Chicago Sky Epipphany Prince left Rutgers University early to pursue a professional career amidst a number of significant departures since 2007. Photo by Craig Bennett/112575 Media.
We're on the fourth day of our rundown of the best programs in NCAA Division I women's basketball. What all of the programs on the list below have in common is that they've had a great deal of success either recently or just a handful of years back - but usually not both.
This is also is the part of the list where the mid-major programs disappear. Above the #15 spot, all of the programs listed here are from the six major conferences: the Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Big Twelve, Pacific Ten (soon to be Twelve), and Southeastern Conferences. These conferences generally have the money to hire the best coaches, the money to spend on facilities and in some cases, those conferences have their own television sports networks.
So without further ado, the teams in the #11 through #25 positions: the usual suspects in your typical AP or ESPN poll.
11. Notre Dame: They say that the most expensive army in the world is the one that is second best. That's the problem facing Muffet McGraw right now. Out of all the coaches that have led their team to a Division I women's title, only eight are still on the sidelines. McGraw is one of them, getting her ring in 2001. The Fighting Irish have been to the NCAA Tournament 15 years in a row and have gone at least to the second round 13 of those years. Why, the Fighting Irish are as remarkable as...that other sports program at Notre Dame.
Unfortunately, there's another team in the Big East called Connecticut. The Irish have been to four Big East title games and come up short each time. Even in 2001 they came second to Connecticut - and the Irish have not been to the Big East championship since. Both times Notre Dame was forced to play the Huskies in Connecticut; both times they lost by double-digits. It's a shame because G Skylar Diggins deserves as big a spotlight as possible.
12. Rutgers: How much can change in just a few years. In 2007, the Scarlet Knights made it to the national championship, losing to Tennessee. Since 2007, the sports world has as focused on what's going on outside the program just as much as on Rutgers wins or losses.
The Don Imus remarks are already well known by now. And then the transfers came. Brooklyn Pope. Jasmine Dixon. Christine Huber. Epipphany Prince left a year early. In 2010, the size of the team dropped to nine players and Rutgers finished the season 19-15 in spite of it all, losing to Iowa in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Has the game passed C. Vivian Stringer by? Before you say "yes", think about this. The team has been to the NCAA tournament 21 times. They've sent big names to the WNBA - Cappie Pondexter, Sue Wicks, Essence Carson, Kia Vaughn. Stringer has over 800 college wins. It's very hard for a prospective recruit to turn her back on all that that represents.
13. Vanderbilt: The SEC is one of the toughest conferences around, and Melanie Balcolmb of Vanderbilt has won three SEC tournament championships in six years despite the presence of superpowers like LSU and Tennessee. The program has seven Sweet Sixteen appearances in the last ten years...but even with that, it's just the second best program in Tennessee - didn't I say it was a tough conference? Suffice it to say in each of Balcomb's eight seasons the program has won 20+ games.
Like a lot of Tennessee programs, the Commodore fan base is definitely active and involved. The Commodores were ranked #21 in attendance among Division I teams, averaging 4300 fans per game. The benefits of Vanderbilt, however, come from more than just the gymnasium. For example, even though neither Jennifer Risper nor Christine Wirth have struck gold in the WNBA, a Vanderbilt academic degree has a lot more value than a lot of other schools on this list.
14. LSU: The Lady Tigers of Louisana State have had a lot of success, and a lot of great coaches. Sue Gunter coached the team for 24 years, taking the team to a NCAA Final Four. Pokey Chatman inherited that team and that team went to three Final Fours after that. With Chatman's resignation, Van Chancellor took over the team. The first year he was with the team - 2007-08 - the team went to another Final Four, five consecutive Final Fours in all. The only other school with five consecutive Final Fours? Connecticut.
Aside from the WNBA players that come out of the program - Seimone Augustus and Marie Ferdinand-Harris - the program is investing in its infrastructure with a new practice facility that was completed in January 2010. They picked up the #16 recruiting class in the country according to ESPN. It looks like LSU wants very badly to at the very least get to another Final Four. Don't be surprised if they make it.
15. Middle Tennessee State: Want to play winning basketball? Want to have a challenging schedule every year? Tennessee student who can't get into the Lady Volunteers? Then the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders are for you!
