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Women Not in Deep Trouble

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As recently as 10 years ago, coaches will tell you, most major college women’s basketball teams had a couple, maybe three players at the end of the bench who were . . . well, not very good.

Teams in the late ‘80s were being carried by their starters and maybe one good sub, they say.

Those young ladies at the end of the bench?

They’re gone.

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Today, the women’s college game has a far deeper talent pool than teams of a decade ago, and you don’t need to be among the 17,000 at next week’s Final Four in San Jose to learn why this is so.

You don’t need to be at the NCAA West Regional at the Sports Arena on Saturday or Monday to see it. And you don’t have to be among the 17,000 or so who attend Tennessee home games to learn it.

However, you might want to try Oregon City, Ore., or Phoenix.

This is about sleeping on surplus Army cots, queuing up for fast-food burgers, long bus and van trips, living with foster families . . . and commitments.

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In 1979, at Oregon City, Brad Smith, the local high school girls’ coach, had an idea.

Seeking to improve girls’ basketball skills, he formed eight summer teams. Within five years, he had 32 teams.

Now, there are more than 200 teams and Smith’s little summer league has become a monster--and a major summer economic force in town.

Smith, who built one of the nation’s premier high school programs at Oregon City before moving on to Vanderbilt as an assistant coach, described recently what the summer basketball programs have done to girls’ high school basketball programs, and therefore college programs.

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“Ten years ago,” he said, “if you had one high school All-American-level girl and not much else, you could maybe win all your games. Now, with that same situation, you will lose maybe 10 games.

“All these college women you see who are so fundamentally solid--they’re all products of these summer programs.

“That, and the fact there are so many parents who find ways to pay personal trainers $30 to $50 an hour to work with their daughters, on everything from basketball skills to strength training.”

Roughly the same thing has happened at Phoenix, where Mike Combs’ Arizona Elite Girls Basketball Club has grown from 100 summer campers in 1996 to nearly 300 today.

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“Arizona used to be a bad place to recruit from,” Smith said. “There just wasn’t a lot of talent there.

“Combs’ camp changed that.”

Major women’s college programs also offer summer camps, and those numbers have skyrocketed. Main reason? The quest for college scholarships.

“Girls today are in a much more competitive basketball environment,” UCLA Coach Kathy Olivier said. “And that’s the reason why the college game is so much better today.

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“When I grew up, I played five sports. Now girls tend to pick one and stay with it all year. And that’s why girls are coming out of these summer programs with much better skills than was the case 10 years ago.

“In the college game, 20 years ago, two or three good players could carry a team. Not today. You need eight, at least.”

Tennessee assistant coach Mickey DeMoss points to Alabama as Example A of the deep talent pool in today’s college game.

“Alabama has a legit women’s superstar in Dominique Canty,” she said. And she had an above-average supporting cast.

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“But Alabama lost 11 games. That just shows you how many good players you really need today.”

Young women players today have a stronger commitment than was the case a decade ago, Smith said.

“In a lot of girls’ high school programs, the numbers might actually be smaller than they used to,” he said.

“But the difference is in the commitment. A girl might now first ask herself, ‘Am I going to play?’ If she’s doubtful, she moves on to another sport.

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“Any girl today who’s been in a strong high school program a couple of years and in summer programs--that’s a very committed young lady. She’s worked very hard at basketball.”

Committed enough to sleep on Army cots.

“No one makes any money doing this,” Combs said. “The girls’ cost is whatever the travel expenses are. And when we take our summer kids to, say, Oregon City or Seattle for a tournament, the girls sleep in gyms, on cots.

“We charge maybe $1,500 to $2,000 for a girl to attend our spring and summer program, to cover travel costs. For an out-of-state girl, we hook her up with a local girl’s family and she rooms with them.”

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Tara VanDerveer, Stanford’s coach, says an ancillary factor here is the sport’s increased television exposure.

“All those WNBA games on TV, the televised college games--there are a lot of 14-year-old girls seeing that, and it motivates them.”

DeMoss puts it this way: “Some 14-year-old sees all these games and thinks, ‘Hey, maybe this is a legit career move for me. Maybe I can get a scholarship. Maybe from there I can move on to the WNBA.”

The result of all this, VanDerveer says, is the talent well getting deeper.

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“On college teams today, the eighth player on a team might have been a star as recently as eight years ago,” she said.

“It used to be, if you didn’t get to the Final Four, it was terribly disappointing. Now, if you just get into the NCAA tournament . . . you feel pretty good about that because it’s so hard to get in now--there are so many good teams out there.

“All these summer programs around the country have changed that. They’re producing far more good players--it’s that simple. At these summer programs, I see 13-year-old girls with skills I can’t believe.

“When I started [Stanford’s] summer camp in 1986, we had 75 girls. This summer, we’ll have 1,800, in four sessions. Tennessee is doing 900 girls a week.”

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And those women at the end of the bench? DeMoss, the Tennessee assistant, also has noticed their absence.

“You look at the one-through-12 roster spots today . . . and there are no awful players anymore.”

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Saturday’s Games

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NCAA Division I Regional semifinals. Note: All championship games are Monday night:

WEST, At Sports Arena

* Louisiana Tech (28-2) vs. LSU (25-7), 7 p.m.; Colorado St. (32-2) vs. UCLA (25-7), 30 minutes after previous game.

EAST, At Greensboro, N.C.

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* Old Dominion (28-3) vs. Duke (26-6), 8:30 a.m.; Tennessee (30-2) vs. Virginia Tech (28-2), 30 minutes after previous game.

MIDEAST, At Cincinnati

* Connecticut (29-4) vs. Iowa St. (24-7), 9 a.m.; Clemson (26-5) vs. Georgia (25-6), 30 minutes after previous game.

MIDWEST, At Normal, Ill.

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* North Carolina (28-7) vs. Purdue (30-1), 5 p.m.; Rutgers (28-5) vs. Texas Tech (30-2), 30 minutes after previous game.

THE FINAL FOUR, At San Jose

* Friday, March 26: East champion vs. Mideast champion; Midwest champion vs. West champion. March 28: Championship


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