IF THE MEN'S game is experiencing a renaissance, women's college basketball must be going through a revolution. For the past decade the annual January clash between Connecticut and Tennessee, winners of eight of the last 10 NCAA titles, has been the premier matchup of the regular season. But with both teams coming into last Saturday's game with three losses and unusually low rankings (the Lady Vols were No. 10, the Huskies No. 15), their showdown wasn't even the game of the week. That designation went to the Jan. 5 matchup of top-ranked LSU at No. 14 Rutgers, a blazing hot team that in one seven-day span had knocked off then No. 8 Tennessee at home and then No. 4 Texas on the road. Propelled by All-America senior guard Pondexter, freshman guard Essence Carson, junior forward Mariota Theodoris, a stingy defense and 7,214 fans, the Scarlet Knights knocked off the Lady Tigers 51-49 in overtime. Said Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer afterward, "With this team, no one is too shy to be big-time."
The same can be said of many teams this season. It's not just Rutgers rocking the establishment. It's second-ranked Baylor, which, led by forward Steffanie Blackmon, beat Texas in front of a school women's-record 10,322 fans on Saturday for its 12th straight win. It's Lindsay Bowen and No. 9 Michigan State, which handed three-time defending champion UConn its worst home loss in nearly 13 years, 67-51, on Dec. 29. With more teams beefing up their preconference schedules, no game is a given. Consider: In the previous 20 years there have been at least two teams undefeated at this point in the season. Iowa, the last unbeaten team this year, lost 77-71 to unranked Penn State at home on Jan. 6. "We've been screaming 'parity' for years, but I think it's really here now," says Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, whose Lady Vols beat UConn last Saturday, 68-67. "It might be painful for us, but it's a good thing for the game."
Parity can be attributed to several factors:
•A deep and talented freshman class. The class of '04, which featured Diana Taurasi (Connecticut), Alana Beard (Duke) and Lindsay Whalen (Minnesota), was one for the ages, but the class of '08, whose members include Stanford's Candice Wiggins, Duke's Wanisha Smith, Connecticut's Charde Houston, Tennessee's Candace Parker and Rutgers's Carson and Matee Ajavon, is deeper and has the potential to be better.
•Top players are staying home. While Connecticut and Tennessee still seem to get the lion's share of high school All-Americas, schools like Minnesota, Texas, Kansas State and LSU have benefited--in both wins and attendance--from star players' staying home. Since Baton Rouge native Seimone Augustus chose LSU over Tennessee three years ago, the Lady Tigers have won 71 games and have seen their average attendance more than triple, from 1,361 per game to 4,277. In the four years that Minnesota native Lindsay Whalen helped the Gophers evolve from a Big Ten afterthought to a Final Four team, average attendance at Williams Arena shot up from barely 1,000 to nearly 10,000. Even now, with Whalen playing for the WNBA's Connecticut Sun, Minnesota, led by deft-passing center Janel McCarville (who, alas, is from Wisconsin), remains the hottest ticket in town. "Lindsay got people to come, and once people saw our exciting style of play, they kept coming back," says Minnesota coach Pam Borton. Don't be surprised if more people start heading down the New Jersey Turnpike to Exit 9 to catch the Scarlet Knights. Ajavon, a high-scoring point guard who has already been named Big East freshman of the week twice, and Carson, the team's second-leading rebounder, are both Jersey kids who turned down bigger programs.
•Greater TV coverage. More games are on ESPN, CBS and various regional networks, giving a wider group of schools the critical exposure that makes recruiting easier. This year ESPN, for example, has increased its number of prime-time regular-season games from four to 10, and College Sports TV has nearly doubled its coverage, from 27 to 48 games. "We realized that women's hoops had great talent and great matchups as well as a growing fan base that was being underserved," says CSTV president and CEO Brian Bedol. Indeed, last year, the second in which ESPN televised all 63 games of the NCAA tournament, 3.8 million households tuned into the final between Connecticut and Tennessee, the largest viewership for any basketball game ever on ESPN.
•Better resources. To try to keep up with the Connecticuts and Tennessees, athletic directors are paying women's coaches more money, building better facilities and increasing budgets for recruiting and marketing. The efforts have paid off, but along with higher financial commitments come higher expectations, and that's what's fueling this season's drama. "Now coaches are making more money," says Summitt. "So that means you better win." --Kelli Anderson