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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Women's Game Is in Dire Need of Parity

April 02, 2006|Michael Wilbon | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Not only was it a good thing Tennessee and Connecticut lost in the regional finals of the women's NCAA tournament Tuesday night, it was necessary.

Don't get me wrong, Connecticut has had the most successful program in the country the last few years, winning three of the last four NCAA championships. Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is the single most significant person in the history of women's basketball. And the most important player in the game, very likely, is Candace Parker of Tennessee, as charismatic a young woman as you'll ever meet. Parker is a marketing dream -- if she played tennis, she'd be Maria Sharapova; and if she played golf, she'd be Michelle Wie.

Nonetheless, it's best for women's college basketball that the Final Four be conducted for the first time since 1999 without Tennessee and Connecticut. If this game is going to grow in popularity, it will have to ride without training wheels, which is what the Volunteers and Huskies have been, together or separately, for the last 20 years. Any sport entirely dependent on one or two teams is going to be limited in its mass appeal.

The semifinal round, to be played in Boston tonight, isn't going to suffer from a lack of story lines. The first semifinal, Maryland versus North Carolina, is irresistible. North Carolina may have already avenged its only loss by beating Maryland in the ACC tournament a few weeks ago. But Maryland's overtime victory in Chapel Hill on a three-pointer as time expired gives the matchup just the kind of history that gives a third game a sense of theater.

In the other semifinal, we get to see two of the five best players in women's college basketball, Louisiana State's Seimone Augustus and Duke's Monique Currie. And they'll be leading teams that in recent years have gotten to the Final Four but haven't been able to win. No doubt, Summitt and UConn's Geno Auriemma are on the Mt. Rushmore of women's hoops coaches, but LSU's Pokey Chapman and Duke Coach G (OK, make me spell Gail Goestenkors; does Duke not hire any coaches named Smith or Jones?) are among the best.

The ratings may decline a bit, but so what? If the goal of women's college basketball is to simply hold on to the audience it has, then the tournament should aspire only to Tennessee versus Connecticut. But the game ought to be more ambitious than that.

John Wooden and UCLA certainly set the bar for the men's game. But the most popular game ever didn't involve UCLA. It came in 1979, Magic and Michigan State versus Bird and Indiana State. The second-most-watched game was Georgetown versus Villanova, 1985. Interest grows as the talent spreads.

My friend Kara Lawson played for Summitt at Tennessee and went to three Final Fours. Now she plays for the Sacramento Monarchs of the WNBA. She's an ESPN analyst for this NCAA tournament. She also works in the studio as an analyst on Sacramento King games. Lawson loves her school, but she also loves her sport enough to know it can't grow if every Final Four boils down to UConn and Tennessee.

"I played with the seniors at Tennessee," she said on the phone Wednesday night. "Of course, I wanted Tennessee to win. But if you're asking me whether I think it might have been good for the game to have somebody other than Tennessee and Uconn, yes, I think it is.

"If we're looking for the game to have a wider attraction, you must have other programs be successful and you must have big-time kids play at other programs."

While three ACC schools in the Final Four might be a little too geographically concentrated, the turnaround of the Maryland program certainly helps the tournament.

Lawson points out that six of Maryland's top seven scorers are underclassmen. Two of the Terrapins' best players are freshmen, Marissa Coleman and Kristi Toliver.

Folks who feel this year's men's NCAA tournament is one of the best point to the depth of the field, the No. 12 seeded teams that appear to be nearly as talented as No. 5 seeded teams. They point to the upsets in the men's game, such as George Mason beating Michigan State, North Carolina and UConn.

Lawson grew up in Northern Virginia and stopped the talk of women's basketball for a moment to say: "How great is George Mason? West Springfield is only about 10 minutes from campus. I'm so excited about what Mason is doing. But if you look at the women's game, we've got three No. 1 seeds and a No. 2in the Final Four. We finally had a No. 1 seed, Ohio State, out early ... and that's the first time since 1998. The No. 12 and No. 13 seeds are a lot better. I don't know how often we're going to see a double-digit seed [George Mason is No. 11] advance all the way to the Final Four in the women's tournament. For that matter, I don't know how often it's going to happen on the men's side.

"Would having something like that help women's basketball? Probably, yes, because in the consumer's eyes it would legitimize us more. Unpredictability can have that effect."

Great performances, whether they come from Tennessee's Parker dunking twice in a game or Connecticut's Barbara Turner admirably trying to play on cramping legs, need to come from every corner of the country if the women's tournament is going to have a truly national feel and be something more than an invitational, where the same few teams get together year after year to decide the championship. Summitt and Auriemma are the pillars on which women's college basketball has rested for years. It's time for everybody else to do some of the heavy lifting.

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