2006-07 Pac-10 Women's Basketball Heats Up
Nov. 15, 2006
By Dick Rockne
In early March of 2002 women's basketball in the Pac-10 Conference might not have hit bottom. But if not, a case surely could have been made that the bottom was in sight.
Only two teams, Arizona State and Stanford, had gotten into the NCAA tournament - the Sun Devils got the automatic bid by winning the Pac-10's first post-season tournament and the Cardinal made it as the league's only at-large selection. It was only the second time since women's basketball became part of the Pac-10 in 1987 that just two of its members got into the NCAA field.
And while Stanford could boast of being ranked in the top eight on the Associated Press and the Women's Basketball Coaches Association polls, no other Pac-10 team finished the season in the top 25.
Those were the reality elements that had the coaches complaining about a universal lack of respect for Pac-10 teams. Elsewhere, there was a perception of inferiority as well.
'The hard thing about the West Coast is the time change,'' said Joanne Boyle, who is beginning her second season as the head coach at California after spending three years as head coach at Richmond. 'The SEC and ACC and the Big East dominate in the East. Because of the time change and the lack of TV coverage the perception was that the Pac-10 must not be as good.'
And maybe it wasn't.
'My first year on the committee it was crystal clear to me that we as a conference needed to make some changes,'' recalled Marie Tuite, an assistant athletic director at Washington who in 2001 had begun what would be a five-year term on the NCAA Women's Basketball Selection Committee. 'That if we didn't make some changes we would be heading down a road to obscurity.
'To the coaches and school's credit we've made some significant changes that have really benefited the Conference as a whole.'
Now, as the 2006-07 season heats up, women's basketball obscurity no longer is an element associated with the Pac-10. Six league teams were ranked in the top 25 of preseason polls. Five players - Shay Murphy of USC, Noelle Quinn of UCLA, Brooke Smith and Candice Wiggins of Stanford and Cameo Hicks of Washington - appeared on preseason all-America lists.
Six teams participated in the 2006 NCAA tournament and five reached the second round. That was a year after the five Pac-10 teams in the 2005 NCAA showdown all reached the second round.
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said credit for the Pac-10's new-found acceptance as a national power should go to Tuite and the fact that as one of 10 members of the powerful Selection Committee she successfully spread some influence on behalf of Pac-10 teams.
'I really think it had a lot to do with it,' VanDerveer said.
Tuite doesn't deflect the importance to the Pac-10 of her having had a voice when she and the other committee members were making difficult decisions about which teams from which leagues should get at-large berths in the NCAA tournament. But, she also is quick to credit the Pac-10 coaches and administrators for recognizing the problems that existed in 2002 and then following her advice on how to make corrections.
Tuite said the first thing that had to be done was for teams to improve the quality of their non-conference schedules as a way to elevate their Ratings Percentage Index numbers. RPI rankings are crucial in determining who gets into the NCAA tournament and who doesn't.
'And there's some strategy to scheduling,'' Tuite said. 'I told our coaches that scheduling is like breaking a press - not everybody does it well.'
The key, she said, is to schedule teams in the top conferences, but not the top teams in those conferences. In other words, schedule Big 12 teams but don't schedule Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma.
'The second thing was we had to beat those teams,'' Tuite said. 'And we did. We started to beat those non-conference teams that really gave us some notice around the country.'
The third thing Tuite did was to encourage the Pac-10 coaches to be publicly supportive of each other and their teams, something that wasn't happening back in 2002.
'And I'm not saying we like each other now but publicly we do and we talk well about the Conference,'' Tuite said. 'That was important. When they speak highly of each other it gives the Conference some credibility.'
Recruiting, with an emphasis on keeping West Coast players on the West Coast, was another element emphasized by Tuite.
'We needed to recruit some highly visible kids into the Conference,'' Tuite said.
Although many graduates of West Coast high schools continue to ply their basketball talents east of the Pac-10, at least two prominent players - Stanford's Smith of San Anselmo, Calif., and former Oregon State star Shannon Howell of Los Angeles - left and returned to Pac-10 teams.
'Coming out of high school I had the impression that East Coast basketball was better and there were more teams that went further and did better. So it definitely played a small role (in me going to Duke),' Smith said.
Her decision to transfer after one year at Duke to Stanford was based in part, she said, on her wanting to be closer to home.
'And I wasn't playing very much,'' she said. 'It wasn't a great situation for me. Stanford is a better fit. '
She added that if she couldn't have gone to Stanford she would have stayed at Duke.
Howell played two years at Nebraska before transferring to Oregon State, where she led the team in scoring for two years (2004 and 2005).
Tuite mentioned a revised television policy, the important of not losing to inferior non-conference teams and coaching changes as other factors that have contributed to the Pac-10's rise.
'Instead of every team getting one exposure we tried to put our best games on TV,'' Tuite said. 'And the coaches bought into that.'
'You cannot lose to a team that has a 200 RPI,'' Tuite said. 'Every game is important. We've really cut down on those bad losses.'
New coaches at USC (Mark Trakh), California (Boyle) and Oregon State (LaVonda Wagner) created a 'wow' response elsewhere in the country when they were hired, Tuite said. Trakh came from Pepperdine, where he had established a strong program, Boyle from Richmond and Wagner from Duke, where she was an assistant coach.
'They weren't just good hires; they were great hires,' Tuite said.
'I think kudos to administrations around the Pac-10 for providing the resources and the coaches who can compete pretty much with anybody and for understanding the importance of television so that we're up there with the Big 12 and the SEC and the ACC,'' ASU coach Charli Turner Thorne said. 'We didn't have too many on our side four or five years ago.'
So what's next? Tuite cautioned that the Pac-10 still has a way to go and that it's going to have to do it without her on the Selection Committee. When her term expired after last season she was replaced as a West Coast representative by Peg Bradley-Doppes, the athletic director at Denver University. Still on the committee is Lisa Parker, senior associate athletic director at Boise State.
'We had six teams in the tournament last year. Now I'd like to see Pac-10 teams that are getting No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 seeds. That's the next step,' Tuite said.
'But we've got some momentum. That's what we have. We're heading in the right direction.'