There could be more to the 2003-04 women's college basketball season than a showcase for WNBA-ready seniors Diana Taurasi and Alana Beard and a showdown to stop Connecticut's pursuit of its third consecutive national championship.
That's because it could be the women's game's most competitive season since it moved from an AIAW championship to the NCAA championship in the 1981-82 season.
"This could be a watershed year for the game," said Villanova Coach Harry Perretta, whose unranked Wildcats return two starters from last season's Elite Eight team. "You have a number of teams that could win the national championship."
Said Duke Coach Gail Goestenkors, whose No. 2-ranked Blue Devils return four starters from last season's Final Four team. "At end of last [season] I thought you would see that of the top 10-15 schools of last [season], 90% would be better this year because they were all returning either four or five starters. But everywhere I turn teams seem to be returning three or four starters."
That makes it exciting for the fans and players. But coaches are going to earn their salaries and their gray hairs. More teams are scheduling tougher nonconference matchups, rather than trying to buoy their records against inferior opponents. It will keep the top 25 in a constant state of flux and develop a bunch of battle-tested teams by the time the NCAA tournament field of 64 is selected.
"The [women's] game has been emerging for a few years, and I don't know if we'll be going back to having one or two teams dominate," said Texas Coach Jody Conradt, whose No. 3 Longhorns return four starters from last season's Final Four team. "The game is growing at all levels, to where anyone, with a couple good recruiting years, could be right there playing for the championship."
Public interest in the women's game has shown steady, if small, growth.
According to the NCAA, 7,351,643 spectators saw one of its 322 Division I teams play in person, an increase of 413,821 from the previous season. It's the first time Division I women have surpassed the 7-million mark in attendance.
That still breaks down to an average of 1,619 fans a game. Yet the NCAA, which has kept attendance records only since 1982, added in its report that a record 133 schools averaged 1,000 or more spectators per game, and that overall attendance in all three women's divisions has risen every season since 1984-85.
Another interest indicator is television. According to Josh Krulewitz, ESPN director of media relations, the three games played in the 2003 Women's Final Four attracted an average of 2,583,000 households per game. That was a ratings increase of 8%, as well as a 9% increase in households from the previous year.
Krulewitz said the cable network, which broadcasted all 63 NCAA tournament women's games for the first time, was quite satisfied with the ratings, considering that global attention was focused on the war in Iraq and that the Final Four was being shown on Sunday and Tuesday for the first time instead of Friday and Sunday.
"Of the three games, two rank among the five most watched college games in ESPN history, men or women," Krulewitz said. "It was a successful tournament, and having all 63 games was unprecedented. The time for it was right."
Still, if indications are accurate, if this can be a season to sell the women's game to the more casual sports fan, teams need to start at the gate. Only nine teams averaged more than 7,000 a game in home attendance, not great when considering that many campus arenas seat from 10,000 to 15,000.
"In basketball, people are still oriented to the 'big event' like a Final Four," said Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma. "The increased attention to the women's game won't take full effect until there is a buzz about women's basketball on the college campuses.
"There is a buzz at Duke, Kansas State and Oklahoma where it wasn't five years ago. Those places have to sustain it, and new places have to rise up. If you get two to three new teams each year drawing 7,000 to 10,000 every night and there's quality play, that's when you'll see the full impact of the game's growth."
What also could help this season is if any team can stop Connecticut from being only the second NCAA women's basketball team to win three consecutive championships.
The Huskies were supposed to be brought down a peg last season, trying to defending their title with three freshmen and a sophomore in the starting lineup alongside the amazing Taurasi, the only returning starter.
Connecticut was so vulnerable it lost one game (against 37 wins), ran up a national record 70-game winning streak before getting upset by Villanova in the Big East Tournament final, and broke the hearts of Texas and Tennessee (again) in the Final Four.
And, like many teams this season, the Huskies return with their starting lineup -- Taurasi, Ann Strother, Jessica Moore, Barbara Turner and Ashley Battle -- intact.
How good is Taurasi, aside from the infamous "The difference is we have Diana and you don't" quote by Auriemma?
"If you took her, and put her on any one of 10 teams," said Ohio State Coach Jim Foster, whose No. 10 Buckeyes return four starters, "they would be favored to win the title and could make the statement Geno made."
That's what makes folks such as Pat Summitt wary of putting too much stock in this season being a breakout year.
"Making the Final Four is doable for a number of teams," said the No. 4 Lady Vols' coach. "[But] it's still a wait-and-see situation. Can I say today [the Final Four is] going to have a surprise team there? No. But you'll have injuries, teams get hot at the right time
Connecticut will have a line of challengers.
Duke, even though it was upset by Texas on Sunday, has won 96 games the past three years, has gone to the last two Final Fours and has the next best thing to Taurasi in Beard. Just as important the Blue Devils get back guard Monique Currie who missed last season because of a torn knee ligament.
Tennessee is one of the few top teams that was hard hit by graduation, but the Lady Vols -- the only team to win three consecutive NCAA women's championships -- are always in the mix.
Texas, Stanford, Kansas State, Louisiana State, Texas Tech, Penn State and Minnesota all figure to be hovering in or near the top 10, waiting to pounce. Other solid programs such as Purdue, Notre Dame, Arizona, Villanova, Louisiana Tech, Ohio State, Auburn, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Santa Barbara and Rutgers have the potential to break through.
And there are still more teams who can make the front-runners miserable come tournament time.
"What would be nice," said Mark Trakh, coach of unranked Pepperdine, "is get the Cinderella story -- a mid-major team in Sweet 16 or Great Eight. That's what the men's game has had and what's been missing in the women's game. Have a big upset like when Villanova beat Georgetown [in the 1985 men's final]. If it happened for us, what a story that would be."
"What transformed the men's game was the expansion of the NCAA tourney and when UCLA's dominance sort of ceased. The runs of Connecticut and Tennessee are comparable [to] UCLA's. We are having some shifts in the conferences that might create change for the tournament. But multiple teams becoming true national contenders is what's needed to send our game over the top."
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A look at the Connecticut women's basketball team's record the last four seasons:
*--* Year Record * 1999-2000 36-1 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS * 2000-01 32-3 LOST IN NATIONAL SEMIFINALS * 2001-02 39-0 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS * 2002-03 37-1 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS * Four-season record: 144-5 (.966)
Note: John Wooden's best four-year record at UCLA was from 1969 to '73, when the Bruins were 117-3 with four men's national titles.