After becoming the first WCC team in history to reach 30 wins, an Elite Eight appearance, and a top three WNBA Draft Pick in point guard Courtney Vandersloot last season, Gonzaga University coach Kelly Graves will look to continue building on the momentum that has made the small Jesuit school the best women's basketball program in the Pacific Northwest. Photo by Craig Bennett/112575 Media.
Some wins really are better than other wins. Beating Connecticut in the NCAA Women's Basketball championship is a lot better than beating Bluebell Girls Academy in an exhibition game. But the question is then "which wins are better than which other wins?"
Not all wins are created equal
Clearly the NCAA doesn't believe that all wins are equal (except, oddly enough, in its coaching record books). In women's basketball, there's a sense that 20 wins is a benchmark number, the point on the scale where a team becomes tournament bound. That might be true if one is a power conference team, but for those that are low conference teams - the ones which are neither power conference nor mid-majors - even 20 wins won't get you a bid in the NCAA tournament.
For these less-esteemed conferences the only thing that will get you to the NCAA's grand spectacle is winning your conference tournament. Every year there's the case of the regular season champion losing in some conference tournament with the winner being a low-seeded team that barely has a .500 record - or worse. It doesn't matter. The barely above water team goes to the NCAA tournament, usually as a #15 or #16 seed, while the best team in the conference must settle for the WNIT as the price for its failure in the conference tournament.
This gives us an idea of which wins are important.
The wins that matter most
Conference championships are important, because for a lot of conferences these tournaments truly are winner-take all. A team which both won its conference tournament and made it to the NCAA tournament should receive more credit that a team that was given an at-large bid to get in.
The benchmark in the NCAA tournament is not merely getting there, but how deep one can go. Likewise, making it to the Final Four should be worth more than making it to the Elite Eight. What about the WNIT? It's sad to say it, but the WNIT is simply not as prominent as the NCAA. Our ranking system gives teams credit for getting to the WNIT, but not much more than a minimum amount no matter how deep they go. The teams in the WNIT simply aren't the best teams in the country. A WNIT championship is noteworthy and should get some extra credit, but nothing else (as for the CBI, well, try harder next year. There are some people who don't even know the WNIT exists, and there are a lot of people who don't know the CBI exists).
There are other types of wins (or non-wins) that should matter:
* Benchmark wins: People like nice round numbers. A twenty-win season is a nice thing, but truth be told, it doesn't mean as much as it used to. My current understanding (correct me if I'm wrong) is that an NCAA Division I team should play at least 29 games against Division I opponents. In most cases, that's winning two thirds - sometimes less - of your total season games.
College basketball is a lot like college football in that the final results of a season can be very unbalanced. Connecticut proves that going undefeated in college basketball isn't a rarity. (Try doing that in the NBA, with the longer schedule and with teams composed entirely of dominant college players.) If you're in a power conference, if you have the right resources and you hand-pick the right opponents, getting to 20 wins shouldn't be that difficult. It's certainly better than not winning 20 games, but it's not that astonishing.
Winning 30 games, however, is definitely noteworthy. There aren't that many ways one can win 30 or more games in a season. One either has to go virtually undefeated in the regular season or conference tournament, or get close to thirty wins before going deep in the NCAA tournament. Either of those accomplishments is very remarkable, and we've tried to weight that into the results.
* Losing seasons. If I'm correct in reading the historical record, the 2010-11 season for Mississippi was the worst in its history as a program. This was mentioned not to direct any specific ire towards the Rebels (Rebel Black Bears?) but rather to point out that it wouldn't have mattered if the Rebel Black Bears finished 10-19 or 1-28 or 14-15: "losing season" pretty much says it all. Just as there's a difference between winning 29 games vs. winning 30 games, there's a difference between finishing 14-15 and finishing 15-14.
If one wishes to claim that some losses are just as good as some wins - making it to the finals of some post-season tournament but not winning - that person shall be asked to name the losers from the last five NCAA women's basketball tournaments (*).
Click here for an overview of how these rankings were determined.
11. North Carolina: The Tar Heels lost two players to the second round of the WNBA Draft - F Jessica Breland and G Italee Lucas. You can complain all you want about Sylvia Hatchell's coaching style which seems closer to what the Phoenix Mercury do than anything else - North Carolina was a top ten team in scoring offense this year and made it to the ACC Championship game, losing to Duke. They then followed that with a Sweet Sixteen appearance, losing 72-65 to Stanford in the Regional Semifinals.
