Producing WNBA Rookie of the Year award winners like Maya Moore (2011) and Candace Parker (2008) is one part of what makes the Connecticut Huskies and Tennessee Lady Vols the top two programs in NCAA Division I women's basketball. Photo by Craig Bennett/112575 Media.
I don't think that importance of coaches can be underestimated in considering which programs are important and which ones are not. On the other hand, I don't think it can be estimated very well, either.
The biggest problem is separating what the coach does from the rest of the team. Does the team cause the coach to be highly esteemed or vice versa? We can call this the "Marynell Meadors Problem", for those familiar with the WNBA's Atlanta Dream coach. There are a great number of people out there who do not wish to give Marynell Meadors her due credit for leading the Atlanta Dream to two consecutive WNBA Finals. The argument goes like this:
1. Anyone could have won with that bunch of talent.
2. It was all done by her assistant coaches.
But if this is the case, these arguments could be applied to just about any college coach, or for that matter, any coach of just about any sport.
The 2009-10 Connecticut Huskies? Anybody could have won with that bunch of talent, one might say. The 2007-08 Tennessee Lady Volunteers? It was all done by her assistant coaches.
You are left between a rock and a hard place - you either assign the coach no credit, or you are left with the sticky case of deciding how much credit to give coaches for their programs.
How much credit does a coach deserve for a team's success?
There have been all kinds of proposed methods to carve out coaching wins but none of them are very popular. A coach can't go out there and shoot baskets, so it's hard to tell how good the coach is without looking at how good the team is - and if you're looking at the team anyway, why not just bundle the coach's contributions in with the team's, rather than assigning separate credit?
Another question: is it really harder to coach at the Division I level versus the Division III level? Both coaches are going to face similar challenges - the Xs and Os are the same. It could be that some Division I players can break a game wide open, but couldn't there be a few Division III players at the long tail of the Division III curve that similarly dominate their peers?
The NCAA women's basketball coaches record book starts with listing the coaching records of all divisions combined, not just Division I. (Ever heard of Barbara Stevens of Division II Bentley? Or Michael Strong of Division III Scranton? - they're both in the ten all time in women's basketball wins across all divisions.) So if a Division II winner like Barbara Stevens is (hypothetically) just as great as a Division I winner like Tara VanDerveer, then why should we give Stanford any kind of special credit for having her as its head coach?
Note that the best programs seem to have coaches with long tenures, perhaps 15 years or more at some schools. One could claim that continuity of coaching is a contributor to great programs.
How much does coaching longevity matter?
Recruits have no reason to believe that a Muffet McGraw or an Andy Landers might not be around next year - coaches can tell their recruits, "I'll be here when you graduate."
But is longevity a cause or is longevity an effect? We can all name a couple of women's basketball coaches (I'm keeping my list secret) that have sort of been granted perpetual tenure even though they've really done nothing special for their schools. Does the greatness of the team come from the greatness of the coach, or vice versa? Is there a proper way to separate the two?
Another reason against including coaching years or coaching wins is a problem that has popped up throughout evaluating teams on our list, namely a paucity of accurate data. Yes, Pat Summitt's year to year record is pretty well known but getting information regarding some coaches is like pulling teeth. Coaching biographies available on the program websites might have been written before last season - or the season before that! (For a side project I attempted to determine the ages of all 340 or so Division I college coaches. I gave up. It's hopeless.) If you don't have accurate data, you're stumped before you've started.
Maybe someday, there will be a nice way to determine how much a coach contributes to a program aside from the results of team performance. But it it exists, I haven't come up with it yet.
Click here for an overview of how these rankings were determined.
On January 6, 2007 the Tennessee Lady Volunteers traveled to Hartford to play the Connecticut Huskies. This was back in the days of Candace Parker and Renee Montgomery. It was the third straight win for Tennessee and after 22 games since 1995 the Lady Vols closed the gap to 13-9 against UConn.
And then it stopped. Tennessee discontinued the series. No explicit reason for the discontinuation of the series was given by Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt or anyone at Tennessee, but the recruiting complaints that Tennessee against the UConn program might be the reason. (Well, one of them anyway.) The theory was that after Maya Moore graduated from Connecticut the series might pick up where it left off, but that theory has not come to fruition.
Summitt has very little to say about it. Geno Auriemma, the vocal head coach of Connecticut, has had a lot to say about it.
"She accused us of cheating at recruiting. She doesn't have the courage to say it publicly. So yeah, Geno does know. And I've said it."
"Everybody in the country has to understand that the only people who really wanted the whole Connecticut-Tennessee thing were people outside women’s basketball...that was just for the outside fans."
It's not that Connecticut has been suffering without that yearly Connecticut-Tennessee matchup. They won in 2009 and 2010, and made the Final Four in 2008 and 2011. UConn won a record 90 consecutive games, breaking the record formerly set by the UCLA men's team which won 88 straight. And yet...I can't help feeling that that record has an asterisk (*) next to it.
