Sunday, March 27, 2016

Killing the Game?

This year, I've been following more NCAA Division 1 women's basketball tournament games than NCAA Division 1 men's basketball tourney ones.

The big reason: I'm upset at CBS CEO Les Moonves for crowing that the sexist, racist, homophobic, religiophobic, etc., etc. rantings of Donald Trump and other 2016 Republican presidential candidates are "good for CBS." Moonves likes how all the excrement slung by the Elephants' office seekers means more advertising money for the folks at the Eye Network. (Never mind the continuing corrosive effect the propagation of hate has on the collective American conversation.)

So while I'm watching ESPN and ESPN2 whenever they show D-1 women's tourney contests, it's TBS and TNT for me when it comes to seeing D-1 men's tourney teams play. (To get truTV, I'd have to pay my local cable outlet for another tier of channels.)

Speaking of ESPN2...I was watching this afternoon's Tennessee-Syracuse game (the Orange won the Midwest Regional final, 89-67, to get into the D-1 Women's Final Four for the first time in program history) when I saw the scroll on the bottom of the screen: "Geno Auriemma won't apologize for his team's success." 

Why should he?  

Yesterday, his Connecticut Huskies mauled, crushed, demolished, and crucified Mississippi State, 98-38,
for the biggest victory margin in any regional or Final Four game since the NCAA started conducting a Division 1 women's hoops tourney in 1982. (The 60-point margin topped the 51-point difference between UConn and Texas in one of last season's East Regional semifinals.)

It was the 72nd straight time Breanna Stewart and Co. won a game; Stewart led the way with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and five blocks.

After the game (one in which the Huskies put in the game's first 13 points, enjoyed a 32-4 lead on the Bulldogs, then stretched it to 61-12 at the end of the first half), Auriemma fielded a reporter's question about whether Connecticut's total domination of D-1 women's b-ball- three straight championships and ten overall coming into this 2015-16 season- is killing the sport. 

The head coach with the most Division 1 women's basketball titles ever wasn't pleased with the question.

"When Tiger (Woods) was winning every major, nobody said he was bad for golf," said the Man from Philadelphia. In fact, Woods' phenomenal success drew more fans to golf as the 20th Century was getting ready to make way for the 21st Century.

What's more, Tiger's presence on the links made the other PGA golfers step up their game. 

Result: Since the current century began, golfers like Phil Mickelson, Padraig Harrington, Zack Johnson, and- more recently- Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson, and Jordan Spieth have shown they can frequently come away with The Big Check, too.

Same thing happened in NCAA Division 1 men's basketball...which, from the 1963-64 campaign to the 1974-75 season, was in the grip of one team: John Wooden's UCLA Bruins.

The Bruins took ten of the twelve D-1 men's titles offered during that span of time. It would've been twelve straight if Texas Western hadn't stopped Kentucky, 72-65, to end the 1965-66 season- a season where Oregon State interrupted UCLA's reign in the old AAWU (now, of course, called the Pac-12); and if, in 1973-74, North Carolina State hadn't beaten Marquette, 76-64...after the Wolfpack dethroned the Bruins, 80-77, a couple of days earlier.

By the way...a year after their school won it all in men's hoops, Texas Western College of the University of Texas officials changed their institution's name to the University of Texas at El Paso. 

Wooden showed that he could get UCLA to the top with any kind of team, be it a run-and-gun kind, a patient team, or one headlined by a certain 7-2 center who, while still in high school, had college recruiters all over the country knocking each other over to sign him.

Lots of other head men's hoops coaches breathed heavy, heavy sighs of relief when John decided to hang up his whistle after the 1974-75 season...a campaign that ended when UCLA thwarted Kentucky, 92-85. 

That's how the 37th NCAA D-1 men's hoops tourney ended. Before the Blue and Gold seized control of men's D-1 roundball, 18 different squads had won the first 25 NCAA D-1 men's basketball tournaments, starting with Oregon (the 1938-39 kingpin). And Kentucky was the sport's gold standard, with four championships- 1947-48, 1948-49, 1950-51, and 1957-58. 

By the time the 1974-75 season ended, 21 teams had won the 37 NCAA D-1 men's b-ball tourneys. Since then, 14 others had taken the pot of gold for the first time ever.

And men's college basketball has grown exponentially in popularity since the point where the gender's D-1 Big Dance is the NCAA's most lucrative event. (An event where this country's president fills out a bracket every March, just like millions of other Americans.) 

While the 78th NCAA D-1 men's hoops tournament is going on, the 35th NCAA D-1 women's basketball tourney is also happening. 

And, as Geno will tell you, it's all taking place at a time similar to what was happening in men's Division 1 ball during the 1963-64/1974-75 era.

Connecticut's first D-1 women's title came at the end of the 1994-95 season. Before that, eight different clubs claimed the first 13 NCAA Division 1 women's basketball tournaments, with Tennessee leading the way (the Volunteers, then under Pat Summitt, were tops in 1986-87, 1988-89, and 1990-91). 

Since UConn got that first notch, teams headed up by Auriemma and Summitt nailed down 14 of the next 20 titles in D-1 women's roundball...with Tennessee grabbing three championships in a row from 1995-96 to 1997-98,
then triumphing in 2006-07 (the act that angered Rutgers fan Don Imus) and 2007-08.

Five other teams accounted for the other six championships of the 1995-96/2014-15 period- Purdue (in 1998-99), Notre Dame (whose 2000-01 title prevented what ultimately could've been a UConn five-peat), Baylor (the only one able to go for seconds; the Bears followed up their 2004-05 championship by ruling in 2011-12), Maryland (the winner in 2005-06), and Texas A&M (which took it all in 2010-11).

So, that's it...coming into March Madness 2016, 14 different squads have won the first 34 NCAA D-1 women's b-ball tournaments. 

At this very moment, the Huskies are working on a four-peat.

But first, they'll have to take the Longhorns out of the way tomorrow night to win the East Regional. 

Two more victories after that, and Auriemma will get his eleventh title as a head coach...and he'll pass Wooden in the process.

The way I see it, Connecticut's success (that's putting it mildly) in D-1 women's basketball isn't killing the sport.

Media apathy toward the game is.

I mean, it hurts to turn on one of Disney's ESPN networks each March and find a good, good game being played in front of...rows and rows of empty seats. 

It hurts, too, that these same media people- even those at Disney- don't lavish the same attention on women's ball as they do on men's ball. The scrolls themselves offer a clue: Rarely this season were you told how many points Stewart had in this or that game. (By contrast, Georges Niang's name was almost always seen in the scrolls here in 2015-16.)

Listen...Iowa State's Niang and Connecticut's Stewart were two of college basketball's leading players these last four seasons. Let's give 'em BOTH shout-outs! 

And that speaks to something else.

How committed are many of the NCAA's Division 1 schools to their women's basketball teams? 

Not just in money...but in spirit. 

It's been 44 years now since Title 9 became law...and it hurts that, 44 years later, lots of resentment continues to exist over the law. The resentment not only shows up on TV and on sports radio, but in no telling how many athletic departments at no telling how many schools here in America. 

How much support do the Breanna Stewarts really have, given- let's face it- America's anti-female heritage?

Breanna herself had one real answer to giving women's NCAA basketball a boost: 

"Teams need to get better, players need to get better, and that starts from before we even get to college." 

John Wooden had no problem with women's college basketball. He, in fact, called it a purer form of the sport than the men's kind.

I've always thought athletes were athletes, regardless of gender.

How about you?