SAN ANTONIO —
If you posted a list of America’s great sporting events, you might begin with the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Rose Bowl, the Masters and the Kentucky Derby.
Or maybe that’s just for the history books. That’s the list you would’ve posted in 1980 or 1990.
Now March Madness hits in the middle of the American sports lineup. Over the last 40 years it has wiggled its way up the list of America’s most popular sporting events, snaking past the Derby, jumping over the Masters, pushing its way past the Rose Bowl and — given the dawdling pace of baseball in a fast-moving world — surpassed the World Series.
The Madness is a bestseller. It’s Butler. It’s Loyola-Chicago.
The Final Four used to be a colossal bore because UCLA won it every year. Or at least it seemed like that. John Wooden’s Bruins won their 10 national championships by a combined 12.2 points at the Final Four. Add it up: 20 games, a 254-point differential.
Then it all changed. The American sporting public was introduced to Phi Slama Jama, “40 Minutes of Hell,” Tark, Lute, the Utes, Laettner-at-the-buzzer and the Zags.
The women’s Final Four got a late start, 1982. It is marking remarkable progress but is still struggling to get out of a Wooden-type phase. It has been too much UConn the way the men’s game used to be too much UCLA.
And then — timmmberrrr! — Arizona chopped down UConn on Friday night, setting up Sunday afternoon’s showdown with Stanford for the national title. It wasn’t more of the same. It wasn’t a predictable coronation of Geno Auriemma, whose team has won more Final Four titles, 11, than Wooden ever did.
In the first 10 minutes of Friday’s game, Arizona coach Adia Barnes and tens of thousands of ESPN viewers made an unanticipated discovery: UConn wasn’t too big, too quick, too deep or too talented for an Arizona team that went 6-24 three years ago.
The evolution of women’s college basketball hasn’t yet produced a Gonzaga, but Arizona’s ability to beat UConn by 10 points on the game’s biggest stage suggests it won’t be long until the women’s Final Four has a Wichita State or a George Mason.
“These aren’t getting any easier,” Auriemma said late Friday.
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, whose school has played in 13 Final Fours, began her Saturday morning Zoom conference by declaring “what has changed more than anything is that there are no gimme games.”
Arizona’s timing could not be any better. When Barnes played for the Wildcats, the UA had lost 22 consecutive games to Stanford. When she returned to campus in 2016, Stanford had a 27-1 streak over the Wildcats.
The gimme games are gone. The Wildcats are now playing Stanford for the national championship. Welcome to the roaring ’20s.
“You don’t want to see the same teams in the Final Four every year,” Barnes said Saturday. “You want different teams because it’s good for women’s basketball. There is more parity. We have a good product.”
The most promising development of this year’s NCAA Tournament is that it became clear that schools like Arizona and Indiana, Iowa State and Oregon State reflect the growth in the women’s game.
Competitive parity has spread. More schools are committing more resources to women’s basketball. Coaching is more advanced. The caliber of play has improved mightily from the sleepy, turnover-laden game of the ’80s and ’90s, with dozens of top players from Europe and Australia now part of many Top 25 rosters.
Even ESPN has bought in and made women’s basketball prime-time programming.
The players of 2021 are so much more skilled than those who built the game in the ’80s; the summer-league and travel-ball AAU circuit means that someone like Arizona All-American point guard Aari McDonald has played about 400 organized games when she enters college, not 75 or 80.
That’s part of why Arizona’s uprooting of UConn is so encouraging. The Wildcats have taken bold steps toward being nationally relevant and staying that way. They are on the map.
Barnes’ team is one of the finalists to land 6-foot 4-inch Maya Nnaji of Hopkins, Minnesota, the sister of Arizona’s 2020 All-Pac-12 forward Zeke Nnaji. Maya is considered the No. 1 overall prospect in the women’s Class of 2022.
Final Four teams South Carolina and Stanford are among Nnaji’s finalists as well, but it wasn’t long ago that a player of Nnaji’s level — even with her brother’s tie to Arizona — wouldn’t have considered the UA.
Nnaji’s high school teammate last season was Paige Bueckers, the UConn freshman superstar who was named the AP’s national Player of the Year last week. Yet on Friday, it was McDonald, not Bueckers, who was the game’s dominant force.
“We pride ourselves in being pretty good at certain things,” said Auriemma. “But we had no answer for McDonald.”
For 30 years, Auriemma has been the Answer Man of women’s college basketball. On Friday, he only had questions about how Arizona got so good while no one seemed to be paying attention.
Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at 520-573-4362 or
On Twitter: @ghansen711