Rick Insell's squad over his five years in Middle Tennessee has pretty much met most of the metrics for a successful program. Tough schedule? They play South Dakota State, Georgia Tech, Xavier, Kansas State, and Kentucky this year. 20+ wins? Insell has won 20+ games every year he's been there including winning 30 games in 2007. The program hasn't lost more than it won since 1997. National ranking? Even in a down year they reached #24 in the ESPN coaches poll. WNBA talent? Amber Holt plays in the WNBA and Alysha Clark was drafted in the second round last year.
Right now, the Blue Raiders are the best mid-major program in the country. Rick Insell's job will be to stay there.
16. Louisville: This year, Louisville will open in a brand new basketball facility. In 2009, the Cardinals went all the way to the finals on the back of Angel McCoughtry. They have a top recruiting class and just snagged PG Shoni Schimmel, the #8 player and #3 point guard in the country according to ESPN. Shot-blocker Cierra Robertson-Warren just transferred from North Carolina. Coach Jeff Walz must feel like a man whose rich uncle died and who inherited a million dollars.
Then again, Walz's strength is in recruiting - not bad for a man who stutters. He's only had three years with the Cardinals. The first year the Cards went to the Sweet Sixteen and the second year was the amazing championship run, but last year Louisville didn't go to the NCAA or WNIT - they went to the WBI, the Women's Basketball Invitational, where the 14-18 Cardinals lost to Bradley. The new recruiting class is ranked 5th in the country by ESPN, but Walz needs to get his team back to the NCAAs or his dream of a career as head coach of Louisville will be just that.
17. Florida State: Last year, the Seminoles made it to their very first Elite Eight in program history, losing 90-50 to Connecticut. Against any other team, they might have ended up in the Final Four. As a reward, head coach Sue Semrau's contract was extended to 2010 with a bonus of $140K. The Elite Eight appearance was her sixth straight WNBA appearance on the way to making Florida State a real power in the ACC.
Semrau's tenure hasn't been without some...difficulties. The glamor shots from the team's 2009-10 media guide restarted the debate regarding how much female athletics must promote their feminine side to keep others to fend off homophobia. The program lost 22 basketball victories as a result of students being given the answer to exams by university staff. Despite that, Semrau has served as a recruiting coordinator at Wisconsin and as a fundraiser at Occidental, so she knows how to run a program inside and out. If it doesn't get too hot in Florida State, the Seminoles are gold.
18. Xavier: The Musketeers almost made it to the Final Four last year, but G Dee Dee Jernigan's missed two lay-in attempts that could have put Xavier on top. Instead, Stanford G Jeanette Pohlen goes court-to-court on the final possession to win 55-53 for the Cardinal. It was a disappointing end to a 30-4 season. The Xavier program was ranked in the Top Ten for part of last year, a big achievement for an Atlantic 10 school.
This year, F Amber Harris and C Ta'Shia Phillips will have to carry the program to the next level - but if you win 30 games in a season, it's very hard to locate a next level. Xavier will most likely be at the top of the Atlantic 10 this year. Tennessee F Amber Gray, a forward who was not medically cleared to play in Knoxville after an aneurysm, has also joined the Musketeers along with two other rosters. Kevin McGuff, just 40 years old, has taken Xavier to the post-season in every single year he's coached there. Xavier has finally made its way to the uppermost level...but can they stay there?
19. Texas: Gail Goestenkors joined the Longhorn program in 2007 after the legendary Jody Conradt retired, whose Texas teams once went a decade without losing a single Southwest Conference game. Texas earned its only national championship in 1986, when they beat USC 97-81 for all the marbles. They like winning in Texas - for five years the program led the NCAA in women's basketball in texas.
Goestenkors has managed to take Texas to the tournament every year she's been there - the last time any Goestenkors-coached team missed a NCAA appearance was 1994. Last year, the Longhorns went 22-11 with SG Brittainey Raven going to the WNBA. The bigger loss will be the loss of assistant coach and superrecruiter Mickie DeMoss, who returns to Tennessee to give Pat Summitt's program a boost.
20. Virginia: Debbie Ryan reached her 700th win last year. One mark of great programs is great coaches with several centuries with of wins. The Cavaliers have been to 24 NCAA tournaments under Ryan, second only to Tennessee and Louisiana Tech. Dawn Staley and Tonya Cardoza - former Virginia alumna - are now college coaches of their own. The high water mark of the Virginia program was their title game in 1991 against Tennessee, where they lost in overtime 70-67.
