In women's basketball, an entrenched duopoly

In the men's Final Four this year, Butler University was an unexpected presence – a relatively unheralded team that came within a basket of winning the title against powerhouse Duke. Not so in the women's game. Warren Grimes has more...

In the last twenty years, Geno Auriemma's Connecticut Huskies and Pat Summitt's Tennessee Volunteers have won 13 national titles. The trend seems to be toward more dominance, not less – one of the two schools has won the championship the last four years running.

Here are some other measures that suggest the lack of parity in the women's game is a worsening trend, each of them comparing the decade that ended in 2000 with the just-ended 2010 decade.

Category1991-2000 2001-2010
NCAA Titles won by UConn or Tennessee 60% 70%
Final 4s without either UConn or Tennessee 40% 10%
F4 Appearances by 3 most dominant teams* 35% 45%
F4 appearances by teams with <3 F4 appearances 50% 33%
*Measured by most appearances in Final 4

Stanford fits into this picture as a powerhouse, but one positioned well below the two dominant schools. In the last twenty years, Stanford has won one NCAA title, in 1992, and been to the Final Four eight times (nine if we go back 21 years). During the same period, Tennessee has won six national titles and been to the Final Four twelve times; U Conn has been the champ seven times and in the Final Four eleven times.

So, is there any hope of undoing the duopoly and achieving a bit more parity?

Actually, there is. Amidst the two-decade dominance of Tennessee and UConn, other schools have came and gone from the Final Four. Louisiana Tech has been in ten final fours (one more than Stanford), but most of these appearances were in the 1980s and early 1990s – Tech has not been in the Final Four since 1998. Another Louisiana school, LSU, made the Final Four in five consecutive years, from 2004 through 2008, tying UConn's record for consecutive appearances. But LSU has been rebuilding the past two years. Meanwhile, other teams have stepped up.

Oklahoma made the Final Four three times in the last decade, twice without the Paris twins on the roster. Gonzaga was a surprise this year, getting to the Sweet Sixteen game after upsetting a number-two seeded Texas A&M. And Xavier, a three seed in the Western Region, came mighty close to being the Butler of the women's tournament. But for a couple of missed bunnies in the last 20 seconds of the game, Xavier could have bested Stanford, slipped by Oklahoma, and battled Connecticut for the national championship. Xavier's story is of interest because many of the players on Xavier's team were not viewed as elite high school recruits. Perhaps that suggests there is more depth in the pool of recruited high school women athletes than is commonly acknowledged. With Xavier's string of 21 back-to-back victories and its last-nano-second loss to Stanford, Xavier may well have been the third-best team in women's college basketball this year.

The recruiting picture also suggests that UConn and Tennessee, while remaining among the elite programs, may not dominate as in the recent past. Tennessee is rebuilding after the loss of five starting seniors at the end of the 2008 season. They have missed the Final Four for two years running. UConn has lost Tina Charles, a former No. 1 high school recruit, and must continue its winning ways while relying more heavily on its second superstar – Maya Moore (who will graduate next year). Meanwhile, Stanford, and at least three other schools, have recruited very talented classes that could put them in the mix. Along with Duke, two Texas schools – Baylor and Texas A&M – have the building blocks to make the Final Four and contend for a championship over the next few years.

As far as parity is concerned, the Pac-10 remains a disappointment. Oregon State appears to be self-destructing, and none of the non-California teams have recruited well. The strength of the conference seems to be settling in the four California schools, but still with a decided edge to Stanford. But I'll settle for this as an improvement. I'll settle, that is, if the non-Stanford California schools can start winning out-of-conference games with some consistency. Meanwhile, on the national scene, true parity is nowhere in sight. But maybe, just maybe, we'll start having more Final Fours with Geno and Pat both sitting in the stands.


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