It's not because the UCLA Bruins were rugged men of honor (emphasis on the "men" in the eyes of certain members of the sports Nomenklatura like Bryant Gumbel) but rather because throughout that 90 game win streak there's a name missing on that list. Tennessee.
It's not that Auriemma was also refusing to play Summitt. Auriemma doesn't duck high quality competition, and he's played the best whenever he can play them. Looking over the 90 game win streak, they have played just about every major team in the country. But they haven't played the second-best program, Tennessee, and even though Connecticut has been absolutely dominant during this time frame and probably would have beaten Tennessee if the series had continued...well, you never know.
Without Tennessee, one gets the impression that Auriemma is fishing around for another rivalry, trying to create one out of whole cloth with some other women's basketball powerhouse. Dan Tylicki of Bleacher Report claims that fans will flock to a UConn-Stanford rivalry the same way that they would to the UConn-Tennessee rivalry. Bob Phillips of the Examiner states that UConn-Stanford is now the top rivalry and that Tennessee has somehow forfeited the title of chief rival. Even reporters who follow Stanford and Tennessee would like to claim that the annual Stanford-Tennessee game is now the top rivalry in basketball.
But the top rivalry cannot be legislated. It can't be decided by a coach. It can't be determined by fiat by some guy at a keyboard, or legislated in some imaginary way. The top rivalry in college women's basketball is what the fans say it is. And from my meager understanding, the current top rivalry is Connecticut vs. Tennessee, regardless if any games are played or not.
You really think that Connecticut-Stanford or Stanford-Tennessee is the top rivalry? Okay, which game are you going to buy a ticket for? Connecticut vs. Stanford? Tennessee vs. Stanford? Or Connecticut vs. Tennessee? I know where I'd be. I'd be watching Geno and Pat (or Pat and Geno) tilt at each other one more time. If I only have three games to pick from, I'll take the last one because everyone will be talking about it anyway.
They are the two best programs in women's college basketball. They compete for the same blue-chip recruits every year. It makes no sense to talk about their great players, or their facilities, or their energized fan bases, because both of those are givens. They have both reached the pinnacle, but are as different as hot and cold running water, as different as the colors blue and orange.
Another way to measure the strength of the best of the best: when you can say Team X has finally "entered the ranks" of the best teams around because they've beaten Team Y. For years, Team Y has been either Connecticut or Tennessee. If you beat either of those teams, either at home, away, or on a neutral court, you can say you belonged. You might get lucky against Baylor or Duke, but beating the Huskies or the Lady Vols has nothing to do with luck.
Could either of these teams slip down the list next year? Suffer setbacks? Cast doubts about their greatness? Well, anything's possible but I don't see it happening any time soon. Maybe Connecticut-Tennessee will resume, but I suspect someone will have to die, first, or give in.
I'll only say this: on YouTube, Pat Summitt was coaching some of her son Tyler's AAU Team. One of the young men - excusing his problems on the court - made the mistake of using the word 'can't'. She said to the young man, "You can't say 'can't' to me." Well, in that case, no one should say 'can't' to a resumption of Connecticut vs. Tennessee.
2. Tennessee: When Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, the defeated British played "The World Turned Upside Down".
"Listen to me and you shall hear, news hath not been this thousand year:
Since Herod, Caesar, and many more, you never heard the like before.
Holy-dayes are despis'd, new fashions are devis'd.
Old Christmas is kicked out of Tow
Yet let's be content, and the times lament, you see the world turn'd upside down."
The news that head coach Pat Summitt has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia has indeed turned the world upside down in women's college basketball. Pat Summitt has been the face of Tennessee women's basketball for over three decades. (Was she the face from 1970-1979? See, who can remember?) The thought that Pat Summitt might be forced to walk away from Lady Vols due to health concerns doesn't seem...right. The story is not supposed to end like this.
Before we speak of Pat Summitt - or the Lady Vols - in the past tense, a reminder that the program is still alive and kicking. They kicked their way to the Regional Finals last year, where they lost to Notre Dame. F Glory Johnson and G Shekinna Stricklen will be in their senior seasons in Knoxville, but the Lady Vols also have the #1 point guard recruit in Ariel Massengale, who finished the FIBA U17 World Championships a year ago with 43 assists and 16 turnovers, and hit 3-pointers at a 50 percent rate. She also won gold at the U19 championships with 43 assists, 22 turnovers, 16 steals, 8-for-23 3-point shooting. Massengale will be joined by F Cierra Burdick, who averaged 6.0 rebounds per game, second on the USA team next to Breanna Stewart (who is going to...uh...Connecticut in 2012.)
