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Why UConn is so dominant in women's college basketball

Just another day for the Huskies.
Just another day for the Huskies.
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Filling out a men's March Madness bracket is tricky. Yes, you know the No. 1 seeds will probably do well, but then you have the upsets. You have teams like No. 14 University of Alabama at Birmingham upsetting No. 3 Iowa State. You have the occasional lower seed making it all the way to the Final Four, like No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth in 2011.

But it feels like you can take some shortcuts on a women's bracket. For one thing, you're smart to just send Connecticut straight to the Final Four every year these days. Today, the women's Final Four teams will face off, and all four of them — Maryland, Notre Dame, Connecticut, and South Carolina — are No. 1 seeds, the third time that has happened since the women's tournament began in 1982. (The same thing has only happened once in the men's tournament during the same period.) And the worst-seeded women's teams? You can pretty much count them out every year.

Even aside from Connecticut's dominance, there's evidence that the women's game just isn't as competitive as it could be. And there are some who want that to change.

An astounding lack of upsets

Consider this: just two teams, Connecticut and Tennessee, have together accounted for 17 of the 33 titles won in the women's tournament since 1982. And Connecticut has in the last few years muscled its competitors out of the way, becoming the ruling women's basketball dynasty. In the last six years, the UConn ladies have won four NCAA tournaments (and they're heavily favored to win again this year).

But it's not just about dynasties like Connecticut and Tennessee. The women's tournament on the whole tends to have fewer surprise wins. Only 18 women's No. 12 seeds have defeated No. 5 seeds in NCAA D-I opening-round games since 1994, when the women's tournament grew to 64 teams. On the men's side, there have been 35 No. 12 wins over that period. For No. 13 seeds, it's six wins on the women's side compared with 17 on the men's side. For No. 14 and 15 seeds, it's zero on the women's side compared with 16 (combined) on the men's side. (However, the women's tournament is the only one to ever have featured a No. 16 seed winning its opening game — Harvard's 1998 defeat of Stanford.)

This isn't to say the women's tournament has to look just like the men's ... but the men's tournament does give a picture of how competitive the sport could be.

The persistent lack of competitiveness was one of the topics that former WNBA President Val Ackerman tackled in a 2013 report for the NCAA. That report, known in college basketball circles as the Ackerman Report, was meant to figure out how to help women's ball "better position itself for growth" ... not to mention market itself better. A more exciting game could make for more fans and more viewership.

In her report, Ackerman noted an "absence of broad competitive parity": "Although the number of players in women's college basketball has increased dramatically over the past 30 years, the number of programs that have a legitimate chance of winning the national championship in any given year remains limited (some put the figure at five or six teams)."

Why is it so lopsided?

So what keeps those five or six teams so far removed from the rest every year? There are a few theories, none of which likely explain the whole thing. But taken together, they could explain why the women's sport is so dynasty-prone (and upset-proof).

Great coaching attracts great players. Many people attribute Connecticut's consistent dominance to Coach Geno Auriemma, who in 1985 took over the program and eventually turned it into a powerhouse.

"He's established a culture of winning," says Barbara Jacobs, associate commissioner for women's basketball for the American Athletic Conference. "I think it is rare, and I think it is special."

It's special to the tune of 41.3 points — that's UConn's outrageous average scoring margin over its opponents right now. The next-highest team in women's college basketball, Princeton, had a scoring margin of 23.2 points this season. On the men's side, the No. 1 team on this stat, Kentucky, has a winning margin of 20.8 points, just 3.8 points above No. 2 Duke. When your team is the college basketball hegemon, you can easily attract the top talent, which helps a team like UConn (or Tennessee in the 1990s and 2000s) become a dynasty. Success breeds success.

Lots of scholarships. Men's teams can give out 13 scholarships apiece right now, while women's can hand out 15. That might seem like an advantage, but it can in fact make the women's game less competitive, in that it allows women's teams to better stack their squads — if you're a great team like UConn or Notre Dame, you could use those scholarships attract a couple more of the best high school players in the nation. Cut the scholarship number down to 13, and two excellent players who might have signed up with one of those No. 1 seeds might instead go to Iowa or Baylor (which, in turn, would be able to recruit fewer players, sending those women to other schools), evening out the talent pool.

Women have to wait to go pro. In the NBA right now, players are only eligible to play once they're 19 or have played one year in college. That rule is highly controversial, as many basketball fans say it robs promising high school athletes of the chance to go straight to the pros, like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James did before that "one-and-done" rule was put into place.

But in the WNBA, it's even more restrictive: that league requires potential draftees to be 22 and either have graduated from a four-year college or to have played two years in another professional league. That means the best college players stick around for four years, making great teams even greater (and stopping other teams from rising).

And that in fact was part of the WNBA's rationale, as Ackerman said back when she was president of the league — "It's enabled the women's college game to stay very vibrant, and that's critical to us as league. We need a strong college game in order for women's pro basketball to be successful."

The game is too physical. Ackerman now believes part of the problem is also that the game is getting too rough.

"If bigger, stronger, more athletic players are gravitating to the better programs, and their inclination is to a more physical game," she says, it will overwhelmingly benefit those schools.

One way to do this is to make it easier to call some fouls. And this isn't just a question for the women's game; the men's side has asked similar questions. Both the men's and women's games now have rules that restrict touching other players on the court's perimeter (that is, outside the key but inside the three-point line). Men's college basketball instituted the hand-checking rule in 2013. The idea is to make players shoot more and muscle each other around less ... and, ideally, boost scoring.

A need for more coaching talent (and maybe high school talent as well). Women's college basketball has some tremendous athletes and coaches. But there aren't a lot of Geno Auriemmas or Pat Summitts out there — or, as the Ackerman Report put it, there's a "lack of depth in the quality of coaches." And some coaches told Ackerman they're concerned girls aren't learning the fundamentals as well as they should in high school — improve the fundamentals among all high school players, and it could raise the college game.

Getting better

Since Ackerman wrote her report in 2013, the conversation around competitiveness in women's basketball hasn't died down.

"In women's basketball circles, it's still a hot topic, largely because UConn in particular has remained so dominant," says Ackerman, now the commissioner of the Big East Conference. But she thinks that below UConn, the field has opened up a little bit. She points to the women's Sweet 16 this year, which (UConn's 103–54 blowout aside) featured tight point spreads and more than one upset.

And not everyone agrees that there's a problem. For her part, Jacobs believes the game is plenty competitive, citing up-and-comers like South Carolina as proof.

In fact, the men's game has taken its own beating recently at the hands of Auriemma himself, who called NCAA men's ball "a joke," decrying the low scores in those games, and then going on to say that while women's ball is "behind the times," men's is even worse:

"Every other major sport in the world has taken steps to help people be better on the offensive end of the floor. They've moved in the fences in baseball, they lowered the mound. They made the strike zone so you need a straw to put through it. And in the NFL you touch a guy it's a penalty. You hit the quarterback, you're out for life."

He may be right, but people like Ackerman want to similarly change the way his team plays, as well. Some rules to help offense compete better — a longer shot clock, for example — have been proposed at the women's level.

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