The Tar Heels has a nice recruiting class but they lose three starters including PG Cetera DeGraffenreid. DeGraffenreid played almost 30 minutes a game and a lot of leadership leaves with her. But in a way, Tar Heels never leave the program. Coach Sylvia Hatchell makes sure that there's at least one prominent alum on the bench. Sylvia Crawley was one such alum who is now head coach at Boston College. With Charlotte Smith departing for Elon, who will be the next former North Carolina player to make the transition into coaching?
12. Iowa State: The Cyclones are coming off their second straight Sweet Sixteen appearance and have had ten 20-win seasons over the last 15 years. Overall, they've had five Sweet Sixteen appearances and two Elite Eight appearances. They've been in the top 10 nationally in attendance for 12 straight years - and if you ever seen a game, those bodies in the seats aren't tickets given away. They averaged 9,370 players a game in Ames, Iowa last season, good for fourth in the country. (Amusing factoid: in 2009 Iowa State got a grant from the NCAA to help increase attendance - where was this unoccupied seat, behind a support beam?) That spectator support might describe why the Cyclones were 16-1 at home last year.
Unfortunately, G Kelsey Bolte is lost to graduation, and she's taking about a quarter of the Cyclone offense with her. Even so, Fennelly will try to shore up Bolte's loss with four freshmen. The only other issue Fennelly might have to deal with is treatment for a cancerous vocal cord lesion in the early part of the season.
13. Purdue: Things are looking up for Purdue -basically the entire roster returns from previous season where Boilermakers went to second round of NCAA tourney and now Purdue has the luxury of choosing between KK Houser and Courtney Moses as point guard. And even though 7,628 fans might be considered a "down" year at Purdue they still have the #8 attendance in women's basketball.
Furthermore, Mackey Arena's facilities are being upgraded, but if all Purdue had going for it was applying a new coat of varnish on an arena floor they wouldn't be a great program. They will challenge three great teams in the 2011 season - Duke on December 1st, Texas A&M on the 4th and Notre Dame on the 10th. And how many women's basketball teams cause riots when they lose? Granted, this was in 2001 but Purdue students actually rioted after the loss to Notre Dame.
F Drew Mingo recovered from the bacterial meningitis that almost took her life last year, although she now has to wear hearing aids. (She hears about at a 60 percent level in her right ear from before the illness, but her left ear hearing is severely diminished.) That didn't stop her last season, and it won't this year.
14. Rutgers: Every year, you can ask yourself two questions about the Scarlet Knights: a) who did they recruit this year, and b) who transferred out of the program?
Let's answer "a" first. Rutgers has the #3 recruiting class in the country according to Hoopgurlz.com. Three of C. Vivian Stringer's recruits were in the top 20 players of their class - G Briyona Canty, W Betnijah Laney and PG Shakena Richardson. They all have their share of national recognition, and I don't know if we should start comparing them to those three pro guys from Miami but they are very good. And Rutgers seems to get recruits at this level year after year.
So who transferred out? G Daisha Simmons and F Briana Hutchen. F Julie Pauvonic. They've lost six players to transfers since the end of the 2009 season, including Jasmine Dixon and Brooklyn Pope (seven if you count Prince's departure at the end of the junior year.) You can use either the "soft players" theory or the "demanding coach" theory, but if Rutgers had managed to keep to keep some of those players...well, who can say? Rutgers deals with loss yet again as senior F Chelsea Lee will sit out for a year due to a shoulder injury.
15. Texas: The hope in Texas was that if Gail Goestenkors didn't get them to a national championship, she'd get them within striking distance: over a 10-year span her Duke Blue Devils would make it to 10 straight Sweet Sixteens and two National Championship games.
But in the four years Goestenkors has been at Texas, the results have been disappointing (for Texas, anyway) - pedestrian Big Twelve seasons with the last three years ending with Texas booted out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. And now the hated Aggies are the last Texas team to have a National Championship (Goestenkors is 0-11 against the Aggies while at Texas.) Texas has the #11 class according to Hoopgurlz. The Longhorns lose senior G Kathleen Nash but they still have freshman sensation G Chassidy Fussell who was Texas' leading scorer last year and member of the Big 12 All-Freshman team. They also pick up F Kayla Brewer, a transfer from South Carolina who should be eligible mid-season. Recruit PG Cassie Peoples might be the point guard Texas has been looking for.
16. Michigan State: For all four years of her tenure at Michigan State, Suzy Merchant has managed to get the Spartans into the post-season. This last season was the first time she had won 27 games and had taken Michigan State to a Big Ten Championship, but the loss to Wisconsin-Green Bay in the second round of the NCAA Tournament had to be a disappointing end to the season.
