Texas A&M-Notre Dame a breath of fresh air for women's basketball
INDIANAPOLIS -- The final buzzer hadn't even sounded Sunday night and the debate had already begun.
Texas A&M and Notre Dame in the women's championship game? Two unexpected, relatively unknown teams?
Is this a disaster for women's basketball?
The unthinkable has happened. A title game with no Maya Moore. No Geno Auriemma. No Stanford. No Ogwumikes. No Pat Summitt. No well-known programs.
For the first time since 1994, there isn't a No. 1 seed in the final game. For the first time in four years, the game will be played without either Connecticut or Tennessee.
So, expect -- the pundits quickly predicted -- low ratings for Tuesday's championship game, empty seats inside Conseco Fieldhouse now vacated by UConn and Stanford fans. A decided lack of buzz about what should be the sport's biggest moment. Depression at the Connecticut-based network that pumps up the Huskies. Doom and gloom were quickly forecast, as black as the thunderclouds that gathered over Indianapolis Monday morning.
All those things may prove to be a true.
But trust me, this is no disaster for the women's game. It's a breath of fresh air.
There was plenty of buzz -- both in Conseco Fieldhouse and in front of millions of televisions -- in the aftermath of Sunday's stunning upsets of the two top seeds in the tournament. Far more than there would have been if UConn had beaten Notre Dame by 20 points again or if Stanford had steamrolled Texas A&M.
What happened -- instead of the same old story -- felt like a seismic shift in the world of women's basketball.
"It feels really surreal," Notre Dame's Devereaux Peters said. "Like the world is out of tilt."
Which is a good thing. Really. Moore is a fantastic basketball player, one of the best in history, and UConn has been tremendous for the game. But they're an old story; for those who don't live and die with Huskies hoops or who reside outside of Connecticut, the all-UConn-all-the-time coverage of the sport can get old.
Upsets and surprises are the lifeblood of sports. And whatever the momentary value is of high television ratings and a packed arena for a championship (and we don't know for sure those things will be missing Tuesday) the tradeoff for the long-term benefits of new faces and depth in the field is well worth it.
You could argue that it might be better to have one top team surviving, keeping a compelling David-vs.-Goliath storyline for the final. But the two teams left aren't slouches. They're both No. 2 seeds, who have been tenacious, who have short memories (each lost to a tournament opponent three times this season before finding a way to win) and who have systematically knocked off the top seeds.
And neither are apologizing for being here.
"I know we screwed it up for ESPN," said Texas A&M's coach Gary Blair. "Notre Dame screwed it up by beating Tennessee: You don't have the Pat-and-Geno show. We screwed it up because now you don't have the Brittney Griner and the dunk possibility. But right now, for our sport to grow, we need Texas A&M and Notre Dame in this game.
"So y'all have storylines to do, whatever your editor, your Lou Grant, tells you to look for," Blair continued, ignoring the fact that the fictional news editor he mentioned was obsolete a full decade before any of his players were born. "But the 40 minutes of basketball, why does it have to be decided on who the best player is or who the most well-known coach is?"
Clearly it doesn't have to be decided that way. There's no Moore, but instead we have Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins, a player who opted to stay home and play in South Bend and who has a growing following (including regular twitter shout-outs from rapper Lil Wayne, who calls her, oddly, "my wife"). We have "The Sydneys" -- A&M's relentless guard duo, who force the other team to give them the ball, over and over. We have a compelling basketball matchup in the Hoosier State, that wasn't a predetermined coronation.
There's more to women's basketball than UConn, Tennessee and Stanford.
"Coming into this, we knew any team is capable of winning it," said Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer Monday, shortly after it was announced that she was part of the 2011 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame class.
VanDerveer was honored to receive such an accolade but conceded it was "a tough morning" to get the award, a few hours after being knocked out by Texas A&M.
"I really didn't sleep," she said. "I replayed that last play in my mind a million times."
No matter how many times she replayed it, it turned out the same way. Top seed Stanford lost to Texas A&M. A few hours later Notre Dame toppled UConn. Auriemma, try as he might, couldn't change that outcome either.
"Nothing's a given," Auriemma said.
Even in women's basketball. And, really, that's a good thing.