And now, we're in the Royal Court of women's college basketball. The programs listed here are dominated by two programs that have won the bulk of the hardware in the NCAA over the last thirty years. Nearly very single team listed here is not merely a significant competitor, but a significant contributor to the history of women's basketball.
If grades had to be handed out, the top two programs listed here would receive the only A-plus grades. Whenever the one program puts the crown down for a few years, the other one picks it up. But if there's a lesson from history that fans of the Blue or the Orange should remember, it's this one: uneasy is the head that wears the crown. The other teams on this list, to extend the analogy, shall make their reign as uneasy as they can make it.
1. Connecticut: Sorry, Tennessee fans - Connecticut is on top. If you want to find the best program in women's college basketball right now, a starting point would be "record over their last 78 games". For the Huskies, that record would be 78-0, which almost ended in a first-half scare against Stanford in the title game before Geno Auriemma's team righted itself. And these last two undefeated seasons? Those weren't even UConn's first undefeated seasons. As for national championships, last year was the seventh time that Auriemma has walked away with all the marbles, putting him one NCAA championship behind Pat Summitt for all-time leader.
It's come to the point where you can simply write Connecticut in to the Sweet Sixteen - since 1994, they've always ended up among the final sixteen finishers. There was some chat among those I call "sports shills" that Connecticut's dominance over the last two years was a threat to women's college basketball - which is definitely not the case. (Connecticut and Tennessee together, however....)
You could load a WNBA championship team with UConn alumnae: Swin Cash, Sue Bird, Asjha Jones, Tina Charles, Diana Taurasi. You can add Maya Moore to the list. These aren't just some of the best players in the United States, but the best on the planet. This year, Auriemma will be coaching a U.S. team of All-Stars in the FIBA World Championships. How does Auriemma get those super recruits? It must be a lot easier than in the 1990s, because by this point in time the prestige of the program does its own advance work. If you're among the best girls high school players in the U.S., some part of you is thinking about Connecticut.
2. Tennessee: According to some people - those who bleed orange - there's Tennessee, and then there's...nobody. People who don't even know anything about women's basketball know "Tennessee" and even though that might be the sum total of their Lady Vol knowledge, they're certainly on the right track. There are certainly a lot of people who bleed orange - the Lady Volunteers averaged 12,000 per home game last year, finishing #1 in attendance per home game among all NCAA women's basketball teams. Wikipedia calls them "the most prominent team in US women's college basketball", and they might be right.
They have been to the postseason every year since 1977. Since before some of you readers out there might have been born. Southeastern Conference tournament champions 14 years. And when Tennessee goes to the tournament...they go deep. Eight-time NCAA Champions...and 15 visits to the final game. Players like Candace Parker, Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings, Kara Lawson all wore orange at one time in their lives.
Some feared that the program was on the decline. Why? Because in 2009, the Lady Vols had double-digit losses (just like the 1997 championship squad) and worse, made it to the NCAA tournament without getting past the first round. Never mind that this was just the second time in the 21st century that the team had less than 30 wins - to some of the Tennessee faithful, it was disaster with rumblings of Pat Summitt not being able to relate to today's modern kids. In 2010, the young Lady Volunteers answered with 30 wins, SEC regular season and tournament championships, and the Sweet Sixteen. But to those that bleed orange...this isn't good enough. And it certainly isn't good enough for Pat Summitt. Ask her.
3. Duke: I'll bet you thought that Stanford would be here in the #3 spot - if you did, then turn your attention to Durham, North Carolina. In Gail Goestenkors's last seven seasons with the program (2001-2007), the Duke Blue Devils have won 30+ games a year. That's a ridiculous level of dominance. New coach Joanne P. McCallie took three years to get to her first 30-win season last year, but she's been to the Sweet Sixteen twice, going as far as the Elite Eight last year and coming within three points of beating Baylor for another Final Four.
The program has also contributed its share of pros. Chante Black, Lindsey Harding, and Alana Beard are all WNBA names you might have heard of with a Duke pedigree. However, the goal remains excellence at the collegiate level - this year, they'll be playing eight teams from the 2010 NCAA tournament that aren't from the ACC, including Connecticut, Kentucky and Texas A&M. Lucky for Duke that they have the #1 recruiting class in the country according to ESPN including PG Chelsea Gray, listed as the #2 point guard in the country. Last year the Duke men's team won the national championship...is it time to add a championship for the women this year?
4. Stanford: Tara VanDerveer doesn't have just one NCAA championship under her belt - she has two of them (1990, 1992). Generally speaking, a year at Stanford isn't considered a success unless the team makes the Final Four. Good thing that VanDerveer has done this eight times in her career. The last three years have been very successful, with the Cardinal as runner-up in 2008, in the Final Four in 2009 and back to the finals in 2010. In those three years Stanford has 35, 33, and 36 wins. Last year the Cardinal went 36-2 with both losses coming at the hands of champion Connecticut.
You don't do this without being both an excellent recruiter and an evaluator of talent. You'd have to be to get kids to go out to the West Coast where their games might not show up until 10 pm on the East and to go to a university with a demanding academic reputation. One again, Stanford has a big recruiting class coming in, with PF Chiney Ogmuwike - one of the best high school players in the country last year - joining her sister. It must be something in that California water - that's the only explanation I can come up with.
5. Oklahoma: The saying in men's basketball is that if you're looking for a head coach directly from high school, it proves you're not a big-time program. Sherri Coale was signed from a high-school job to coach the Sooners at a time when attendance of 100 at some games would have been remarkable. Clearly, expectations were low. Right?
These days, Oklahoma is averaging 7,500 fans a game. They're coming off two consecutive Final Four appearances and in 2002, they made it all the way to the NCAA Finals (where they lost to Connecticut). The squad had a fantastic 2009 season with a 32-5 record and graduating senior C Courtney Paris drafted in the first round of the WNBA Draft - for most of the year, she was considered a potential #1 pick. Next season, Oklahoma picks up 6-6 post player Nicole Griffin and 6-5 juco transfer Jelena Cerena. Hey, when you're the same league with Brittney Griner, you have to find as much height as you can.
6. Texas A&M: Texas A&M has definitely had some recent success. The arrival of Gary Blair in 2003 put the program on the map and the Aggies have made it to the post-season six out of the seven years he's been head coach. Six post-season appearances, five NCAA appearances, four years past the first round. Last year the Aggies were a #2 seed for the second year in a row but a disappointing 72-71 second-round loss to Gonzaga was a disappointing season finish.
The Aggies had the #10 recruiting class in the country according to ESPN. G/F Tanisha Smith was a second-round draft pick by Seattle, but could find no place on a stacked Storm roster. C Kelsey Bone, a transfer from South Carolina, will start play for the Aggies in 2011. This year, the Aggies only have two seniors on the roster so they have a chance to improve all across the board, but the attention will be on senior F/C Danielle Adams. The program has won 25+ games in each of the last four years, and don't be surprised to see Texas A&M in the top ten next year, too.
7. Maryland: The Terrapins have been absolutely saturated with talent in the past few years. Marissa Coleman (#2 pick), Laura Harper (#10 pick), Crystal Langhorne (#6 pick) and Kristi Toliver (#3 pick). With that kind of talent, the team could have played .500 ball and been known as one of the most prominent basketball programs in the country. Of course, with that kind of talent....
A NCAA title in 2006. Elite Eight in 2008 and 2009. Maryland had to settle for a WNIT appearance in 2010 when the talent ran out, but the Terps have a lot going for them. A top-ten team in attendance. A great facility at the Comcast Center. #36 on the list of world universities in academics. Currently, the best conference game of the year (Maryland vs. Duke, wherever). And the scary thought...even though hated Duke has the #1 recruiting class according to ESPN, a ravenous turtle is chasing the Blue Devis with the #2 recruiting class off to Maryland. Maryland shouldn't fall out of the top ten any time soon...and might move up....
8. North Carolina: Out of all of the great basketball schools in the Tarheel State - and there are a lot of them - North Carolina is in the Top Ten...and in second place. That's the kind of basketball they play in Carolina, where the ACC (three programs in the top ten) is murderously difficult. Leading the program is coach Sylvia Hatchell, who has coached for over 30 years - and is only 58 years old.
If you come to play basketball at North Carolina, don't expect to be confined by some stringent offense - Hatchell likes to let her players run the court and the Tar Heels love to rack up the points. F Jessica Breland has almost recovered from the Hodgkin's lymphoma that kept her out for the 2009-10 season. PG Cetera DeGraffenreid should be at least a second round WNBA draft pick. SG Italee Lucas is coming along nicely, leading the team with 14.7 ppg last year This is a team that can threaten in the NCAA tourney in 2011.
9. Baylor: Brittney Griner. Brittney Griner. Brittney Griner. Brittney Griner. Brittney Griner. That's all most people know about the Baylor Lady Bears. They even forget about the 2005 NCAA Championship that Baylor won. Never mind that Kim Mulkey has taken the Lady Bears to two Final Fours over her nine-year career. Nope, it's all about "Griner dunked twice against Texas State" or "Griner got in a fight".
Believe it or not, Baylor has more going for it than just Brittney Griner (only a freshman last year). They're a top ten program in NCAA attendance. G Brooklyn Pope will be playing for Baylor in a year after transferring from Rutgers. Sophia Young of the WNBA is a Baylor graduate under the Mulkey era. But even with all of that, even with Brittney Griner who might be one of the greatest players in women's basketball history, it's going to be very hard for Baylor to break the choke-hold that Connecticut and Tennessee have over women's basketball.
10. Ohio State: For the last six years, the Buckeyes have won the regular season championship of the Big Ten. For the last eight years, Ohio State has gone to the tournament. They had 31 wins last year. Unfortunately, Ohio State isn't mentioned without the words "tournament" and "upset" these days. Here's how The Ohio State University has done the last eight years:
Seed: 4, 6, 2, 1, 4, 6, 3, 2
Wins: 1, 1, 2, 1, 0, 0, 2, 1
This includes an ignominious 79-69 loss to Boston College in 2006 in the second round as the #1 seed and last year's 87-67 loss to Mississippi State as a #2 seed. In the last eight years, Ohio State has averaged exactly one win per NCAA tournament. How can we call them "upsets" if the Buckeyes getting booted is becoming routine? Ohio State's tournament failures might also keep players like C Jantel Lavender and G Samantha Prahalis from getting greater exposure. Maybe this is the year Ohio State gets to a...regional final.