Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 31, 2011

Two Totally Different Tournaments

It’s always seemed unfair that the NCAA insists on scheduling the women’s Division I basketball tournament in the shadow of the men’s annual March Madness. While the men get wall-to-wall television coverage and prime scheduling, the women’s tournament is relegated to the outer reaches of cable and scheduled for what amounts to off days. So it was that this past weekend CBS showcased the regional finals of the men’s tournament; while the equivalent women’s contests were shown on ESPN on Monday and Tuesday. But considering how the two tournaments have played out this year, maybe the collegiate powers-that-be know exactly what they are doing.

For the men, there can be no doubt that the tournament has more than lived up to its nickname. With thrilling finishes and upsets galore, the 2011 tournament is setting all kinds of records for the unexpected. For the first time in tournament history, not a single #1 or #2 seed has made it through to the Final Four.

In the Southwest Region, again for the first time ever, three of the four teams in the regional finals were double-digit seeds, with #10 Florida State, #11 VCU, and #12 Richmond making it through to the games last weekend in San Antonio. While the conventional wisdom was that a lineup like that meant a free pass for #1 Kansas, it was of course VCU that snatched the region’s ticket to next weekend’s party in Houston. As an 11th seed, VCU joins LSU in 1986 and George Mason in 2006 as the lowest seeds ever to reach the Final Four.

Since VCU plays #8 seed Butler in the national semifinals on Saturday, we already know that Monday night’s prime time championship game will at least tie the mark for having the lowest seeded participant. In 1980 UCLA made it to the final game as an 8th seed and five years later Villanova improbably won it all from the same position in the bracket.

Speaking of improbable, by now of course everyone is celebrating the utter improbability of Virginia Commonwealth. As one of, if not the very last at-large team chosen by the selection committee, VCU was forced to play its way into this year’s tournament with its expanded 68-team field. They did that by soundly beating USC 69-56 in one of the four play-in games that got the tourney started just over two weeks ago. They then won four straight upsets, thrashing #6 Georgetown and #3 Purdue by 18 points each, squeezing by #10 Florida State 72-71 in overtime, and then dispatching #1 Kansas 71-61. This performance is by a team whose selection was roundly criticized by any number of media experts. At the time, the criticism seemed apt. VCU lost seven conference games, lost three times to teams outside of the top 100 in the college basketball power rankings, and dropped four of their last five games during the regular season. But in sports as in life, timing is everything. Having been invited to the dance, the Rams of Virginia Commonwealth have picked exactly the right time to go on a run for the ages.

Even the presence of two more familiar names in the Final Four is not entirely business as usual. The highest remaining seed, #3 UConn, began its post-season push by having to play five games in five days on the way to winning the Big East tournament. Rather than being worn out by that schedule, the Huskies seemed to be energized. Meanwhile #4 seed Kentucky is making its 14th appearance in the Final Four. But early in the regular season the Wildcats were thought to have little chance after their star freshman center, Enes Kantor, was ruled permanently ineligible for accepting a salary while playing in Turkey during the 2008-2009 season.
Madness indeed. It all comes to a head this weekend.

Meanwhile, in Indianapolis the women’s tournament will play its national semi-final games on Sunday and the championship game Tuesday night, in the wake of the prime-time celebration in Houston by one of the four men’s teams Monday. It will do so with an utterly different Final Four. Three of the four regional final games played earlier this week featured a #1 seed versus a #2, with only 11th seeded Gonzaga making it through to spoil the fourth round’s utter predictability. None of the four regional finals was either close or compelling.

The two “upsets” of a #1 by a #2 both had double-digit margins. Texas A&M and Baylor had faced each other three previous times this season, with Baylor winning all three by a combined total of just 15 points. The two programs seem pretty evenly matched, so perhaps the most upsetting news about the game was A&M’s 12-point margin of victory, 68-56. The Aggies raced out to a quick lead and were never really threatened.

Second seeded Notre Dame had known nothing but futility against #1 Tennessee, going 0-20 against the Lady Vols in occasional meetings over 28 years. Monday night the Irish made up for a lot of frustration by easily ousting Tennessee, 73-59. After the game long-time Tennessee coach Pat Summitt was particularly graceless, excoriating her own team for their play. “Obviously I’m very upset, I’m very disappointed with our basketball team. I don’t think we came here with the focus. Don’t ask me why. I’m kind of at a loss for words,” said Summitt. But then apparently not at a loss for words at all, she continued, “We’ve got a ways to go, obviously. We were exposed today. There were times we got so overanxious. Being at this point and trying to get to a Final Four was probably too much for the younger players.”

In belittling her own players Summitt was revealing one of the realities of the women’s college game. It remains a game with a tiny handful of truly elite programs; with all of the rest of the Division I schools assigned mere supporting roles. UConn and Stanford are certainly two elite programs. With 8 NCAA championships and 7 runner-up finishes, Summitt has good reason to put her own program on a par with those two. In that hierarchy losing, and badly, anytime before the Final Four is simply inexcusable, and can’t possibly be because the other team was simply better. Of course, whether Summitt’s rant reflects the slightest understanding of or empathy with the young women who play for her is another matter.

The other two regional finals simply confirmed the current state of the women’s game. Stanford wiped out the upstart squad from Gonzaga, 83-60, and Connecticut buried #2 Duke, 75-40. The UConn victory is particularly telling. Having scored 70 or more points in six straight games, Duke set the record for the fewest points scored in a regional final. The second half was more almost seven minutes old before Duke scored its 3rd point of the period; while late in the game UConn hit twelve field goals in a row. Duke is a fine program; it’s just not at UConn’s level.

Because so many talented men now leave college early to enter the NBA draft, men’s teams are constantly being remade. That makes dynasties a remnant of the era when basketball shorts were short. It also introduces a constant element of uncertainty into each season, and opens the door for the unexpected and exciting run through the tournament of a George Mason in 2006, a Butler last year, or a VCU and to an only slightly lesser extent Butler again this year. For the fans, it’s compelling stuff, even if it does wind up making hash out of most people’s office pool brackets.

No matter how talented, college women don’t have a similar opportunity, if indeed “opportunity” is really the right word. Unlike the National Basketball Association, the WBNA draft is not open to players who haven’t completed their college eligibility. That gives college coaches the chance to build teams that work together, programs that succeed, and winning traditions. The problem is that so far, there are still too few schools where it’s been done.

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