach the Final Four since Jackie Stiles and Southwest Missouri State in 2001.
While I do wish the women had the early-round upsets that helped build the popularity of the men’s NCAA tournament and March Madness, the sport just isn’t there yet, and it may not be for quite a while.
While we are wonderfully deluded by the desire to have a Butler, a VCU, a George Mason of distaff hoops, the reality is that the more burning desire is for the sport to be showcased as strongly as it can.
This Women’s Final Four has all the ingredients for that to happen.
It has been duly noted that the Kentucky-Kansas men’s final Monday night features the winningest teams in NCAA history. A “titanic battle,” in fact.
Nobody’s complaining about that, nor should anyone.
The same goes for what transpires in the Pepsi Center tonight, and on Tuesday.