Dawn Staley, Caitlin Clark and resetting expectations in women’s basketball — Kenny Brooks talks Kentucky

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, April 10, 2024

Happy Basketball Wednesday, presented by The BIG EAST Conference. It has been a period of resetting expectations in women’s basketball. What the audience will be. Who is talking about the sport. Reconfiguring everything from the floor to reach goals, in the arena, in the standings and in the boardrooms.

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As it relates to television, well, NCAA president Charlie Baker wasn’t much interested in looking back when we spoke to him minutes before Iowa and South Carolina easily outpaced the men’s national championship in audience — never mind that the new television contract values the women’s basketball tournament at $65 million annually, while the old men’s deal checks in at $1.1 billion.

“Isn’t it nice how everybody’s got a rear point of view after the fact about everything?” Baker said Sunday afternoon to a small group of us in the media workroom in Cleveland. “We spent a lot of time with some very smart people who help work us through that contract and that contract when it was negotiated and signed was deemed by one of the sports journal publications as one of the five best deals of the year.”

Left unsaid: Best for whom?

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But in general, the sport is changing fast, and some people realize it, some people don’t. Below, I talked to Kenny Brooks, who made it clear the way the SEC handled realignment puts Kentucky in a far better position than Virginia Tech in the ACC. Tara VanDerveer said the end of the Pac-12 wasn’t a determining reason for leaving Stanford, but it is impossible to know what her plan would have been if the Pac-12 still existed, as she cited a “transition time” that wouldn’t have been happening as one reason for her departure.

The Pac-12 itself is alive, if not well, with Teresa Gould hired to resurrect the brand. That conference at least has a model to use — if Gould isn’t speaking to BIG EAST commissioner Val Ackerman regularly about the way to do it, that is malpractice on Gould’s part. (Disclaimer: The BIG EAST Conference is presenting sponsor of Basketball Wednesday but has no input or say over our editorial content or choices. And I’ve hailed Val Ackerman as a generational genius long before that partnership began.)

Then there are the fanbases themselves. Let’s take UConn, for example. The Huskies had no business reaching the Final Four, not with their injuries, yet Geno Auriemma got them to Cleveland. It is the sixth time in seven possible seasons he’s done so since winning his 11th national title with Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and company in 2016.

This is thought of by some in Storrs as the drought years. This, despite the fact that the sport is deeper and more talented than ever before. So I asked Auriemma, after UConn fell to Iowa in the semifinals Friday night, about the expectations for his program and if they should change.

“Well, the expectations at UConn are what they are because we created them,” Auriemma said. “Somebody didn’t walk into our building and say, okay, this is what’s expected of you. We put that on ourselves now for the last 30 years.

“What pisses me off is the minute we don’t win a national championship for a couple of years, people think that our program now is less worthy of some others that have done it twice or have gone to the Final Four three out of the last four years. …

“I said this a long time ago. The only story is, like, when Tiger [Woods] was at the height of his career, the only story on every Sunday was he didn’t win. Nobody cared who did win. And now people always wanted it to be, like, well, can we celebrate other people? Okay. Celebrate them. Stop talking about us when we don’t win a national championship. But, again, that’s the world we created. And we might not win a national championship, but we’re right there when it’s usually being decided — and that’s all that matters.”

Seems pretty reasonable to me! Less reasonable is the firing of Kellie Harper after five seasons at Tennessee. The past three years, Harper’s Lady Vols won 25 games and lost in the Sweet 16 to Louisville (which reached the Final Four), won 25 games and lost to Virginia Tech (which reached the Final Four), and won 20 games and lost in the Round of 32 to NC State (which reached the Final Four). Tennessee finished third in the SEC this season and was a Kamilla Cardoso desperation three away from being the only team to beat South Carolina this year.

I don’t know any other program in the country that would treat the past three seasons above as a reason to fire a coach, with the possible exception of UConn and whoever succeeds Geno Auriemma. There’s a reason a number of prominent coaches took a pass on that job.

Someone who gets it? Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder, who felt the need to issue this caveat postgame after her Hawkeyes fell to South Carolina in Sunday’s championship game.

“So many people last year [said], oh, you’ll do it next time, like it was terrible we didn’t win the national championship,” Bluder said with a wry smile. “So many people said that to me. I’m like, darn, you guys, we’re national runner-ups. That’s pretty good too. So I’m never going to apologize for finishing second in the country. But it sure would be nice to win one.”

And finally: the expectations at South Carolina are, somehow, the highest they’ve ever been at a moment when, as mentioned, the sport is its most difficult. I asked Dawn Staley about whether this is the standard she planned to set when she took the job.

“I didn’t envision it,” Staley said on April 4, holding onto yet another Coach of the Year award from the Associated Press, her third straight. “I know what hard work looks like. I’ve been around some of the greatest women’s basketball players and coaches over my career as a player. I know what that looks like. I know what high-level basketball looks like. I know high-level people, how they treat people.

“So it’s ingrained in me. And I will say that if you approach it the right way, if you look at it for its innocence and its purity of the game, the game, when that’s out front, you may not be able to envision it, but it will be played out in front of you like you couldn’t imagine. …

“Yes, we can say we want to win national championships and you want to coach the best players. That’s a saying, but the work that you put in to coaching those players, to winning those national championships, it’s really what it’s truly about, because there are a lot of experiences and memories that you create and that you try to recreate. Like, everything I do as a coach is try to recreate what I experienced as an Olympian.”

A national collegiate program winning at the levels USA Basketball’s senior women’s team does? Yes. That’s the new expectation at South Carolina.

Stat of the Week: Powered by Stathead Basketball

Caitlin Clark had 30 points in Sunday’s NCAA Championship game, the fourth time since 2003 that someone scored 30+ in a Final. Of the four, only one player won the game and the title. See who in Stathead.

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Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.