A year ago, the women’s college basketball season kicked off with its normal names at the top of the rankings and three dynamic stars to help draw attention. Baylor’s Brittney Griner, Delaware’s Elena Delle Donne, and Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins didn’t disappoint. Griner led Baylor to a Big XII title, though a Sweet Sixteen exit in the NCAA Tournament was a disappointment. Delle Donne took the Blue Hens to the NCAA Tournament, where they won the first tournament game in Delaware history. And Diggins and Notre Dame posted the best regular season record in school history, going undefeated in the Big East and reaching the Final Four.
As a new season begins, though, that trio of stars is gone — they were the first three picks in the 2013 WNBA Draft — and in their wake is a sport trying to go on without them. For all of the attention Griner, Delle Donne, Diggins, and another Connecticut national title brought, the 2012-2013 season wasn’t a glowing success: scoring reached an all-time low and interest in the NCAA Tournament waned, leading to questions about how the women’s game could survive, and eventually thrive, at the college level.
There are new stars in the game now, whether they are established players like Stanford’s Chiney Ogwumike and Louisville’s Schoni Schimmel, to name only two, or up-and-comers like 6-foot-6 Tennessee freshman Mercedes Russell, who will attempt to take the Volunteers back to the Final Four for the first time since 2008. But none of them are as big as the three that just left, and none, it seems, will help fix the women’s game by themselves.
So the powers-that-be at the NCAA went back to the drawing board. Like the men’s game, which also suffered from scoring drops in recent years, they have implemented rule changes that should make defenses less physical, thereby increasing scoring and shooting percentages, which sunk to an absurdly low 39 percent last season. To address root problems, the NCAA hired Val Ackerman, the first president of the WNBA, to draft proposals aimed at increasing the sport’s popularity both during the regular season and at the NCAA Tournament.
Ackerman’s white paper, released over the summer, called for sweeping changes to the game and, for now, the tournament format. It will shift the focus away from television and toward in-person attendance, lessening the importance of TV time slots in scheduling games. It will put more tournament games at campus locations, and it will move the Final Four back to a Friday-Sunday weekend format from a Sunday-Tuesday plan that has been used in the past. It will also move all women’s divisions to one final location, much as the men’s game decided to do last year.
Those changes haven’t been fully approved and won’t be implemented until the 2015 season when they are, but they are a start. Putting this year’s Final Four in Nashville, smack in the middle of a state where women’s basketball is as popular as it is anywhere else, should help too. But immediate results aren’t the goal. They’re aimed at making the women’s game more attractive to fans in the long-term, and following that strategy, ideas and proposals will continue to come out as the 2013-2014 season goes on.
With that said, there are plenty of exciting aspects to this season already, even if there are no stars with the obvious power of a Griner, Delle Donne, or Diggins. So here are a few things to watch during this women’s basketball season, which has already kicked off with a few marquee games and could only grow in intensity and, potentially, popularity as the season continues:
Can Anyone Stop UConn? If this seems like a theme to every women’s basketball season, it’s because it is. The Huskies have won seven national titles since the start of the century and entered the season as the defending champion. Led by guard Bria Hartley and center Stefanie Dolson, they are the unanimous number one team in the country and are already sparking talk of another undefeated season in Storrs. UConn demolished third-ranked Stanford last week, beating the Cardinal 76-57 in their first big game of the season. An injury to All-American Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis in that game has cast some uncertainty over the UConn season, but the Huskies are nevertheless chasing history: their next title will be coach Geno Auriemma’s ninth, moving him past former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt for the most all-time.
Some Old, Some New: UConn’s biggest challengers look to be some of the game’s biggest programs. There’s Duke, once a perennial contender, entering the season as the country’s second-ranked team, and the top 10 also features past champions and yearly Final Four hopefuls Stanford, Notre Dame, and Tennessee. The Vols and Russell are as well-positioned to contend for a title as they have been in years, and the same could be said for both Duke and Stanford. Notre Dame would be expected to drop off after losing Diggins, but the Irish will still be in the mix come March. Maryland, the 2006 champion that reached the Elite Eight in 2013, started the season in the top 10 too.
And then there are the up-and-coming programs. Louisville made its second trip to the final game in five years in 2013, when it lost to UConn, and the Cardinals are back in the top 10 this year. Just down the road, Kentucky and head coach Matthew Mitchell are angling to reach the program’s first-ever Final Four after losing to Connecticut in last year’s Elite Eight. It was the Wildcats’ third trip to the regional finals in four years, and they’re hoping Samarie Walker and DeNesha Stallworth can take them over the hump this year. California is also back in the top 10 a year after reaching its first Final Four, and though the Bears lost to Duke last week, they’ll contend for a spot in Nashville too.
It’s those programs that may hold at least a little of the secret for growing the women’s game. Kentucky and Louisville’s gains in the sport have led to attendance increases for both programs that play in a basketball-mad state. In a sport long defined by a few programs, new blood and the feeling that more teams can compete and win should only increase popularity, if not on TV then on the campuses and in the communities where these teams play.
Five Non-Conference Games To Watch:
Maryland-Connecticut, November 15 in Storrs.
Connecticut-Duke, December 17 in Durham.
Tennessee-Stanford, December 21 in Palo Alto.
Duke-Kentucky, December 22 in Lexington.
Notre Dame-Tennessee, January 20 in Knoxville.