So it's a little early to start mourning Tennessee just yet. Great players are still drawn to the Lady Vols, and Tennessee still has the best attendance in women's basketball. Even so, it looks like the winds of change might be blowing in Knoxville, and sooner than we expected.
3. Stanford: I'm trying to recall the last time that Stanford didn't go to the Final Four. That was in 2007. It just seems like Stanford has been in that handful of contenders forever. The last time they lost a Pac-12 game was on January 28, 2009 and they've won 55 straight by my count since then, with 11 straight regular season championships and six tournament champions. They managed to break Connecticut's record-setting run of consecutive wins and they came within a Tyra White layup of going to another title game. Face it, if you want to look for superlatives about Stanford, you won't have to do much research before you find something eye-boggling.
The most impressive factoid is that in the last four years, the Connecticut Huskies have lost a grand total of four games. Two of those games were to Stanford.
And there's no stopping the Cardinal. This year, senior F Nnemkadi Ogumwike has been penciled in by so many people to be the #1 WNBA Draft Pick in 2012 that a few people have started calling the race of bottom feeders in the WNBA "The Nnemka Bowl". But it all goes through Tara VanDerveer, one of the elite coaches in basketball in the country, male or female. She was named to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and was officially added to the roster of greats on August 12th. She picked up her 800th win this year, making her one of only four women's basketball coaches - Summitt, Stringer and Hatchell are the others - to have 800 wins. Just like her team, you don't have to look through the record book for long to find something eye-popping when it comes to VanDerveer. I don't know what we can expect in Palo Alto this year, but Stanford makes the astonishing routine.
4. Texas A&M: This season, the Aggies gigged women's basketball. Granted, they snuck up on a lot of people, me included. I figured if Gary Blair hadn't won a championship by now, he'd never win one. I didn't mind being made a fool of; the Aggies won the first NCAA women's championship worn by a team not from Connecticut or Tennessee in the last five years.
Part of that championship was carried on the back of F/C Danielle Adams, who scored 30 points for the Aggies in that game against Notre Dame, 22 of which were scored in the second half. (Adams also had nine rebounds.) Adams continues to sneak up on people in the WNBA, where she could have snuck away with a Rookie of the Year award had it not been for an injury. (Why do some people assume that because you carry a greater than average amount of adipose tissue that you would somehow be unable to play basketball? You'd think the reverse - anyone carrying that weight who could play that well must be very, very good indeed.)
It will be a tough season for Texas A&M without Adams - in addition to Big 12 powers like Baylor and Oklahoma the Aggies will play powers like Connecticut and USC in the non-conference schedule. (And Connecticut will be a home-and-home.) They also lose PG Sydney Colson to graduation (and to the New York Liberty) but their recruiting class includes three players ranked in the Top 50 by Hoopgurlz.com and getting 6-foot-4 center Kelsey Bone is eligible to play after transferring from South Carolina.
5. Duke: Oh, Duke. Yes, you have Joanne P. McCallie, and you've extended her contract to 2017. But wasn't the entire point of hiring McCallie to lead Duke to the championship that they didn't get in 2006? They finished #1 in the Associated Press poll in 2007 at the end of the regular season. Things were looking bright for the Blue Devils.
Instead, it seems as if Duke has moved off the short list of perennial national championship contenders. What has Duke accomplished? Well, it's nothing at which to turn up one's nose. Sweet Sixteen in 2008. Second Round in 2009. Elite Eight in 2010 and in 2011. But this year, the Blue Devils were routed by Connecticut not once, but twice. They lost 87-51 at Storrs and lost 75-40 in the Regional Finals. They shot under 30 percent in both games, looking less like the ACC Champions and more like the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. (In the first game, they were held to 15 points at halftime. I don't know what that is, but it isn't a National Championship contender.)
McCallie is 2-6 against the teams above Duke on the list during her four years there, and is 0-4 in games against UConn, none of which were close. Lucky for the Blue Devils that they have the #2 recruit in the country. And who knows? There's another Connecticut game on the schedule on January 30, 2012 - and I'm sure that many Duke fans hope that this year the outcome will be much different. (Buy your Cameron Indoor Stadium tickets now.)
6. Baylor: The 6-8 Brittney Griner moves into her junior year, and honestly - I'm sure a lot of you expected Baylor to be up higher. Griner has been touted as a Babe Ruth of women's basketball, able to do everything but fly through the air on an invisible jet and deflect bullets with her teeth. Certainly a player of Griner's stature - both figurative and literal - would be wearing an NCAA Championship ring, now wouldn't she?
