The last two Women's College Basketball National Championship games have been decided by one single point. The national title game before that? Buzzer-beater three-point shot with 0.01 seconds left on the clock. With drama like that, maybe it's time to ask yourself, what's keeping me from watching the women's tournament?
One Team, One Coach, One Movement
The NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament tipped off for the first time in 1982. Since that inaugural tournament, the Southeastern Conference, better known as the SEC, has had a champion crowned nine times. The only other conference with that many is the Big East, but that's almost entirely due to the University of Connecticut. So what is it about the SEC that proves to be so dominant?
The answer to that question is a resounding cry of Tennessee. The Lady Volunteers have cut down the net an incredible eight times in four decades. And what's even crazier is they were all done in the same 21-year span. That's straight-up filthy. From 1987-1998, they won it six times. It wasn't until UConn started to steal the spotlight that they were able to wrestle two more titles in the late 2000s.
So how did Tennessee get to the top, and sustain, when there's constant turnover on the court? The answer to that question is the late, great Pat Summitt. The Tennessee legend passed away in 2016, but her legacy will outlive all of us. She amassed 1,098 career wins and was the Lady Vols head coach from 1974 until 2012. After the women's tournament finally came to be, Summitt's Lady Vols qualified every season of her career. In fact, she has built such a legacy that the program itself has never actually missed qualifying, even after she left. There are no worries in Knoxville when ESPN broadcasts the women's tournament bracket Selection Sunday show. They know what to expect.
Pat Summitt was the pillar of consistency. When I was growing up, I didn't know a lot about college basketball. But what I did know, was Summitt was one of the best. Her first NCAA tournament at the helm was that inaugural one in 1982, but it was another five years before she would experience the glory of a National Championship. And then, the dominos started to fall.
Lady Vols Pass the Torch to UConn
Immediately prior to Tennessee's three-peat, Geno Auriemma won his first championship with UConn. Then he watched Summitt's blueprint work for the Vols for the next three years and found a way to take over, winning four of the next six titles with the Huskies. And beyond that, UConn has cut down the net 11 times, the most titles in tournament history. Those UConn teams were full of legends, including Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird, two of the WNBA's biggest stars to date. So when you look at the history of the NCAA tournament, these two teams account for 19 of a possible 40 women's college basketball championships.
So where's the room for everyone else? We're in the midst of only the second time in the history of the women's tournament that a five-year span saw five different champions. The first time we saw it was 1991-1995. And then Tennessee and Connecticut went on their runs. The question now becomes will South Carolina or Connecticut, this year's favorites, break up that run with another win, or will we see someone new crowned this season?
History tells us UConn is likely going to make a run to the championship game, but now is the time that they could fall short. And that has nothing to do with whether or not they're worthy of winning. Instead, it has everything to do with the parity that has started to build across Division I in the past decade.
The Future of the Women's Game is Now
Stanford, Baylor, Notre Dame and South Carolina are the last four tournament winners. And all will expect to find their way to the Final Four and beyond. And it's absolutely possible.
Stanford's Tara VanDerveer is the NCAA's winningest women's basketball coach, and she is second all-time behind Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. Since 2007, Stanford has not fallen out of the tournament any earlier than the Sweet 16. Kim Mulkey had Baylor living in the Elite Eight during her tenure there, so they'll be looking to build on their 2019 championship and find their way to the Final Four after Mulkey left for LSU. Their Big Ten conference tournament defeat against Texas only makes that climb seem more difficult.
Notre Dame is returning to the tournament after a noted absence last year, after moving on from Muffet McGraw and into the Niele Ivey era. South Carolina will be looking to the likes of Aliyah Boston to take them to the promised land after a tough loss in the 2021 NCAA National Title game.
But it's not just those recent winners who could make a charge to the top. They don't call it March Madness for the heck of it.
Iowa will be looking to ride the coattails of Caitlin Clark's incredible season. Maryland and Louisville are favorites to make a splash. Can Arizona get back to the title game and take that one extra step? Or will Indiana channel Bobby Knight's men's era and elevate their game?
We're no longer living in the times in which Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma's squads have a stranglehold on the game. Do both Tennessee and UConn have a chance to add to their illustrious histories? Yes, absolutely. But there are so many others who have stepped into the playground as well.
I would love to see someone new raise a banner this year. Let's see that wildfire continue to spread to other programs across the country. Tennessee and UConn made others want to compete. Sometimes it takes a dynasty for a chance to see someone train and compete to unseat them.
Why You Should Watch the Women's Tournament
The continued parity developing across NCAA Division I basketball is nothing but a positive thing for the game. There are only so many spots on a roster and young women across the country seeing those spots pop up in different programs is only going to continue to build competition and help the sport continue to grow.
We, as a nation, probably don't give the focus we should to the women's side of the tournament. We follow the men's basketball programs at Duke, Kansas and North Carolina, but the mainstream media hasn't given the same coverage to the women's programs with similar resumes. That feels like it's about to change. And the excitement of the wide variety of competition can do nothing but help to tell us that we should have been paying attention all along.
Ask yourself again, what's keeping me from watching the women's tournament?
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