Parity spreads to women's championship
A tight smile flickered across the face of Texas A&M head coach Gary Blair.
“I know we screwed it up,” Blair said. “You don’t have the Pat (Summitt)-Geno (Auriemma) show and we screwed it up because now you don’t have Brittney Griner and the dunk possibility, and everybody wants to see the dunk.”
While the matchup between Notre Dame and Texas A&M would garner plenty of eyeballs if it were a BCS football title game, that won't be the case when the schools meet Tuesday for the women’s NCAA championship.
For just the fourth time since 2000, the title game does not include powerhouse programs Connecticut, Tennessee or Stanford. Casual fans might not flock to the tube, but the matchup of No. 2 seeds could make for a thrilling championship game.
“It might not be good for your ratings or your newspaper lines, but it’s good for the game,” Blair said, speaking to the media Monday at Conseco Fieldhouse. “Sometimes you have to go through the growing pains to get to where we want to be — parity, where people would be excited when a Butler and a VCU are playing on the men’s side.”
Blair’s comparison to the tight and unexpected Final Four men’s matchup is apt. Both the Fighting Irish and the Aggies have thrived by taking on underdog mentalities. And it’s one reason why this championship matchup is good for the women’s game — it motivates the upstarts against the traditional programs.
“With all the hype on everyone else, we kind of flew under the radar,” Notre Dame senior guard Brittany Mallory said.
Aggies counterpart Maryann Baker used the hype as revenge fodder.
“It fueled me when I heard analysts saying it’s going to be Stanford and UConn,” the senior guard said.
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw thinks women’s basketball is approaching the age of equality between its teams as the underdogs better compete against the elite teams.
“For years, Connecticut has been our measuring stick. Every time you play them, it’s about, 'Well, we lost and moved up in the rankings,'” she said. “Other schools go, ‘Wow, look at Notre Dame. Maybe we can do it, too.’”
That’s how so-called mid-majors see the matchup as well.
“It helps all of us at that level. We always think there's hope. This reinforces the fact that some schools find a way to do it,” said Illinois State senior women’s administrator Leanna Bordner, who mentioned that she knew people who wouldn’t have tuned in to see a “predictable” Connecticut-Stanford game.
So while pundits may measure the success of tonight’s game against the ratings or the number of advertising dollars it generates in the future, the real benefit is for schools not among the traditional powerhouses.
Notre Dame, for one, can recruit and keep a star player such as guard Skylar Diggins instead of watching her leave for a traditional winner. Schools may feel free to spend more to build a successful program.
After the Fighting Irish took down the Huskies, Auriemma didn’t seem to think having these squads in the final was at all detrimental to the sport.
“Whether anybody is disappointed that Stanford and Connecticut aren’t playing (tonight), that’s irrelevant,” he said Sunday night. “The two teams that played the best are playing. I hope a lot of people enjoy watching. I think it’s going to be a heck of a game.”