The Spartans lose four seniors this year, including three starters but keep Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year and future WNBA draft pick F Lykendra Johnson. Freshman C Madison Williams - who tore her ACL last season - should be ready to play and has picked up another inch of height along the way, moving from 6-6 to 6-7. Gatorade Michigan Girls Player of the Year F Jasmine Hines will also play next year for the first time at MSU.
17. Ohio State: Last season, I complained about Ohio State's lack of tournament oomph. The six-year string of regular season championships came to an end as Ohio State finished #5 in the conference, but rolled through the Big Ten tournament when it counted with their third straight Big Ten Championship. The Buckeyes were seeded #4 in the Dayton region and made it to the Sweet Sixteen. (Although playing a couple of games in Columbus couldn't have hurt.) Ohio State's loss to Tennessee ended an 11-game win streak.
Next year, the Buckeyes have a big hole to fill after losing #5 WNBA Draft Pick C Jantel Lavender to graduation, the only four time Big Ten Player of the Year. However, they still have PG "Psycho Sammy" Prahalis who will probably play her way into a first round WNBA draft pick. Prahalis has already broken the school's assists record as a junior, way back in February. Prahalis is great, but how do you replace those 22.8 points a game that Lavender added to the Buckeye score sheet? It must keep coach Jim Foster awake at night.
18. Louisiana State University: If you look at LSU's history, it's an impressive line of coaches. Sue Gunter. Pokey Chatman. Van Chancellor, and now Nikki Caldwell, who travels from UCLA to take over at LSU, and to be in the same conference as her alma mater, Tennessee.
Although, if you think about it, LSU's coaches haven't had great luck. Gunter was forced out of coaching by respiratory disease that claimed her life just 17 months after she took a leave of absence. Pokey Chatman resigned in scandal. Van Chancellor wasn't able to restore the magic. Although he did leave Caldwell with F Krystal Forthan, the #5 player in the country according to Hoopgurlz and a big reason LSU's incoming class of freshmen is ranked #10. UCLA vaulted to prominence under Caldwell; but there's no need to vault when you're starting at one of the best programs in the SEC to begin with.
19. Kentucky: There's a saying: "Something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue." Kentucky has simply left out the "old" and "borrowed" parts. Coach Matthew Mitchell brought the Wildcats back to 20 win seasons in just four years and picking up in the footsteps of Mickie DeMoss. Kentucky made it to a #4 seed in the Spokane region but fell to North Carolina in the second round. Mitchell's rush to success has led some to consider him a longshot candidate for replacing Pat Summitt down the road - after all, he used to be a graduate assistant at UT so he has the pedigree, and it's not like a Kentucky coach never joined the Tennessee coaching staff.
The Wildcats pick up P Samarie Walker as a transfer from UConn and G/F DeNesha Stallworth from California (Walker can start play at the end of the 2011-12 fall semester.) Both were WBCA All-Americans. Victoria Dunlap was a first-round draft pick for the Washington Mystics, and last year the Wildcats had their best attendance since 1982-83, finishing 11th in the nation. But the changes don't stop there. A new snazzy website at looks like something beyond the typical random collection of videos. Could Kentucky be the next women's basketball power?
20. Vanderbilt: For all of the Commodores accomplishments in the SEC this season - a third-place finish, another 20 win season, a 12-3 home record, the semifinals of the SEC tournament and their 12th straight NCAA touranment - the impression from Vandy fans seems to be that last season was a disappointment. They expected more.
Part of the reason was injuries. F Clair Watkins suffered a knee injury before the season even started. C Kayci Ferris was an injury redshirt that hadn't played since her junior year in high school and later withdrew from Vanderbilt. C Stephanie Holzer struggled with back spasms. G Jence Rhoads had ankle and wrist injuries. G Christina Foggie was knocked unconscious in a game against Bowling Green. Vandy expected to be the tallest, toughest so-and-sos in the SEC but spent the season in a road touring company of "M*A*S*H" instead.
This season Vanderbilt will have youth on its side. By the end of the year, only one season will graduate - reserve F Jordan Coleman - and last year's leading scorer G Jasmine Lister will begin her sophomore season in Nashville.
21. Texas Tech: The Lady Raiders galloped to a 16-1 start to last season - their best in almost ten years - but hit the wall in Big Twelve play, finishing the season 6-9. However, Texas Tech grabbed the spotlight by beating then #1-ranked Baylor in front of 10,000 fans who stormed the court after the win. Despite the late-season stumble, the Lady Raiders made it back to the NCAA tournament as a #8 seed, losing to St. John's in the opening round of the Spokane Regional.
