'Bigs' have big presence in Chattanooga

Updated: March 18, 2005, 9:26 AM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Imagine being in a big airport concourse, hundreds of people sitting around waiting to be herded onto their planes ... and this group goes walking past: 6-foot-8 Katie Feenstra (Liberty), 6-7 Alison Bales (Duke), 6-5 Chante Black (Duke), 6-5 Sylvia Fowles (LSU), 6-5 Shawtinice Polk (Arizona), 6-4 Sancho Lyttle (Houston), 6-4 Kathrin Ress (Boston College) and 6-4 Amanda Brown (Penn State).

Tiffany Jackson
Texas' Tiffany Jackson is one of more than 11 players in Chattanooga who stand 6 feet, 3 inches or taller.
Oh, and add in "littler" people such as Tiffany Jackson (Texas), Tasha Humphrey (Georgia) and Mistie Williams (Duke), who are 6-3.

All of them are playing for teams in the NCAA Tournament's Chattanooga Regional, which you might think of as the "big-girl" quarter of the draw. Sure, there are plenty of "bigs" spread throughout the tournament, but this is quite a group. Some are labeled centers, some forwards, but all are big.

And while there's no scenario in which they all actually would be in the same concourse at the same airport at the same time ... the point is, just think of what people's reaction would be if they were. Tall women get used to it. Everybody stares – no, gawks – at them. They're a focus of attention.

However, it's kind of funny how the bigs haven't been much of a focal point of awards and NCAA Tournament attention in recent years. Going back to 1990, the only centers who've been Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four are UConn's 6-4 Rebecca Lobo in 1995 and Notre Dame's 6-5 Ruth Riley in 2001.

The others getting the award over that time have been gritty guards (Jennifer Azzi, Dawn Staley, Michelle Marciniak, Ukari Figgs and Shea Ralph), athletic marvels/slashers (Charlotte Smith, Chamique Holdsclaw, Swin Cash) and, of course, in a do-it-all category of her own, 6-foot guard Diana Taurasi of UConn.

This is not to say the bigs haven't been very big in Final Fours or the NCAA Tournament in general. Just that they've been, ultimately, kind of overshadowed.

And going into this tournament, the projected player of the year – who is also in the Chattanooga Regional – is the slashing, jump-shooting 6-1 guard Seimone Augustus. But as great a player as she is, how much has it helped LSU to have a rebounding presence and inside anchor such as the already-powerful freshman Fowles?

The above-mentioned bigs are not all similar in body-type or playing style. Same for some of the other outstanding bigs in other regions, such as Ohio State's 6-5 Jessica Davenport (Philadelphia), Michigan State's 6-4 Kelli Roehrig (Kansas City) or TCU's 6-3 Sandora Irvin (Tempe). (At this point, I'll note that I'm not mentioning every good big woman in the country, because there are more out there.)

There are still some who are less mobile, more typical back-to-the basket players. And there's nothing wrong with that; the best of those players maximize their strengths, of which there are many.

But more and more, Texas coach Jody Conradt said, you see big players with diverse skills. Such as her sophomore Jackson, who can do the dirty work inside but also make all kinds of other plays.

"There are some good, young talented players who are just basketball players, not limited by size and mobility, and who can basically take over the game," Conradt said. "That's something that is emerging in our sport. We haven't seen many Tiffany Jacksons in our game, but we're seeing it more and more. In our part of the bracket, especially, they are young and are players that are going to continue to get better."

STANDING TALL
The Chattanooga Regional is loaded with talent -- and height:
Katie Feenstra	Liberty	6-8
Alison Bales	Duke	6-5
Chante Black	Duke	6-5
Sylvia Fowles	LSU	6-5
Shawntinice Polk	Arizona	6-5
Sancho Lyttle	Houston	6-4
Kathrin Ress	B. College	6-4
Amanda Brown	Penn State	6-4
Tasha Humphrey	Georgia	6-3
Tiffany Jackson	Texas	6-3
Mistie Williams	Duke	6-3
Some are young chronologically, but don't look like it. Can it be that Fowles and Jackson, in particular, are still actually teenagers? Already, they have the bodies for the WNBA.

Sure, their games are developing, but there's already so much they do right. Fowles is averaging 12.0 points, 9.0 rebounds and has 88 blocks. She'll become very confident soon in her offense. Her footwork and post passing skills will improve, and she'll be even more of a threat than she is now. Which should make the rest of the SEC (and the country) quake.

Jackson is averaging 18.1 points and 8.7 rebounds, plus she's had 94 steals and 57 blocks this season. No, really, that's NINETY-FOUR steals! That's the best in the Big 12 by 29 thefts. Her 3.2 average is 15th in the nation – and all ahead of her are guards. Jackson is the best-stealing big in the country.

Her lone negative stat is turnovers, of which she has 111. With all that Jackson tries to do on the court, though, it's difficult to criticize that. But it's still a number she'd like to reduce, as it's the only inadvertent mercy she shows opponents.

Fowles started basketball in eighth grade, after having a growth spurt the summer before that shot her up to 6-1. She had run track to that point and wasn't interested in hoops despite the pleas of her school's basketball coach. But she finally agreed to the give it a try. Good choice.

What Fowles really likes to do away from sports, though, is charmingly old-fashioned in today's computers/video games/TV-dominated world of leisure activities.

"I've been sewing since I was 6 with my grandma," she said. "In my spare time, I like to sew and draw. I'm going to school to study fashion and design. I want to design clothes for tall women.

"I haven't come up with any designs for myself yet, because I'm very picky. I make stuff for my sisters, though, because they tell me what to do. And they're little."

Yes, the tall women always face the clothes issue, although today less than even a decade ago. And they have their other challenges as well. Opposing fans tend to pick on them throughout middle school, high school and college. They also deal with so much physical play, especially at the Division I level. In some ways, just by virtue of being big they are thought to have it easy, which is certainly not the case.

And, to go back to my original point, the bigs have been more in supportive roles recently, as far as the national spotlight. Perhaps that will change this tournament; we'll watch and see.

But the bigs are always going to command attention, of course. That's basketball. A few week ago, I was watching one of my nephews on a playground swing set, but off to the side I became absorbed in a recess basketball game. It was boys vs. girls, fourth- or fifth-graders, and everyone was pretty much the same size.

Except ... a thin girl wearing a purple jacket. She was at least four inches taller than anybody else, maybe more, and I found myself muttering from a distance, "Come on, get the ball to the big girl!"

It was elementary-school hoops, though, from both genders. A lot of running around without dribbling, plenty of hot-potato, what-do-I-do-now passing, and shots that didn't come two feet from threatening the rim.

But then, something wonderful happened, as a moment of spontaneous teamwork broke out among the girls. One somehow bounce passed out of a quadruple team to a girl who was cutting to the basket, although I doubt she knew that's what she was doing. The concept of a layup didn't appear to enter her head, so she flung the ball back to an open girl on the free-throw line, who passed to a girl on the left side.

"GET THE BALL TO THE BIG GIRL!" I shouted inside my head.

And then the big girl got close to the basket. The girl on the left lobbed the ball to her. They did it! The big girl jumped, caught, turned, shot it off the backboard and scored. Then she took off her jacket and tossed it away, as if to say, "OK, now I'm warmed up. Let's go!"

It was a beautiful thing.

Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail her at mvoepel@kcstar.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.