Is parity paving way for dynasty-free era?
Updated: November 7, 2005, 8:05 PM ETBy Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com
As we enter a new season after a Baylor-Michigan State national championship game, one question being asked is: Are we about to begin a dynasty-free era?Is parity powerful enough that no program in the next decade is going to win three NCAA titles in a row like the Orangebloods in Knoxville, Tenn., and the Bluebloods in Storrs, Conn., have in the last decade? Well, I could just say, "I don't know," and present it as my shortest column ever. But you're not getting off that easily. I think one can reasonably say "I don't know" and then spend some time explaining why. Here's what Kim Mulkey-Robertson, coach of defending national champion Baylor, thinks: Hold it. She doesn't like that defending term. "I don't look at it as defending a championship," she said. "To me, that sounds like somebody is going to take that championship away from you. And no one will ever take that away from us. We'll hold that trophy forever." Indeed but will Baylor get its hands on another one? Like this season? Or is Baylor a trend-setter, the start of many teams in the next several years who can win one title but not necessarily follow that up soon after? And if the latter is the case, isn't that a positive thing for the sport? Isn't it exciting to think of the possibility of not just truly unpredictable title games but also truly unpredictable Final Fours? Well, I think it would be exciting. I just don't know whether it's going to happen. And unpredictable in terms of the Final Four would have to mean no Tennessee, and that seems unlikely. Still, by the same token, another threepeat -- by anyone -- seems more unlikely now, too. "It's becoming increasingly more difficult to win a championship, much less three in row," said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, whose program's threepeat was in 1996, '97 and '98. "Will we see it again? I think it would be very, very hard for that to happen. Because of the parity. Because coaching is better. So I think you're going to have more upsets. "Is that good for the game? I think at this time it is. But I also think that our run was good for the game, and so was UConn's run. You think about the amount of exposure for the women's game in both cases, because people were going to watch and see if you could do it again. And they watched because of the UConn-Tennessee matchup." I don't foresee a time when those two programs are not going to be strong factors in the postseason. But, surely, some schools across the country changed their outlook about their women's basketball programs based on what happened last season. "I think what Baylor and Michigan State did was, we gave them hope," Mulkey-Robertson said. "Particularly speaking for Baylor, for us to do that in five years if I'm an [athletic director] who's going to put resources in my program, I find out how Baylor did it. It can be done by other people." Of course, it can be done. If you have a coach as good as Mulkey-Robertson, who took over the program for the 2000-01 season. And if you find enough talent. Oh, and it would be really nice if a friend calls and says, "Hey, there's this kid here in high school who nobody knows about. She's from the West Indies and has hardly played basketball before, but I think she could be pretty good." Yeah, Baylor got some lucky breaks, like discovering Sophia Young. But Baylor was on the road to the top before that. Mulkey-Robertson put a lot of pieces together and then instilled a tremendous amount of confidence in her program. However, Summitt is hard at work every day, trying to be so good that it will prevent the future Baylors of the world from making their big splash. Hey, she wants to win it all every year, just like Geno Auriemma at UConn. But both coaches, when they're in philosophical and not competitive mode, really do understand the importance to the sport of having successful programs, such as Baylor. "What I think this sport needs more than anything right now is for people to be fans of women's basketball," Summitt said. "So the more teams that are out there competing and advancing, the more new faces that come on the radar screen, the better it is. You can be anywhere in the country now and have a reason to say, 'Hey, I like Baylor. I'm going to follow that team.' And what about what LSU has done in the last couple of years? "In women's basketball, it's been that everybody has their local team. And occasionally you win fans over elsewhere; I think we've done that with our consistency. But I want to see fans of the sport, period. So when your favorite team is not there, you know about these other teams and are interested in them." So, again, are we are getting close to the dynasty-free era? Well, let's think about that from a historical perspective. We'll hop into our little imaginary time machine and go back exactly 10 years to November 1995. At that point, there had been nine different champions in the 14 years of the NCAA Tournament. Only one school had won back-to-back titles: Southern California in 1983 and '84. In November 1995, we'd just had these past three national champions: Texas Tech, North Carolina and Connecticut. Yes, UConn had been to a previous Final Four, in 1991. But really, you could say that in three successive years -- 1993, 1994 and 1995 -- a different program had won it all and with that accomplishment announced, "We have arrived." And other programs could look at those three and say, "OK, if they did it, why can't we do it?" Further, each team's triumph had taken the sport a step further in its popularity. In 1993, Tech had superstar Sheryl Swoopes and was part of the first advanced sellout for a Women's Final Four. The next year, Charlotte Smith's title-winning 3-pointer with seven-tenths of a second left for the Tar Heels gave the event its most fantastic finish. And then UConn and its 35-0 season became a genuine media phenomenon, creating a new kind of status for a women's program to aspire to. So at that point, you might have thought things seemed pretty wide open in terms of championships in the next several years. Instead, Connecticut and Tennessee