It’s easy to look at a dominant team and say that it’s bad for women’s college basketball. The truth is the exact opposite.
Going in, this year’s women’s and men’s NCAA Tournaments appear to have two distinct flavors.
The men’s field is wide open with no clear-cut dominant team. On the other side, South Carolina is the runaway favorite for the women, getting minus odds on FanDuel Sportsbook to win the National Championship against the field.
It’s sure to trigger a familiar refrain from those who only check in with women’s basketball via Instagram comments: There’s no competition. There are no upsets. It’s always the same teams in the Final Four.
There’s no use denying that the Gamecocks are now a Final Four mainstay. Alongside them, fellow 1 seed Stanford could well make it to Dallas, and 2 seed UConn has a decent shot of extending its Final Four streak to a mind-boggling 15 straight years.
But the game runs so much deeper than that.
South Carolina is undefeated and dominant, but not in the same way that even the UConn teams from 2015-16 were. Nobody was going to touch those Huskies, while the Gamecocks have been tested several times this season. They could also get a real push or two in this tournament before the Final Four.
That’s not a knock on the Gamecocks, either. They’re putting together one of the most impressive runs the sport has seen. It’s just that the rest of the sport has grown so much over the past decade that a team that good cannot sleepwalk to the title game anymore.
While, eventually, we will want to get to the point where the women’s game is as up-in-the-air as the men’s, they’re in a good spot right now. Keep in mind the men have a 43-year head start on the women, playing their first tournament in 1939, while the NCAA did not sponsor a women’s championship until 1982.
As it stands, a dominant team that could still be beaten is a happy medium for the 2023 NCAA Tournament. Similar to the mid-2010s UConn teams, people are going to tune into the Gamecocks’ contests for any of three reasons:
- To root for them; South Carolina has a massive fanbase
- To root against them; people love seeing the favorites go down
- To watch greatness unfold in front of them
It’s a shame the powers that be at ESPN didn’t put the Gamecocks’ first-round game in a better time slot (2 p.m. on Friday, ESPN), because people would tune in, even against Norfolk State. ESPN must know this, too, because UConn’s first-round walkover against Vermont is on Saturday afternoon on ABC.
But, no matter. South Carolina will have a second tournament game, barring the biggest upset in sports history. The Gamecocks will get the winner of Marquette and South Florida on Sunday and, if ESPN is smart, that game will be in the early afternoon, where it will only have to compete with one men’s game.
This will matter more in the later rounds, particularly the Final Four when all eyes are on the women’s game. Great programs draw eyeballs, and a Final Four with South Carolina, Stanford, UConn, and, let’s say LSU out of the Greenville 2 region, would be a ratings bonanza. Stanford and UConn both pushed South Carolina to the brink earlier this year, and while the Gamecocks blew out LSU in their lone matchup, Kim Mulkey is one of the best coaches in the country and has at her disposal one of the best players (Angel Reese) and one of the best freshmen (Flau’jae Johnson) in college basketball.
But this is about more than ratings. Zoom out and look at the growth of the game as a whole. Dominant runs not only strengthen the program in question, but it’s a rising tide that lifts all programs around them. Yes, great players will want to attend South Carolina, but the Gamecocks only have a few scholarships available each year. Did South Carolina pass on you in high school? Go play in the SEC and beat them.
Why do you think the Big East has gotten so much better in women’s basketball over the past few years?
Look even further down the road. Thousands of young girls are watching Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke tear through a brutal schedule like it’s nothing. Those girls are modeling their young games after them. I’ll be stunned in 10 years if we do not have women’s college basketball stars crediting Boston, Cooke, or any other of the game’s best players with getting them interested in basketball.
So yes, we ultimately want to reach a point where there’s more balance in women’s college basketball. We’ve come so far already, with almost as many double-digit seeds advancing in the women’s tournament last year as the men’s — and remember the women’s first and second rounds are on the higher seeds’ home courts. But there’s more work to do. In the meantime, let’s celebrate South Carolina’s dominance or, if you prefer, root fervently for them to slip up.
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