Saturday, March 30, 2013

Sixteen Reasons to Watch the Women's Sweet 16

Yup, that's RG III
photo:  Doug Feinberg, AP
Four Behemoths -- Baylor, Notre Dame, UConn and Stanford. Depth has grown by leaps and bounds in women's basketball over the last five years. For my money, the second round games with 32 teams remaining are some of the most entertaining you'll ever see. That said, Baylor, UConn, Notre Dame and Stanford are in their own category of greatness. I can't see any of them losing in this round (I could see Stanford being a bit shaky in the Elite 8 ...), so if you like seeing dynastic teams, if you like watching the monsters of the sport, the Baylor Bears are for you.

Three Seniors -- Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins, Elena Della Donne. I could write pages and pages about these three players. Yeah, I know that ESPN has hammered their "Three to See" to death, but there's a reason these three players are the ones you tune into see. Each is remarkable in her own way. They are all very different players. They all have remarkably different stories. As I do not watch the WNBA, this is my last chance to see them. Thanks for all the fun times, ladies.

photo:  Al Behrman, AP
** Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins is poise re-defined. She seems to have arrived in South Bend that way, poised, graceful, a born media darling. But don't hate Skylar Diggins because she's beautiful. And don't assume that she is all flash and no substance because the twitter-verse and Lil Wayne love her. She is a magnificent player, as competitive as the great Diana Taurasi and as smart as Sue Bird. Diggins is a local kid and so good that Muffet McGraw was courting her when she was still in junior high (who says the women's game isn't catching up to the men's?) She is electric on the court. She can create her own shot or she can create shots for her teammates. And some how, some way, she nearly always finds a way to win.

** Kara Lawson compared her to Dirk Nowitzki, Carolyn Peck compared her to Cheryl Miller. Like Diggins, she was one of the most recruited players in the nation and she ended up at UConn, but left the program and left basketball shortly after arriving. She went home to Delaware and enrolled at Delaware. The rest, as they say is history and according to reports, Delaware's Elena Delle Donne is enjoying basketball more than ever. Maybe it was the program. Maybe she was burned out. Maybe it just wasn't a good fit. Or maybe the kid was simply homesick. Whatever the case, it is a wonderful thing that she found her way back to basketball. There is something about her game that has a throwback quality to it. She is magnificent without being flashy; she averages 26.7 points per game without apparent ego; she has the most complete game I've seen in years. As such, she has a truly unique skill set. She can score inside or outside or shoot from mid-range. She can get her own put backs. She drives the opposition crazy and draws fouls. Bear in mind that is the kiss of death because she is dead accurate from the charity stripe.

photo:  Rick Osentoski, US Presswire
** I was looking back at some of the things I've written about Baylor's Brittney Griner over the years. A few years ago, I wrote that she was closed off, circumspect and very reticent in front of the cameras or with the media. And understandably so. Though she was the best prospect that anybody had seen in years, she was also the subject of vile rumors and innuendo. And that could make a person pretty reluctant to open up and share on a large stage. Also, despite her gifts, she was a very incomplete player. I am happy to say that her years in Waco have been so good for her. She has become a complete player, but she's also become a free player. She is loose and having fun. She dunks. Heck, sometimes she even tweets her dunks -- calling her shot like Babe Ruth. She is still a shot blocking phenom. And when Griner blocks a shot, it is a rocket sent careening into the scorer's table or the 18th row. The Bears feed off that energy. Every time Griner does something amazing the rest of the team rises up around her.

They are a great team and they have a great coach, but there is one reason they are the odd's on favorites to repeat as champs this year and that is Brittney Griner. She put on a show for the Baylor fans in the second round. She elevated her performance for the fans, to whom she seemed genuinely grateful. Those fans supported her from day one. That support has enabled her to excel on the court. It's also made her more fun to watch and for that, the rest of us should be truly grateful, too.

