Thursday, July 29, 2010

Checking in on the 2010 Women's NCAA Tourney Elite Eight

From True/Slant on March 29, 2010:

Women’s NCAA Tourney Elite 8 Upon Us

In a statistic that seems patently impossible, UConn’s Maya Moore is hitting 71% of her shots from 3-point range in the tournament. Outrageous. With Moore on another planet and the magnificence that is Tina Charles, playing UConn right now must be a little like standing in the eye of a hurricane for 40 minutes. While I do not believe that any team is utterly invulnerable, let’s just say the Huskies have parked their team bus right next to unbeatable and walked over.

Meanwhile, the only other team to roll through the first three rounds with ease is Stanford, which makes it seem more and more likely that the two behemoths are on a collision course. I don’t mean to diminish the other teams by stating that. Xavier junior center Ta’Shia Phillips put on an eye-opening performance with a big-time double-double in their win over Gonzaga; Florida State gutted out a tough win against a very good Mississippi State team; I could write tomes about Oklahoma’s depth and Kentucky’s speed; and even more about Baylor and Duke (below). But I really have to wonder if any of those teams can keep the big girls on the block from their appointment with destiny?

Over in “The Bracket of Death” ™ (the Memphis region — any region with Tennessee, Baylor, Duke, WVU, and LSU must be considered a veritable charnel house), Baylor took down the mighty Vols of Tennessee. Brittney Griner was, quite simply, a force of nature. She played every minute of that game and dropped 27 points on Tennessee, but her real impact was her 10 blocked shots. Every time Tennessee got a look they wanted, Griner swatted the ball into the third row. It must be really frustrating to work so hard to create offensive opportunities, simply to have them literally smacked down.

So Baylor moves on in the Bracket of Death to face Duke tonight, a match-up I am really looking forward to as much for the players as for the coaches.

Baylor coach, Kim Mulkey, dresses like Tanya Tucker and struts and fist pumps and jumps around like Jerry Lee Lewis, so I can see where Mulkey might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I must admit, I love it. I just get a kick out of a coach who is as much of a cheerleader as the teams most rabid fan — hell, I think she’d wear face paint if Baylor’s AD would let her. Mulkey’s emotions are right on the edge, barely under the surface; she got misty while the Tennessee game was in live action and a bit more misty during her post-game presser. If she doesn’t genuinely care about her players, then she deserves an Oscar.

Mulkey already has a national championship under her belt, one that Baylor won by beating Michigan State in the final in 2005. The coach at Michigan State that year? Another coach I love to watch — Joanne P. McCallie, now coach of the Duke Blue Devils. McCallie is just lovable. Maybe she because she looks like somebody I could be related to or have been pals with in college, but I have a soft spot for McCallie. (A friend who works in television production was working the women’s tourney in 2005. He did the final between Baylor and Mich. State, so he spent a lot of time around both teams. He raved about McCallie, confirming that while I am often full of it, in this particular case, my instincts were dead-on accurate.)

While I’m on the subject of coaches, after their Sweet Sixteen victory, Huskies coach Geno Auriemma had no criticisms of his team (many in the Storrs area collapsed from shock), but cousin Geno being cousin Geno, he had to stir the pot a bit, so he commented on the Tennessee loss to Baylor the day before by saying that he was glad that a UConn-Tennessee meeting in the Final Four was off the table, not because he doesn’t want to play Tennessee, but because it would inevitably become the “Pat & Geno” show. He felt that would be unfair to the other teams, the players themselves and that the Final Four is, or should be, larger than just two coaches.

I want to go on record as saying that I’ll miss seeing Her High Holiness The Summitt, not because I want to see “Pat & Geno ™” necessarily, but because she’s a coach I really enjoy watching. I love the Summitt Death Stare and if you’ve ever watched even a single LadyVols game, you know what I mean. So, I’ll miss Summitt. (For that matter, I’m bummed that Rutgers went out in the first round because I love watching C. Vivian Stringer, too. I guess you can’t have everything, right?)

While I agree with Auriemma in that the tournament should be about more than just two coaches, everybody wants to see UConn-Tennessee (even Jere Longman at the NYT.) Oklahoma’s Sherri Coale, Stanford’s Tara Vanderveer, and the above mentioned Mulkey and McCallie are not exactly pikers, but at the end of the day, Summitt and Auriemma remain the faces of women’s college basketball as much as Maya Moore and Jane Appel are. The game needs Summitt and Auriemma.

It needs their larger than life personalities. It needs the sustained excellence of both programs, the instantly recognizable Tennessee orange and the passion of the UConn fans.

It needs their genuine antipathy for each other.

Heck, I’m going to watch the games anyway, regardless of the presence or absence of Summitt and Auriemma, Coales and Vanderveer. But we’re not talking about me. Even to the biggest women’s sports neophyte, the names Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma are known quantities, brands as people are fond of saying these days. So if the sport is to continue to grow, it needs Maya Moore and Britney Griner, but it also needs the Pat & Geno show.

I know that cousin Geno and Her High Holiness The Summitt see eye to eye about as often as Lindsey Graham and Charles Schumer do, but I think they both care about the game. So it really is time to have a come to Jesus meeting and re-ignite the regular season Tennessee-UConn rivalry.

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