April 10, 2010

Some final thoughts on the Final Four

Filed under: Wendy Parker — Tags: — wendyp @ 1:35 pm

Another college season is in the books, with a strange, and unexpected, bit of suspense in the national championship game, and right behind it another WNBA draft.

It’s taken me a few days since returning from San Antonio to sort out the Final Four that just transpired, some larger thoughts on the college game that is being gradually swallowed up by UConn and related topics that affect where the sport is headed, and how it is being perceived in the larger public.

It was exactly 20 years ago this year that I first attended a Women’s Final Four, in 1990 in Knoxville, when it was promising to break out into the mainstream. It did, to a degree, with more than 20,000 people watching Stanford win its first NCAA championship.

The Final Four needed a few more years to evolve into event status, complete with regular sellouts and dressed-up television coverage. While it is here to stay — more than 25,000 turned out for the national semifinals at the Alamodome — I see the women’s college game moving into a very important crossroads over the next few years.

• The first concern is the overall competitive balance at the top of the sport, which is not a new subject here. But increasingly it is being noticed by the mainstream media as it chronicled UConn’s drive for another NCAA title, and a second consecutive undefeated season in the process.

For weeks I’ve gotten a kick out of the “drive-by” writers and columnists who opine on a sport they never watch. But when it is unveiled on its biggest stage, and when the two best teams all season long manage only 100 points between them, that’s not a good showcase at all. ESPN might be happy with its ratings and the drama the game provided, but this is the one game casual fans are likely to watch.

The larger issue is, of course, whether anyone can reach the standard UConn has set in recent years. The Huskies are just one title away from tying Tennessee’s record of eight national championships, and with Maya Moore back for her senior season, who’s going to bet against that?

While Moore might have to carry UConn like Diana Taurasi did her last two seasons, the winning streak — now at 78 games — can’t possibly continue deep into next season. Can it? With Baylor, Duke, North Carolina, Stanford, Ohio State, Florida State and Oklahoma all on the schedule? You have to wonder if Geno Auriemma put this gauntlet together as much to end a streak he’s sick of talking about — and don’t even mention UCLA’s 88 wins in a row around him — as to challenge a team that will have a very different look:

“If we’re still undefeated next year at the end of December, then you know what? I’m not going to come back afterward. It will be pointless. I will just lose all respect for everybody coaching college basketball in this country.”

This is the surreal world he’s created, and it has become almost impenetrable for even his closest peers to crack. While UConn’s brilliance is to be admired, the fact that they can play so badly in the title game — with 12 first-half points, a school-record low — and still win going away reveals the extension of the gap (mostly psychological) between the Huskies and everyone else.

Those opponents that I listed above — plus the likes of Tennessee — have every chance next season to make this sport very competitive, instead of letting UConn continue to make a mockery of the sport.

Because that is what is happening here. With so many schools doing well on the recruiting trail and attaching serious ambitions to their women’s hoops programs, the game should not be this one-sided. I go back and forth on this topic, at times realizing that parity may take more years to develop, then I get impatient when I see so much talent being squandered at other places.

Right now I’m in the latter camp, especially as I see what should be a wide-open season next year and wonder if UConn will slam the door shut again. And if not next year, as Clay Kallam points out, when?

“But the truth is this burst of brilliance is not reproducible just by hard work or slavish imitation. It is the product of a particular landscape occupied by a particular school and run by a particular individual – and the only way the Huskies will fall from their place atop the pedestal is when Auriemma loses interest and/or retires.

“Consider that UConn is bringing in another elite recruiting class. Consider that the girl who many consider to be the best player in the country, Mater Dei (California) junior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, has already committed to Auriemma. And consider that the girls out there who want to win national championships know where they want to go, even if it’s 3,000 miles away.”

• The non-sports media’s fascination with Brittney Griner took a bizarre turn during the Final Four when The New York Times’ fashion writer hailed the 6-foot-8 Baylor freshman as the ideal of a new kind of feminine beauty. While some fashion experts were asked their thoughts, the gender studies tribe also was given the floor to chime in with its absurd ideology. Such as:

“Brittney Griner is such an athlete, and so gifted, you almost don’t notice that she is part of a slowly unfolding, civilized response in this country to the slightly androgynous female. She calls our attention to the unnecessary rigidity of sex roles and makes a number of feminist points along the way.”

I’m sure Griner — and Baylor — would have preferred it if she had made a few more basketball points in their Final Four game against UConn.

Civilized response? Slightly androgynous? Does anybody truly think that Griner’s even begun to confront the scrutiny that’s bound to come her way? Are they reading what the male-dominated, hot dog-chomping sports press is saying about UConn’s dominance and the joke they assert is women’s basketball?

This one piece about a mere teenager as a symbol of a certain kind of a human being might be just the beginning of a litany of rather grotesque treatment headed Griner’s way. Just ask Caster Semenya.

But Griner is not walking down runways in New York, Paris and Milan. For the next three years she’ll be walking across a socially conservative campus in Waco, Texas. I hope she and those who surround her are prepared for the attention to come. It will make the media’s reaction to her punching out an opponent seem like kids’ play.

As Slate’s Hanna Rosin observed while watching the Final Four with her daughter, Griner will not help women’s hoops with what she calls its “feminine dilemma:”

“As a star, she registers less as the perfection of the norm than as totally aberrant. Around the other women players she looks like a different species, with her endless limbs and her high center of gravity. This might be because she’s a freshman and not yet in total control of her body, or it might be because she is just unusual. The NCAA, and later the WNBA, may succeed in bringing fans out to see her. What they will never know is if it’s amazing skill the fans are coming to see, or a freakish one-off.”

• Here are my quickie Top 10 2010-11 preseason picks, not that anybody asked: 1. Baylor; 2. Tennessee; 3. UConn; 4. Stanford; 5. Xavier; 6. Ohio State; 7. Texas A & M; 8. Duke; 9. Kentucky; 10. Oklahoma. Michelle Smith of FanHouse has her own list, with a lot of the same names but in a different order. Call ‘em wish lists, if you will, wishin’ and hopin’ and prayin’ that there might be some more real suspense involved on the road to Indianapolis and Conseco Fieldhouse, the site of next year’s Final Four.

It’s a shame that the doors of “parity” might be opened only by UConn dropping down a notch or two. If the Huskies don’t slip, then I have no idea what the hell to write this time next year.

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