Commentary

Top-10 take, 'Downton' style

Originally Published: January 2, 2014
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW.com

Maggie SmithAP Photo/PBSThe Dowager Countess, played by Maggie Smith, often gets the last word -- just like UConn.

Some people … sheesh. PBS airs a television show in which mostly British actors, performing in period costume, navigate mirth, mayhem and misunderstanding on a grandiose scale. Many viewers go bonkers for this imported, lavish, high-falutin' soap opera. Good grief.

OK … I think I just summed up the view of "Downton Abbey" for those not under the spell of the Crawley clan. It's OK; I get it. I wasn't in on the ground floor of this myself. Then I watched an episode from the second season … and the infection set in. The problems of Lord Grantham et al became mine.

"Downton" devotees are counting down the hours until Sunday's premiere of Season 4 here in the United States. Like most well-behaved colonists, I have avoided spoilers from across the pond (where they've already watched this season), and so I don't know what we're in for.

That said, in this exercise in post-holiday frivolity, I might (read: will) drop a few "spoilers" from the first three seasons. If you haven't seen any of those episodes, but hope to someday and don't want to know anything that happens, you should just halt right here. Goodbye. (Sorry, but Season 3 aired in the United States almost a year ago. We can't wait forever.)

Conference basketball season has begun -- or is about to begin -- nationwide. So just for the fun of it, let's go full-court Grantham. We'll take a quick look at heavy favorite UConn and the rest of the current top 10 in the women's rankings from this viewpoint: As the teams enter 2014, which "Downton" character best represents each one?

1. UConn: Violet Crawley

Who else but the witheringly witty matriarch played by the masterful Maggie Smith? Just like the Dowager Countess, the Huskies typically get the last word. They're 14-0 and began play in their new league on New Year's Day with a 28-point victory over Central Florida.

The American Athletic Conference has one other ranked team, Louisville. And the Huskies' only remaining nonconference game is Jan. 13 at Baylor. UConn is the defending NCAA champion and is seeking what would be a record-setting ninth title. There was a time when UConn was the nouveau riche in women's basketball. But that was long ago, and unless you're of a certain age, you don't even remember it. These days, this is UConn's/the Dowager Countess' world; everybody else is just living in it.

[+] EnlargeLady Mary
AP Photo/PBSThe Fighting Irish and Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) are both "unapologetically aristocratic" but also "reveal vulnerability."

2. Notre Dame: Mary Crawley

Their similarities: Regal of carriage, unapologetically aristocratic and on the snooty side … but at times they reveal vulnerability. Admittedly, linking Lady Mary to anything "Irish" might seem way off. But like her, these Fighting Irish are the upper class, with five Final Four appearances and an NCAA title.

The Irish are making what is expected to be a successful transition to the ACC. Led by guards Jewell Loyd and Kayla McBride, Notre Dame is undefeated and so far has adjusted very well to the graduation loss of point guard Skylar Diggins. Much, much, much better -- we expect -- than Mary will adjust to (BIG SPOILER) the loss of her beloved Matthew. The heartbreak for Notre Dame women's hoops in recent years is winning so darn many big games -- including against UConn -- but not adding a second national championship for the program.

3. Duke: Edith Crawley

Sure, she lives in a huge mansion with servants, and has mostly been able to do what she wants. Sounds pretty "Dookie." But Edith grew up as the Jan Brady of the Crawley bunch -- in the long shadow of a glamorous older sister, and with an impossibly cute younger sister. Plus, when you get left at the altar by an old guy with one functioning arm, you're really excelling in public disappointment.

Duke has had its way a lot in the ACC. But the program's four trips to the Final Four have produced no titles. The Blue Devils currently have four consecutive Elite Eight losses, and their last seven meetings with UConn all went about as well for them as Edith's wedding did for her. However, these admirable traits also describe Edith and Duke: smart, resilient, undaunted. And -- surprisingly -- they're both becoming somewhat of a sentimental favorite. You really might find yourself asking: Don't Edith and the Blue Devils deserve to finally finish first one of these days?

4. Stanford: Isobel Crawley

Think: highly intelligent, always motivated to do the "right" thing, but at times thwarted despite best efforts. That pretty much fits Matthew's mom and the Cardinal women's hoops team. Stanford never lacks for charming brainiacs who tend to have empathy and social conscience, and who take on a lot of responsibility. And the Cardinal keep knocking on the door of another national championship. But they haven't won one since 1992.

Stanford is a place of the highest academic and athletic aristocracy -- Cardinal women's hoops has made 11 Final Four appearances -- but there's also that West Coast anti-snobbery thing. Isobel drops by Downton Abbey a fair amount and is one of the few who can usually hold her own versus the Dowager Countess. But just as Stanford is the longtime beacon of the Left Coast in women's hoops, Isobel stands out for her more egalitarian philosophy than that which generally holds sway with those who reside in Downton.

5. Tennessee: Robert Crawley

This might seem a bit of a knock on Tennessee, considering the Earl of Grantham surely has taken his hits. But let's not forget that he has been the respected head of the family for a long time, with a lot of weight on his shoulders. It's not easy being in that position, knowing so much depends on your maintaining your mini-empire. You might even wonder, in moments of despair, whether time actually has passed you by. But then you dismiss your doubts and bravely carry on, stiff-upper-lip-like.

