The women's Final Four has signs of change

  • Oregon State is one of three teams making their first appearance in the NCAA women's Final Four. The game of women's college basketball has often featured a "top tier" of teams -- lead by UConn -- and this year is finally different, columnist Patricia Babcock McGraw says.

    Oregon State is one of three teams making their first appearance in the NCAA women's Final Four. The game of women's college basketball has often featured a "top tier" of teams -- lead by UConn -- and this year is finally different, columnist Patricia Babcock McGraw says. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 4/1/2016 7:18 PM

It's an interesting case of the "have vs. the have nots" at the Women's Final Four in Indianapolis this weekend.

Of course, mega-power Connecticut is there again, seeking its fourth consecutive national title and its 11th overall.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The Huskies' sustained dominance reinforces the idea that in women's college basketball, there's Connecticut…and everyone else.

But the fact that the other three teams in Indy are all newcomers to the Final Four, programs that were not so long ago mere afterthoughts, demonstrates that the gap between "everyone else" seems to be shrinking.

It used to be Connecticut and then the next tier of heavyweights that would hog the Final Four spotlight: programs such as Notre Dame, Baylor, Tennessee, Duke and Stanford.

Now, we're seeing teams such as Syracuse, Oregon State and Washington still alive on the final weekend.

Of course, no one who knows women's basketball believes that any of these newcomers has a chance of dethroning Connecticut, but, hey, they're in the Final Four and they managed to shake up the hierarchy of women's basketball. At least temporarily.

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The Cinderellas get an A+ for at least making it interesting.

"I don't think anything speaks more to (increased parity in the women's game) than what this Final Four looks like," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said. "And maybe it's been a long time coming, and maybe it's taken a little longer than some people would have wanted, but I remember in 1991, when we went to the Final Four (for the first time) and we were the first team from north of the Mason Dixon line to ever play in the Final Four, and it was like we had somehow landed on the moon and what were we doing there.

"Now 30 years later, 20-some years later, you have three teams in the Final Four for the first time, and not three teams that were knocking on the door and finally got there. These are three teams that by all measure only the kids on those teams and only their coaches expected them to be there. I don't think anybody could foresee what happened.

"So I think this is a great message to everybody. Stop focusing on what Connecticut does and start paying attention to what a lot of these other schools are doing, and you will see that there's a lot of great stuff going on out there."

Casting call:

One of the best stories to come out of the Final Four is the dramatic transformation that has taken place at Oregon State.

Just six years ago, Scott Rueck took over a program that was in ruins, to the point where he had to hold open tryouts just to fill out a roster. Four players came from the tryout. A player from the Oregon State volleyball team, and one from the school's soccer team also made the basketball team.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

That first season, the Beavers had just one player on the roster with Division I experience. They won nine games.

In Rueck's second season, Oregon State was picked to finish last in the then-Pac-10 but instead finished fifth and won 20 games. And so began a quick rise.

"It was an amazing thing to be a part of," Rueck said of that first season. "It was one of the most rewarding years I've ever spent coaching. That team played with everything they had."

Rueck would have never dreamed he could get that program to a Final Four just six short years later.

"When we came here, it was absolutely overwhelming and daunting," Rueck said. ""Did I ever think we could be here in six years? No way. No way. But once you realize that you can align with character and with the amount of talent that's necessary to compete at this level, then those visions and those expectations began to change.

"Then this became absolutely, yes, a reality that you can do this. So it's been an amazing process to be a part of."

Monkey see, monkey do:

At Syracuse, it's all Final Four basketball, all the time as both the men's and women's programs are still dancing.

The Syracuse women often run the same zone defense that has led to plenty of success over the years for Jim Boeheim and his men's teams at Syracuse.

"More than anything, you see all these banners here, and you see the success (Boeheim) has had with his program and with his style of play and you can see how you can win a lot of games doing (zone)," said Syracuse women's coach Quentin Hillsman.

"We've just kind of adopted that, that the best learning tool is watching and being in that moment and I have a great opportunity every day to watch and be in the moment of what I would say is the best zone coach in the country."

Short, but sweet:

Somehow, Washington is a Four Four team with barely more than four players.

The Huskies have been playing with a short rotation -- just six players -- nearly all season.

Injuries hit Washington harder, leaving the team with barely a bench.

Three players, Kelsey Plum, Talia Walton and Alexus Atchley, a former walk-on, have played every second of the tournament.

"Our kids have a really good understanding of what we're trying to get accomplished," Washington coach Mike Neighbors said. "They have input in it. So they have ownership in it.

"And they really, really care about each other. That was that little vibe we had. We knew we had a special vibe earlier in the year. We couldn't define it. Didn't know what it was. But through the adversity that every team faces with injuries or whatever you face, if they care about each other, they tend to find a way to get through it."

The schedule:

No. 1 Connecticut (36-0) takes on No. 2 Oregon State (32-4) in the first national semifinal in Indianapolis at 4 p.m. on Sunday (ESPN). No. 4 Syracuse (29-7) then faces No. 7 Washington (26-10) at 6:30 p.m. (ESPN2). The national championship game will be on Tuesday.

pbabcock@dailyherald.com

Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw

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