Yup, that's Joe Biden with the Blue Hens
photo:  Mark Campbell, Univ. of Del. Athletics
One Underdog -- Delaware. Just making it to the Sweet Sixteen is an accomplishment for Tina Martin's Blue Hens squad. Anybody who pays the least bit of attention to women's hoops, or, like Leslie Knope, follow the comings and goings of our Vice-President, know about the Blue Hens superstar, Elena Delle Donne. But the Blue Hens didn't make it passed UNC as a one-trick pony. Big contributions from junior Kelsey Buchanan and Trumae Lucas have gotten them this far. They'll need both of those players, as well as Delle Donne, to pull the upset of Kentucky in the round of 16.

One Surprise Stars -- Adrienne Webb, LSU. Before the tourney tipped, I selected LSU's Theresa Plaisance as one of my ten players to watch. I was right to put a Tiger on my list, but I picked the wrong one. Adrienne Webb can do it all and with Plaisance injured and struggling, Webb has carried her team this far. Cal has a ridiculous amount of firepower in it's arsenal, what with Gennifer Brandon, Brittany Boyd and Layshia Clarendon, but I think that Webb and Plaisance can give them a scare.

The Young One -- Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (So.), UConn. Does Geno Auriemma always have a freaky good shooter in his arsenal? Seems like it. But for my friend The UConn Fan, who has followed the Huskies for too many years to count, Mosqueda-Lewis is the purest shooter seen since Diana Taurasi roamed the court. That is some high praise indeed.

"THIS is what a tush is supposed to feel like"
photo:  AP
Five Coaches -- Kim Mulkey, Nikki Caldwell, Geno Auriemma, Joanne P. McCallie and Muffet McGraw. Between these five, there are ten championships as head coaches, three championships won as players, and two Olympic gold medals. [And there would be more of all of those, had I included Stanford's Tara Vandeveer]. These coaches are listed because of their chops but because I love watching them and let's face it, college basketball, both men's and women's, is a coach driven sport.

There are few coaches at any level who are as entertaining as Baylor's Kim Mulkey. If you ever wanted to have a wise-cracking but wise friend, complete with a crackling southern accent, and a knack for knowing just what to say, then Kim Mulkey is your woman. She is known from her playing days as a beast in the gym. She is known in her coaching days for some of her inimitable sartorial choices. I once wrote that she dressed like Tanya Tucker. I stand by that. She fist pumps, she crouches, she jumps around, she gets in her players faces and she hugs them the way you great your favorite cousin at a family reunion. Her post-game interviews are more frank and fresh and honest than most you'll ever hear. Don't let the clothes and the accent fool you. She is one sharp lady. Even when Brittney Griner leaves, I'll tune into Baylor games just for the great Kim Mulkey.

Before I shift to another topic, let me just say:  Pat Summitt, you are missed, lady. Basketball is just not the same for me without The Summitt Death Stare. [If you ever watched even one Lady Vols game, you know what I'm talking about] There's just nobody like you.

The On-Air Talent -- Doris Burke, Coach Carolyn Peck and Kara Lawson. First off, I would listen to Doris Burke break down driveway game between 6-year olds, a'la the Charles Barkley commercial. In culling through the interwebs, it appears I may be alone in this, but Burke calls a great game. By this I mean that she rarely gets in the way of the drama unfolding. I don't feel like she comes into a game with a set script and sticks to it no matter what. I'm sure, as a seasoned pro, she has a few storylines or dramatic arcs she has thought about prior to tip. But unlike some I've heard, she allows the game itself to dictate her narration, rather than hammering a preconceived notion to death, or trying to fit a square peg, as it were.

Away from the court, you get two of the better analysts I've heard break down games, players, coaches and strategy. I feel like I always hear something fresh or simply true when I watch Peck and Lawson work. It may seem like a small thing, but that is high praise indeed. When was the last time you heard one of the talking heads say something that was true but not obvious, fresh but not obtuse?

The Sweet 16 starts with Delaware v. Kentucky. Who ya got?!

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