TAMPA, Fla. — The women’s Final Four weekend got off to a swell start Saturday at Tourney Town festivities outside Amalie Arena. The Tampa Bay channel views were postcard-perfect. And at the cooking demos, Zumba dances, autograph sessions and Bounce by the Bay pick-up basketball games, some of the Connecticut and Notre Dame fans were on a first-name basis.
It’s that time of year, when seemingly the same programs gather to crown a national champion.
UConn is going for its ninth title in 16 years.
Notre Dame is in its fifth straight Final Four.
Maryland was in the Final Four last year and won the 2006 national championship.
That South Carolina hasn’t just reached its first Final Four but crashed an exclusive party enhances a vault from mediocrity. As a parity debate simmers within women’s basketball, the Gamecocks going into Sunday night’s game against Notre Dame are a beacon of fresh hope.
“We’re not here off luck,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley said Saturday. “Our team worked to get in this position, and it just goes to show some of those other programs, if you continue to work and you continue to recruit and you continue to do things the right way, I think the basketball gods will put you in this position.”
With not that many women’s basketball programs capable of consistently playing well in the NCAA Tournament, it’s easier to get good than in other sports, including men’s basketball.
It’s harder to get Final Four good.
Geno Auriemma with two wins in Tampa can tie former UCLA head coach John Wooden for the most major college basketball national championships.
The UConn icon bristles when asked about parity, or a lack thereof.
“You look at the four teams in men’s basketball,” Auriemma said of the Final Four of Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State and Wisconsin. “A lot of shockers there, huh? … Those guys hardly ever get to the Final Four.”
But numbers make a strong case for a weaker women’s foundation.
NCAA championship-winning programs since 1995: men 12, women 7 (UConn, Tennessee, Purdue, Notre Dame, Baylor, Maryland and Texas A&M).
Final Four participants since 2002: men 30, women 15.
Cinderella is mostly a masculine thing. Recent women’s Final Fours cannot match George Mason, Butler, VCU and Wichita State.
“I thought this was a great year for women’s basketball in terms of the parity of the tournament,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said. “We had a number of upsets. We had a lot of close games throughout the tournament into the regionals.”
McGraw’s close game examples started with North Carolina and Florida State “almost” upsetting South Carolina in the Greensboro Regional.
The Gamecocks, 10-18 in Staley’s first season as head coach in 2008-2009, have taken their place among royalty.
McGraw outlined the blueprint for South Carolina’s success:
“A great coach”
“Great in-state talent”
Seven Gamecocks, including All-SEC forward Aleighsa Welch (Goose Creek High School), are South Carolinians.
“I think they were fortunate that there was so much talent in the state of South Carolina,” McGraw said. “And then when you start to win, that attracts more good players. I think good players want to play with good players, so I think it’s really been flourishing with Dawn.”
So lack of parity or not, the Tourney Town cooking demos at the 2016 Final Four in Indianapolis probably will include South Carolina fans reacquainting themselves with Connecticut and Notre Dame friends.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff