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“The best surprise is none at all”

March 31, 2009

That’s how a Chicago Tribune article referred to the 1995 UConn Huskies’ perfect season. For that year, a brief period of my childhood, I was going to be a basketball star. This was after photographer and before architect, but basketball was a least something you could start concretely at that age. It helped that I lived in Connecticut, one of two states synonymous with total domination in women’s college basketball. When the Huskies won the National Championship in 1995, we put up a hoop in our driveway, all because of Rebecca Lobo, Jen Rizzotti, and Shea Ralph.

In the late 90s and first half this decade you couldn’t have any discussion about women’s college hoops without the Connecticut Huskies and the Tennessee Lady Volunteers. Of the 26 college championship titles ever awarded for women’s basketball, the Huskies and Lady Vols have won half of them; Tennessee with 8 national championships, UConn, 5, including 3 consecutive years. Four out of the five times UConn has won the title, they defeated Tennessee to do so. The first WNBA teams were largely seeded with UConn and Tenn. players. During one recent season, Connecticut was beating their opponents by an average of 50 points.

They play great basketball, but it makes for a boring rest of the season. These teams were so exceptional that no other team (save a few shots from LSU and Southern California in the mid-90s) could regularly beat them. It was like watching the French national basketball team against the NBA. The only women’s games with any sort of suspense in the regular season were, in fact, the UConn-Tennessee series, a contract that guaranteed the teams would meet at least twice in the regular season.

How did this happen? Why couldn’t any other team get to this level for nearly a decade and a half? What I believed happened was in 1995 and 1996, by fate and hard work, Connecticut and Tennessee brought women’s basketball to that next level, and got young girls, especially my age, starting earlier in basketball. But those young girls wouldn’t enter college until at least the second half of the 2000s. In the meantime, the limited number of women who had been trained to play on UConn/Tennessee level before that surge in interest, went, by and large, to play for UConn and Tennessee. It was a positive feedback loop of basketball talent. Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Candace Parker and Kara Lawson became the next generation of superstars, and not surprisingly, they all went to those two teams.

Then the young women, told and shown since elementary school, since UConn’s run, that it was possible to get a basketball scholarship arrived on campus. Of course they went to UConn and of course they went to Tennessee. But there was so many more of them now, playing at that level, so they went to Oklahoma, Stanford, Maryland, and many other schools.

I watched the UConn-Cal game, and then the Oklahoma-Pitt game this weekend. I was blown away – all the teams playing for a spot in the Elite Eight were playing quick, competitive, and stylish basketball. An ESPN commentator mentioned that WNBA scouts were in the stadium, looking strongly at Oklahoma’s Courtney Paris, who that night became the only college basketball player, man or woman, to get 2500 points and 2000 rebounds over the course of her college career. This was after she went 112 consecutive games with a double-double.

UConn has had a perfect year so far, the next big thing with Maya Moore and are poised to win the national championship again. Except this year it’s going to be a whole lot harder. How do I know? Tennessee got knocked out in round 1.

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