combined for seven titles in the next nine seasons. The recruiting game was the biggest factor. This is not to discount anything about the game-coaching or teaching abilities of Auriemma and Summitt, of course. There's not even a question about how great both are in those terms. But recruiting is as huge a part of college sports success as anything. In that fall of 1995, Chamique Holdsclaw was a freshman on Tennessee's campus. Tamika Catchings and Semeka Randall were high school juniors who would, in two years, join Holdsclaw in Knoxville. Sue Bird was a sophomore at Holdsclaw's prep alma mater, Christ the King, and in a couple of years, would be the leader of the Connecticut steam engine. Tamika Williams, Asjha Jones and Swin Cash were high school sophomores who would come with Bird to UConn in the fall of 1998. Two years later, Diana Taurasi would relocate to Storrs. Also notable in November 1995 was the group of players at Purdue, which included Stephanie White, Ukari Figgs, Michele Van Gorp, Nicole Erickson and Summer Erb. The latter three were among the group of players who transferred when coach Lin Dunn and her staff were fired at the end of the 1995-96 season. Led by White and Figgs, Purdue still won a national championship in 1999. Then, after the program went to its fourth coach in a six-year span, Purdue made the NCAA finals again. The Boilermaker program clearly did pretty well for itself, yet you can't help but wonder what might have happened if Dunn had never been fired at all. And then there's Stanford, which won it all in 1990 and '92, and then brought in a lot of talent that peaked in 1995, '96 and '97 -- but didn't get the program its third NCAA title. After that, the Cardinal's recruiting did not stay at a level high enough to keep them at the top of the pack with Tennessee and UConn. It certainly didn't help Stanford that its "egghead school" counterpart on the East Coast, Duke, elevated into a player in the recruiting wars -- and a very formidable one at that. The reason for recounting this history is just to show that a decade ago, you could have made the argument that we were entering a dynasty-free era in women's hoops. The talent brokers of girls' hoops -- those whose business is non-scholastic basketball -- perhaps had a more accurate crystal ball, one that could forecast the Tennessee and UConn recruiting hauls in the next few years. But even they probably wouldn't have guessed just what would happen at Purdue, how that would impact Duke (which took on Van Gorp and Erickson, starters on the Blue Devils' first Final Four team in 1999), how Stanford's recruiting would drop off (recall this also from the fall of 1995: Tara VanDerveer was away from her program for a year coaching the national team) and finally, how the stars would actually all pan out for Tennessee and UConn. Let's go back to just one year ago: November 2004. Taurasi is gone from UConn after winning three NCAA titles in a row. Alana Beard is gone from Duke after knocking on the door but never getting to an NCAA final. Those two were part of a large, talented senior class which left a lot of holes in teams across the country. However, Tennessee has brought in a ludicrously good and large recruiting class which has many thinking that Rocky Top is gearing up for another threepeat (or more) run. And what happened? Tennessee got pounded by illness and multiple injuries -- would-be rookies Candace Parker and Alex Fuller redshirted and Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood played just 13 games -- yet still made the Final Four. UConn was still a really good team, but fell in the Sweet 16 to Stanford. The Cardinal, for the second year in a row, had a shot at advancing to the Final Four for the first time since 1997, but Michigan State stopped that quest. So Baylor and Michigan State, neither of whom were loaded with former high-school superstuds by any stretch of the imagination, made the NCAA championship game. Folks in Big 12 country were not in the least surprised about Baylor, having seen that talent develop. Similarly, Big Ten folks had watched that Michigan State team -- really a classic team in the way all the parts fit so well and worked together -- build the last few years toward such a moment. But in general, a great many people were amazed at the final. We're done time-traveling and are back in November 2005. I went to practice at Tennessee not long ago, and saw a healthy Parker snaring one-handed rebounds and Alexis Hornbuckle zooming around despite the cast on her thumb, and that whole collection of big, strong post players who are going to make opponents feel like they're spending 40 minutes running into brick walls. That's not all, of course -- let me tell you, there's a lot to watch at a Tennessee practice. Everybody is good. Then there's Duke, which is loaded up, too, and -- at least on paper -- has all the bases covered on offense in a way the Blue Devils haven't in years past. Texas lost its first exhibition matchup -- against a team of experienced post-collegiate players -- but the Longhorns have this year's fab freshman class. So is it possible one of these programs is going to win multiple titles in the next, say, 10 years? Tennessee, obviously, would be most people's first choice. But as Summitt said, it's harder to win it all now than it was even five years ago. And we don't want to leave UConn out of any multiple-title discussions, either. Maybe the Huskies will put together another run like they did to begin the 21st century. For that matter, maybe the powerhouse of the next decade hasn't revealed itself yet. Or maybe there won't be one. I can't be 100 percent sure what I might have said in 1995 if asked if I expected two dynasties to "rule" the next 10 years of women's hoops. But I think I would have said no -- and, clearly, would have been wrong. So what about now? My vote goes to a dynasty-free decade. There might be a repeat, but no threepeats. The reason? The talent pool is bigger and more spread out. Now, I'll just have to remind myself in 2015 to read this over again -- and see whether I actually had a clue. Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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