Last year the Cavaliers made it to 21-10 with the help of the #2 WNBA Draft pick in 2010, G Monica Wright. However, she was the only senior leaving. Nine players on last year's roster were either freshmen or sophomores, so Virginia could move up in the ACC this year.
21. Iowa State: If Bill Fennelly isn't the best coach in the Big Twelve, he's definitely the best Twitterer. (@ISUCoachFen, but don't tell him I put the Cyclones at #21. Hell hath no fury like a Twitterer scorned.) When you get to the level of what he's done in college basketball, it becomes easier to list what he hasn't done. His programs have averaged 23 wins a year, and include five NCAA Sweet Sixteen appearances and two Elite Eight appearances. The most recent Sweet Sixteen appearance was the one last year where the season ended with a 74-36 loss to Connecticut.
Behind Tennessee and Connecticut, the next team in attendance is...Iowa State, averaging over 9,000 fans per home game. The Cyclones lost PG Alison Lacey this year to graduation, as well as four other seniors. It's time for the group of Cylone freshmen - Chelsea Poppens, Anna Prins, Jessica Schroll and Amanda Zimmerman - to step up as Iowa State has taken on a killer schedule for 2010-11.
22. Nebraska: Last year, the Cornhuskers were 7th in the country in attendance, so the graduation of F Kelsey Griffin must be cause for worry in Nebraska after a 32-2 season and a #1 seed in last year's NCAA tournament. Luckily they still have Connie Yori, winner of multiple Coach of the Year awards last year. They began the season unranked and ended up as the #3 team at one point during the 2009-10 season....a nice start from the 8-20 record of Yori's first season. Her seven straight post-season trips are a school record.
The 2010-11 season might be a real test. The Huskers lost a lot of seniors last year, so the cycle begins again in Nebraska's final year of Big Twelve competition with almost a new team. Keep your eyes on SG Dominique Kelley who will shoulder the burden this year.
23. Michigan State: The Spartans are trying to get back to where they were in 2005 - the National Championship game, where they lost to Baylor by 22 points. Suzy Merchant is in her fourth year with the team, trying to bring the success she brought to Eastern Michigan to another Michigan team. She has the chance to establish her own history here, because the program really didn't acheive until Joanne P. McCallie's arrival in 2000. Only since 2004 has Michigan State been able to depend on winning 20+ games a year routinely.
Merchant will have to solve the recruiting conundrum if she wants to keep the Spartans in the polls. This year's recruiting class doesn't compare to that of Nebraska's or Ohio State's. Much will be asked of 6-6 C Madison Williams, the McDonald's All-American and prize recruit for this year.
24. Georgia: In Georgia, supposedly the only things anyone cares about in Bulldogs sports are football, spring football, football recruiting...and gymnastics. For Andy Landers to carve an empire in football-mad Georgia is nothing short of remarkable. The school averages about 4,000 or so per home game in attendance, which is even more remarkable.
Since Landers came to Georgia, there have only been two years when he didn't go to a post-season tournament (1992 and 1994). He is one of the winningest coaches in NCAA women's basketball never to have won a championship, but he hasn't stopped trying. This year the Dawgs are putting their hopes on PG Ronika Ransford to carry the program to the next level after losing 73-36 to Stanford this year in the Sweet Sixteen.
25. DePaul: Doug Bruno has been coaching women's basketball longer than his players have been alive. That's 24 seasons at DePaul, for those not counting. He's worked at almost every imaginable level of basketball: he's coached a WBL team (the Chicago Hustle), head coach of the Blue Demons, men's basketball (Loyola), USA basketball, you name it. He's in his fifth decade as a women's coach.
The program has consistently sent players to the pros. Latasha Byears, Allie Quigley, Lenae Williams are just some of the names. The Blue Demons always contend in a tough conference and 20 win seasons are a matter of course. Currently, DePaul is coming off its eighth straight trip to the NCAA tournament, with a 21-12 squad losing to Vanderbilt in a 83-76 overtime loss. PG Sam Quigley could be a first-round WNBA Draft Pick in 2011.