There are many storied rivalries in college and professional sports: the Celtics versus the Lakers, the Yankees versus the Red Sox, the Redskins versus the Cowboys, and, of course, Harvard versus Yale.
In the past two decades, the women’s basketball teams from Connecticut and Tennessee, which have combined for six out of the last 13 national championships, have emerged as rivals for the ages. It is fitting, therefore, that both schools could set unprecedented records this week.
When No. 5 Tennessee tips off against DePaul tonight, the Lady Vols will have a chance to give head coach Pat Summitt her 800th career victory. Summitt, already a Hall of Famer, would become the sixth college basketball coach and the first female to reach the benchmark.
Not to be outdone, two wins this week will give No. 2 Connecticut the longest winning streak in women’s Division I hoops, surpassing Louisiana Tech’s 54-game streak from 1980 to 1982.
There is, however, a downside to Connecticut’s and Tennessee’s successes. The dominance of the programs indicates a vast disparity in women’s basketball between a select few perennial powerhouses and the rest of the Division I pack.
Rarely does the women’s NCAA Tournament see the kind of Cinderella stories that you get in the men’s game. In the past three years, only one team above a No. 3 tournament seed has made it to the Final Four. Where are the unlikely upsets by the likes of Gonzaga, Indiana, or even Princeton, that put the madness in March Madness?
Furthermore, the lack of parity puts undue pressure on the players from the two schools to carry their sport on their backs. Huskies alumnae Rebecca Lobo and Sue Bird and former Lady Vol Chamique Holdsclaw have at one point or another been dubbed the messiahs of women’s hoops. With Lobo being plagued by injury for much of her WNBA career and Bird playing for the Seattle Storm, a team with such a small following that its survival is in jeopardy, only Holdsclaw, playing in WNBA-friendly Washington, D.C., has been able to shine. A few other nationally recognizable players would distribute the burden of promoting the sport more evenly.
Parity will come with time, but it will also take a sustained effort by the NCAA and the middle-of-the-pack universities. Stronger recruiting programs, upgraded facilities and, dare I say it, stricter Title IX compliance, will all help.
The milestones that Tennessee and Connecticut are about to reach demonstrate how much they have done for women’s college basketball. More than just elevating the level of play, the programs have vaulted the game into the national spotlight. You can measure their success by winning streaks and titles won, but you must also look at achievements such as appearances on network television, Sports Illustrated cover stories and record-setting attendance figures.
But only when more schools model their basketball programs after the Huskies and Lady Vols will each school leave its greatest legacy.
So while I’ll be rooting for Summitt and Connecticut to break their records this week, in the future I expect the road to be a little bit tougher for both teams. Dynasties are great, but they provide the most excitement and drama when they fall.