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The Traditional Heavyweights Are Out of the NCAA Tournament—And the Sport Is Better for It

An Elite Eight without UConn, Tennessee or Stanford is not the death of any dynasties—it’s the growth of the women’s game.

The women’s college basketball world had all of 24 hours to fixate on what might have seemed like a paradigm-shifting development.

For the first time in nearly two decades, UConn lost in the Sweet 16, a tourney exit that had long seemed unthinkable for the powerhouse. But there was little time to linger on whether this signaled the death of a dynasty or what that meant for the sport. Because there was something far more exciting to discuss in just a day: Caitlin Clark’s transcendent performance to propel No. 2 Iowa past No. 5 Louisville in the Elite Eight. It was the first 30-point triple double in NCAA tournament history, men’s or women’s, and, for good measure, Clark made it the first 40-point triple double, too. Who’s interested in eulogizing a dynasty when you can marvel at that?

It was a sign of what’s in play here. Yes, the women’s game is changing, and traditional heavyweights do not occupy the space they once did. But the sport is better for it—because it means there’s a slew of other exciting players and story lines to focus on.

It’s not just that this is the first Elite Eight without UConn since 2005. Throw in a select few other historic superpowers, and the picture is striking. This is the first Elite Eight without UConn, Stanford or Tennessee since 1985. (Yes, ’85, as in just three years after the women’s tournament moved under the supervision of the NCAA.) It’s hard to imagine a more obvious sign of change.

A split image of Maryland’s Shyanne Sellers celebrating, and UConn coach Geno Auriemma in the NCAA women’s tournament.

But it’s not a referendum on those storied programs as much as it is a comment on the growing strength of the field. That’s driven by several factors. One is that more schools are investing in their women’s programs—improving facilities and beefing up staffs—which makes more campuses attractive to a greater variety of recruits. (That a player like Clark could feel comfortable staying in her home state to play for Iowa, a program that had not made a Final Four since 1993, is one show of that.) There’s also more player movement under new rules governing the transfer portal. And while those are gradual, long-term trends, there’s also one factor particular to this specific moment: the additional year of eligibility that players were granted due to COVID-19. More experienced players have made for better, deeper teams, all across Division I.

“Parity and the [transfer] portal and COVID—just, the game has evolved,” said Maryland coach Brenda Frese. “I think it’s awesome that you can’t predict what’s going to happen in the future.”

Frese would know. Her roster lost four starters from last year—two to graduation and two to the transfer portal—and found itself in need of a near-total rebuild. Just a few years ago, it would have been all but impossible to cover those losses in just one season. Now? Frese brought in sharpshooter Abby Meyers from Princeton, veteran guard Elisa Pinzan from South Florida and versatile bench presence Brinae Alexander from Vanderbilt. They’ve helped send the program to its first Elite Eight since 2015. They’re a bit extreme of an example—few teams need to add that much in any one summer—but similar dynamics played out across the sport this year.

“I think the evolution of the transfer portal is going to give parity to the sport and … give teams who normally hadn’t made it an opportunity to do it,” said Virginia Tech coach Kenny Brooks. “So then I think the unpredictability is going to be really good for our sport.”

The impact of the portal was on display elsewhere in the Elite Eight: Look at No. 3 LSU, which punched its ticket to the Final Four with a win over No. 9 Miami, and the journey of some of its key players. Angel Reese, LaDazhia Williams, Kateri Poole and Jasmine Carson were all on different campuses last year. When Tigers coach Kim Mulkey arrived in Baton Rouge two years ago, she expected building the program back up to be a long-term, multiyear effort. But her transfers have the program in its first Final Four since 2008.

As for UConn? It was flat outplayed in the Sweet 16 by a talented Ohio State squad that boasted a phenomenal defense. (The No. 3 Buckeyes will face Brooks’s No. 1 Hokies in the Elite Eight on Monday night.) But it seems like a mistake to question whether this moment is the end of their dynasty: The framing of the question is flawed. To zoom out, the dynasty hasn’t been what it once was for quite some time now, with multiple other programs flexing their strength in the last few years. Four schools have won in the five years since UConn’s last championship—Notre Dame, Baylor, Stanford and South Carolina, which won twice, in ’17 and ’22. And to zoom in? This UConn season was so riddled with injuries that it’s hard to take it as an especially definitive statement on anything. (There’s perhaps no better capsule of their year than a game that was postponed because the Huskies were unable to dress seven healthy players.) Sometimes, a loss is just a loss. UConn’s position in the women’s college basketball landscape isn’t any different now than it was last week. But it’s gradually shifted in response to challengers over the last five years.

“It just means the streak is over,” said South Carolina coach Dawn Staley. “UConn is going to continue to be UConn. They’re going to reload. If you see their roster that’s coming in and who they’re bringing back next year, they’ll reload. They’ll start a new streak.”

There’s no coach better positioned to talk about dominance right now than Staley. Her No. 1 Gamecocks are undefeated, defending their championship, and they look even stronger and more balanced than they did last year. If they beat No. 2 Maryland on Monday night, they will make their third consecutive Final Four, an impressive streak of their own. But she looks at the field and sees movement bigger than her, or UConn, or anyone else.

“The game has grown,” Staley said. “Not just this year, and not just because UConn is no longer in the tournament. It’s just—we are in demand. Like, there are so many great narratives, so many great players, so many great coaches, so many great story lines that we’re able to hold our own.”