Tennessee set the bar high for everyone to try to emulate. And with eight NCAA titles, no one can dispute the Lady Vols' historical status. But we live in a "what have you done lately" world, and Tennessee's last Final Four was in 2008 under Pat Summitt. Like Lord Grantham, Tennessee has had to remake itself to a degree under Holly Warlick, and that has not been without pain. But with a well-balanced attack -- led by senior Meighan Simmons -- Tennessee is forging forward. Never shirking from trying to live up to the Vols' pedigree, just like Robert.

[+] EnlargeLaura Carmichael
AP Photo/PBS/Masterpiece/Nick BriggsLady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael) has become somewhat of a sentimental favorite that you just want to see finally finish first.

6. Kentucky: Tom Branson

Sorry, we can't link the proud Irishman to South Bend. But Notre Dame is hoops royalty, while Branson is the quintessential outsider. The family chauffeur who improbably won the heart of Sybil, the youngest Crawley daughter, only to (BIG, TEAR-STAINED SPOILER) lose her after childbirth, Branson is still in transition. He's "upstairs" now, but will he ever feel he belongs?

Kentucky, for all its gushing blue blood in men's hoops, was a longtime outsider in women's basketball. Not just nationally, but even in the SEC. That has changed dramatically under coach Matt Mitchell. But the Wildcats are the only one of these top-10 teams that has never made it to the Women's Final Four. We've seen Kentucky play elite-level defense the past few years, but can the Wildcats' offense perform well enough through the NCAA tournament to get to a Final Four?

7. Louisville: Thomas Barrow

Hey, somebody has to be kind of a bad guy, right? And who better to embrace that roguish quality than Shoni Schimmel & Co.? The Cardinals dramatically altered the NCAA tournament last year by upsetting top-seeded Baylor. Louisville made the statement: "Whether you like us or not, there's no getting rid of us. We are going to scrap and claw until we get what we're after." That's a national championship, of course. Coach Jeff Walz has already taken Louisville to the Final Four twice, but UConn proved an immovable obstacle both times

If the Cardinals -- playing this year in the American Athletic before moving to the ACC next season -- have a little "edge" to them, that's OK. Thomas is always looking to climb the ladder. The Cardinals are the same way: They think big, and they won't be easily discouraged. Admittedly, Thomas is a "villain" in a way that Louisville isn't or could be, but it just seems that the Cardinals could appreciate and relate to his tenacity.

8. Maryland: Cora Crawley

Don't see the connection? Here's the thought: We think we know just who the loving mother/supportive wife Cora is … and yet we also aren't always sure. That not-all-the-way-there smile that Elizabeth McGovern has perfected for Cora makes her perpetually enigmatic. Is she really happy, or about to cry? Maybe she's thinking, "Get out of my giant house, idiot." Or is it, "Why did I leave America and hitch my fortune to this limey circus?" Or perhaps it's, "Somebody needs a nap. Actually, so do I."

Maryland won a national championship in 2006, when the program seemed ahead of schedule under Brenda Frese. But that's eight years ago, and the Terps have not returned to the Final Four since. So do we know who Maryland really is? How should we think of the Terps? Are they a true contender who could break through again to a Final Four at any time? Or a good program that's just a tad below real elite status? In their last season in the ACC before joining the Big Ten, can the Terps answer the questions?

9. Baylor: Martha Levinson

Cora's mother is a Yankee Doodle Dandy who doesn't hesitate to say exactly what's on her mind at all times, the American version of the Dowager Countess. Brought to life by Shirley MacLaine, Martha can trade barbs with the best of them. And just as Baylor coach Kim Mulkey embraced an underdog role again this season, Martha is really in her element when she's feeling a bit underestimated. She relishes being the unabashed American amongst the stuffy Brits.

Mulkey has always had that "I'll do it my way" personality, as you'd expect from someone whose autobiography was titled "Won't Back Down." The Louisville loss was profoundly painful for her. And to some extent, Baylor was cast in a less-than-positive light in the Brittney Griner "coming out" publicity last summer. With Griner and four other prominent seniors gone, Baylor this season is mostly Odyssey Sims and the youth brigade. How good are these Lady Bears? How much competitive fuel did Mulkey build up from disappointments in 2013?

10. North Carolina: George Crawley

Enormous things are expected of Mary's and Matthew's baby son, the Downton Abbey heir who has so many dreams pinned to him. But he's still just a wee thing, so you have to wonder: What is reasonable to hope for? Likewise, North Carolina is all about youth. UNC has started as many as four freshmen. And as they go, so go the Tar Heels.

There is a phenomenon about kids on TV, though, in which they grow at an extremely accelerated pace. They can go from baby to toddler to primary school to adolescence to ready-for-romantic-drama in, like, three years' time.

The best freshmen also often grow up quickly out of necessity. North Carolina definitely needs the likes of Diamond DeShields, Allisha Gray and Stephanie Mavunga to play beyond their years.

So now enjoy the start of conference season, and the beginning of "Downton" season. Thanks for indulging me in this bit of fun … although I think I hear Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes saying I better get back to real work.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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