But luck didn't seem to be on Baylor's side. Against Connecticut they had a great chance of bringing the Huskies winning streak to a close in Hartford, but they fell one point short and Griner was eclipsed by Maya Moore, who scored 30 points. They beat Texas A&M three times last season - once in the Big Twelve title game - but guess who the #1 seeded Lady Bears would meet in the Elite Eight? Yep. The Aggies, who would take home the championship ring that Baylor desired. Maya Moore would take the Wade Trophy, and not Griner. (Maybe launching Griner42.com was a bit of hubris on the university's part.)
Even so, opponents must fear the (Lady) Bear. The Lady Bears have great fan support not just in terms of fans, but dedicated fans - 1,000 fans attended Baylor's end of year awards ceremony. They lose G Melissa Jones to graduation but Griner and freshman G Odyssey Sims will get experience playing for their country - Sims in the World University Games and Griner could very well end up on the US Olympic Team - she's the only player on the US Women's team with college eligibility remaining. Baylor looks like they are primed to make another deep run and have the institutional support to keep doing it.
7. Notre Dame: It seemed for the longest time that the Fighting Irish had been looking up at foes they couldn't beat. They hadn't beaten Tennessee in 20 previous tries - a 28-year record of futility - before finally beating the Lady Vols 73-59. That took them out of the frying pan and into the fire against Connecticut. Before the win that put them in the National Championship game, Notre Dame hadn't won a game against the Huskies in six years, not since January 30, 2005. But this year, fourth time was the charm as Notre Dame sent the defending national champions home, 72-63.
This put Notre Dame in the Finals where they managed to hang in there against the Aggies before falling. Even so, there's much to look forward to. Muffet McGraw was inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. The photogenic F Skylar Diggins got a piece of the national spotlight, with some calling her the next great star of the game, scoring 23 points in the final game. Notre Dame only loses one player from the championship march and has to be reckoned with as a contender for a repeat appearance. In the Big East - where it seems to be "Connecticut and Everyone Else" - the Huskies might have to learn to share the spotlight.
8. Oklahoma: Maybe three straight Final Four appearances was too much to hope for. Then again, when you're in a conference with Baylor and Texas A&M, you'll have to fight for every triumph. Five of their 12 losses came to Baylor and Texas A&M and when they went to Connecticut the Huskies flattened them by 41 points despite the presence of #6 WNBA Draft pick PG Danielle Robinson. At home, they were conquerors; away from Oklahoma, not so much. But even so, enough of the Sooner magic remained to reach the Sweet Sixteen.
Oklahoma loses both Robinson and F Carlee Roethlisberger next season. Coach Sherri Coale spoke of going through a "period of withdrawal" now that Robinson was no longer with the program, and is wondering who will provide the leadership that Robinson provided. Oklahoma fans will have to hope that the ascendance of the Aggies and Lady Bears is a momentary thing and not a permanent shift.
9. Louisville: Louisville would like to approach every year with the perspective of not having to recruit, merely to reload. The Cardinals made the Sweet Sixteen last year, they finished ahead of Connecticut and only behind Tennessee in their first year at the KFC Yum! center with an average attendance of over 10,000 - for a couple of games, the Cardinals had over 22,000 in attendance. They pick up the #7 recruiting class according to Hoopgurlz, including #8 overall guard Bria Smith and #12 overall forward Sarah Hammond.
But without taking anything away from the multiple accomplishments of head coach Jeff Walz, you have to appreciate good fortune's contribution to Louisville's success. A brand new arena is always going to be a recruiting draw. Picking up PG Jude Schimmel isn't too tough when her sister Shoni Schimmel just played her first season at U of L as the second-leading scorer last season. Furthermore, they only graduated one senior last year. If good fortune keeps favoring Louisville, expect them to start moving up this list in a big way.
10. Maryland: Unfortunately, this was not a year for the turtle to float even higher. The Terrapins looked great, starting 20-3 on the season before collapsing with a 4-5 thud, rolled out of the ACC Tournament with an opening round loss to Georgia Tech, and beating St. Francis (PA) in the NCAA Tournament before a 79-57 whalloping by regional rival Georgetown in the Second Round.
It might have simply been a lack of leadership - not from Brenda Frese but from a young Terps squad without a single senior on the roster. They certainly had great players - C Lynetta Kizer averaged 13.2 ppg/7.8 rpg and freshman F Alyssa Thomas was the ACC Rookie of the Year, leading Maryland with 14.5 ppg. But freshman F Whitney Bays didn't play, rehabbing her knee. F Diandra Tchatchouang started every game for the Terps all the way up to the loss against Georgetown, tearing her left ACL and deciding to return to France for good. Even with the hard knocks, Maryland has been a program that has always been able to keep its head up and Frese is signed to Maryland up to 2017.
Which is the top program in the NCAA Division I women's basketball?
Connecticut Huskies (250 votes)
Stanford Cardinal (21 votes)
Tennessee Lady Vols (61 votes)
Texas A&M Aggies (4 votes)
Other (16 votes)
352 total votes