Monday, November 29, 2004
Parity no longer parody
By Nancy Lieberman Special to ESPN.com
In the past, it was a promise that wasn't kept.
The p-word -- parity, that is -- popped up every year. But in the end, the same old faces seemed to finish on top, with minimal upsets or shuffling of the top-ranked teams.
Now, however, parity really does seem to have finally broken through in women's college basketball.
And that means this is going to be one exciting season, perhaps the most exciting in 10 years since Tennessee and Connecticut, which have combined for eight of the past 10 NCAA titles, emerged as the nation's premier programs.
Just this past weekend, unranked TCU toppled No. 3 Georgia and then upset No. 13 Michigan State. Then unranked UCLA won at home against fourth-ranked Texas. The Longhorns, who had just beaten No. 1 Tennessee on Thanksgiving, also suffered a road loss at Georgia on Nov. 21.
Even a three-time defending champion hasn't been immune to the madness. After suffering a mild upset (and its earliest loss in a season since 1995-96) to North Carolina, UConn dropped to eighth in the top-25 polls, the Huskies' lowest ranking in 10 years.
Of the top 10 teams in the preseason ESPN/USA Today poll, in fact, only three (LSU, Stanford, Notre Dame) remain undefeated.
And we have every reason to think the balance will continue. For starters, graduating perhaps the best class in the history of women's college basketball -- Taurasi, Beard, Powell, Whalen, Mazzante, Ohlde, etc. -- took a toll on several of the nation's elite programs. These players were superstars who dominated games -- and often took over games.
That's not to say we're short on great players this season. Seimone Augustus already has proved she can play at that level and is head and shoulders above the rest. But it'll be interesting to see what other All-American types -- Tiffany Jackson, Kendra Wecker, Shyra Ely, etc. -- can elevate their games, too.
Injuries and suspensions also are affecting some of the nation's best teams, and we've all got our eyes on the big-name freshmen. Many of the rookies have responded, but this year, it's clear that good coaching is more important than ever.
In the top 25, every game seems wide open. And that means a lot comes down to strategy and preparation. Assistant coaches better be on their A game, too, because breaking down film and creating a solid game plan is crucial. And while we do place a lot of emphasis on recruiting, coaches must focus this year on making the players they already have on their rosters better.
And ultimately, parity makes our game better. That doesn't mean we're going to see a 60th-ranked team beat a top-10 team. But among the top 25-30 teams, the race is wide open. And nobody is safe. Three top-five teams have fallen already.
Of course, we've been here before. Four top-five teams were upset just two months into the 1999-2000 season, and we all jumped on the parity bandwagon back then, too. Then Connecticut won four of the next five national championships and proved us wrong. So let's see where this takes us. For now, I'm enjoying the ride.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.