Kristy Curry's team only loses one starter to graduation, so a return to the NCAA tournament is more than probable. The Lady Raiders might have finished in the middle of the Big Twelve pack but finished in the Top Ten nationally in attendance. Curry turned down the LSU head coaching position last spring to stay in Lubbock. With F/C Kierra Mallard and PG Casey Morris leading the way, maybe Curry knew something we didn't in remaining at Texas Tech.
22. Gonzaga: It's going to be hard for the Zags to top what they did last season. Seven straight West Coast Conference titles, and the second year undefeated in conference play. A 31-win season, and an Elite Eight season, and a top three WNBA Draft Pick in G Courtney Vandersloot, who came close to sending Gonzaga to the Final Four through sheer willpower. The hype put Gonzaga in the top 25 of NCAA women's basketball attendance.
Gonzaga knew what was good for it, and signed coach Kelly Graves to a 10-year contract extension. But how much of it was a perfect storm? Having one of the top three seniors in the country and playing a regional semifinal on your own homecourt? Graves might have been tempted into take the job at Washington, but keeping Gonzaga on top might be as much of a challenge as resurrecting the Huskies. Lucky for Graves he just picked up G Taelor Karr who averaged 10.3 points last year at Kansas State...and due to the circumstances that led to her transfer, the NCAA made the exception to grant Karr immediate eligibility at Gonzaga rather than making her wait a year.
23. Iowa: The Hawkeyes headed into their fourth straight post-season appearance last year as a #6 seed in Spokane - the eighth in 11 years under head coach Lisa Bluder - but were upset in the first round by Gonzaga's march to the Elite Eight. It was Bluder's fourth straight 20-win season. Iowa fans must have loved what they seen because Iowa's average attendance increased by 1400 patrons last year for the fourth-highest average attendance in school history.
The arena at Iowa, Carver-Hawkeye Arena, is in the process of renovation with two full-sized practice courts that will diminish conflicts with the men's team for space. The future is looking up in Iowa, and Bluder is hoping to be a part of it - she has signed a contract extension to the year 2018. Despite post-season disappointment the #2 point guard of 2011, Samantha Logic, passes up Stanford and Vanderbilt for Iowa. G Kachine Alexander made it to the third round of the WNBA draft in 2011, but Iowa recruited the #12 class in the nation according to Hoopgurlz and Logic will be joined by wing player Virginia Johnson out of Iowa City - in aggregate they might have the potential to replace Alexander's offensive output.
24. Nebraska: Optimism was very hard to find in Nebraska women's basketball last year. After a 32-2 season, Nebraska forward Kelsey Griffin graduated. Griffin was responsible for a massive chunk of Nebraska's offensive production and without her the Cornhuskers fell to 13-18, the second worst season under head coach Connie Yori. Nebraska came into its final Big Twelve tournament as a 12 seed, losing by eight points to Iowa State in the opening round. It's very hard to find anything positive about that.
However, Nebraska has a new basketball training facility to look forward to, just in time for their first season of Big Twelve play. A new basketball arena is planned to open in 2013-14. A new palace is nice, and they'll only lose one starter from last year's squad. F Jordan Hooper was on the Big 12 All Freshman team last year, and ended up #2 on Nebraska's all time points list for freshmen with 14.6 ppg, starting every game. F Emily Cady leads a #29 recruiting class from Hoopgurlz which hopes to put Nebraska back in the win column.
25. Georgia: Why should anyone be surprised that the Lady Bulldogs made it to the Sweet Sixteen? It was the Coach Andy Landers's 19th appearance in the Sweet Sixteen, and the only club with more appearances there is Tennessee. It would take eventual national champion Texas A&M to send Georgia packing in the post-season with the Lady Bulldogs suffering a crushing 79-38 defeat in Dallas.
Even so, Landers has a lot more wins that he does losses. As of the end of 2011 Landers was #5 on the career wins list for active women's basketball coaches (but no national championship, not yet). Junior G Jasmine James will have to carry a big part of the load herself. James averaged 11.4 points per game last season but lost fellow teammate Porsha Phillips (who scored 10.6 points per game and averaged a double-double) to graduation. The dismissal of one player and the indefinite suspension of another player in April due to academic issues leaves Landers looking for help from junior college players (academics?) and from guard recruits Krista Donald and Erika Ford.
(*) If you're a regular reader of Swish Appeal, you should know the answer to that one without Wikipedia.